Justin Trudeau at Canada 2020 on June 22, 2015, speaking on rebuilding the Canada-US relationship. (Canada 2020/Flickr)

How Justin Trudeau fought the Right and won in Canada

jennisheppard Blog, Books, Politics Leave a Comment

Last night, I finished reading Fight The Right: A Manual for Surviving the Coming Conservative Apocalypse, by Warren Kinsella.

It’s a study of conservatives – an examination of how and why they dominated Canadian politics over the past decade. It’s also a call to arms for all progressives, to learn the lessons of conservative campaigns and put them to good use to bring liberalism back to Canada.

As you can probably tell, it was written years before Canada’s new Prime Minister, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, won a landslide victory this fall. So it was a strange read, but it also gave me the interesting perspective of hindsight. Did Trudeau take the book’s advice?

Symbols and messages

In one of my favourite quotes from the book, according to Kinsella, William F Buckley wrote that a Conservative’s purpose is to “stand athwart history, yelling stop.”

Fight The Right: A Manual for Surviving the Coming Conservative Apocalypse by Warren Kinsella (Jenni Sheppard)

Fight The Right: A Manual for Surviving the Coming Conservative Apocalypse by Warren Kinsella (Jenni Sheppard)

If the opposite is true of a Liberal, Trudeau thoroughly conveyed that message of positive progress and welcoming change, promising the legalization of weed and a whole new electoral system.

Even better, as a relatively young candidate at only 43, Trudeau symbolized the message of change he wanted to get across. This was a pretty deft move, as he could have simply been branded “more of the same,” as the son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

But here I think the Conservatives actually dealt him a favour.

Instead of attacking Trudeau on his prime ministerial heritage, they instead criticized his relative youth, arguing “He’s just not ready.” That made his age an issue, and brought it to the attention of voters.

Trudeau’s campaign took advantage of that, and allowed his youth to speak for itself – as it is, a symbol of progress and hope – in a country yearning for change.

Values and morals

Kinsella argues that voters go with whichever candidate they feel has “values, morals” – even when they don’t agree with those values or morals. After 10 years of Harper’s scandal ridden government, some would argue it was no longer possible to see the Conservatives as bastions of morality.

But Trudeau also had an advantage in this area too. Voters already had a deep connection to his morals and values, thanks to the eulogy he gave at his father’s funeral in front of a television audience of millions of Canadians.

“Simple tolerance, mere tolerance, is not enough. We need genuine and deep respect for each and every human being, regardless of their thoughts, their values, their beliefs, their origins. That’s what my father demanded of his sons and that’s what he demanded of his country.”

Let’s presume he didn’t say these things with an election in mind. It was 15 years ago, his father had just died and he was devastated. These are probably values he held deeply at the time. Many voters would have been through the same experience and probably understood his words and feelings at a gut level.

That’s one hell of an advantage in the values and morals department. Nothing Harper could have done would have struck the Canadian public so deeply.

Define yourself

“Define or be defined,” says Kinsella. That’s an interesting piece of advice when you look at the case of Justin Trudeau.

Much as the Conservatives tried to define him as a pot loving, irresponsible hoodlum, just not ready to be in charge, they were late to the party.

Trudeau has been in the public eye since he was born. He has had a platform to define himself his entire life. And he has proven very much master of that narrative, especially during this campaign.

Most notable was his decision not to be seen to attack back when others tried to define who he was in attack ads, but instead, to calmly answer their criticisms in more positive ads. The Canadian public don’t need the Conservatives to tell them who Trudeau was – they’ve known him his whole life.

Young voters

Kinsella argues that time and again, politicians fail to get out the youth vote, making young people a huge, untapped proportion of the electorate. Young voters could put you in power, he says, if only you’d give them a reason to bother.

“Young voters want a candidate’s attention and respect, because they feel (rightly) they have been left out of the political process…They like candidates who listen, who show some kind of commitment.”

So what did Trudeau do? He ran his entire campaign based on the premise that he was meeting and listening to Canadians, young and old, from east to west, finding out what was important to them and committing to doing something about it.

Not only that, but Trudeau openly embraced social media, frequently sharing what he was doing and hoping to achieve on Facebook and Twitter. He went all out to reach for the youth vote. Maybe, just maybe, it paid off. Only time, and Elections Canada statistics will tell.

Justin Trudeau campaigning with young people (JustinTrudeau/Facebook)

Justin Trudeau with a group of young campaigners (JustinTrudeau/Facebook)

Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive assessment of just how much – if at all – Justin Trudeau and his team took Warren Kinsella’s advice on fighting the right. There is much in his book which is reminiscent of this year’s election campaign that I just couldn’t fit in here.

But whatever the Liberals did, whether the picture they painted was true or not, it worked for them and today I’m looking forward to what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau does next. Here’s hoping he sticks with his “sunny ways” and his campaign commitments.

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