Feature

The Contender

The appeal of Justin Trudeau’s emotional intelligence

Illustration by Karsten Petrat

One of the great problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas.
—Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady

Feelings are the only facts.
—Kanye West

When Justin Trudeau announced his candidacy for the federal Liberal leadership last October, the near-universal assumption of columnists, pollsters, backroom types, political scientists, historians, and others of that ilk was that he and the party were engaged in the political equivalent of a Hail Mary pass—in other words, an act of desperation.

The first indication that such a throw might actually get caught came four months later, in February, in a report by the Toronto survey company Forum Research. It found that support for the Liberals, with Trudeau as leader, leaped upward to 41 percent, moving the party to first place from third, behind Stephen Harper’s Conservative government and Thomas Mulcair’s New Democrats, and—the hardest to credit—putting it within reach of winning a majority in the next election.

That was a reach too far. In the best of circumstances, polls are suspect. The worst circumstances for pollsters are when no election is under way or imminent, so respondents don’t much care who they say they prefer. Anyway, polls tend to give new leaders an initial upward bounce. On becoming Canada’s first female prime minister in 1993, Kim Campbell shot way up; she then called a snap election in which she cratered.

Nonetheless, the evidence kept accumulating that something more fundamental was happening than could be explained by Trudeau’s good name and good looks alone. It dawned on observers that his campaign was being run exceptionally well, casual on the outside yet tightly controlled from within, by a cadre of as few as a half-dozen, all close to Trudeau’s age. He himself worked exceptionally hard (at forty-one, he is exceedingly fit), sometimes doing five events in a single day, the last starting as late as 10 p.m. What astonished the experts was that he made no mistakes, or only minor ones, such as calling the gun registry “a failure,” then having to be reminded afterward that a Liberal government had created the program.

By the end, his contingent of volunteers numbered 12,000 and his supporters (a new category for those not yet prepared to become dues-paying members) exceeded 160,000, while his Twitter fans grew to an astounding 215,000 (he tweets and texts almost non-stop). Just as vital for the prospects of a cash-starved party, he raised the $950,000 candidates were allowed to spend on their campaigns, and another $1 million to be held in reserve for counter-fire at Conservative attack ads.

His real accomplishment, however, was that he pulled off something seldom achieved in the sedate world of Canadian politics: he convinced many Canadians to reconsider their attitude toward federal politics, not by converting them to Liberalism (although he did a fair bit of that, mostly at the NDP’s expense), but by changing their attitude to politics itself, and—since that word is now used almost exclusively as a term of abuse—by getting them interested again in taking part in the national debate.

He may have changed the game, and the precedents for such an achievement are rare. John Diefenbaker did it in 1957–58, when he persuaded Canadians that if they replaced the “natural governing party,” the Liberals, with his Conservatives, the country might not immediately collapse. The late New Democrat leader Jack Layton did it on a smaller but vital scale in the 2011 election, when he convinced a great many Quebecers that it was time to end their two decades of clinging for safety to the pro-separatist Bloc Québécois and gamble that a federalist party, his own, could be trusted.

The precedent closest to Justin Trudeau, of course, is that of a Liberal leader with the same last name, in 1967–68. Compared with what Pierre Trudeau accomplished then, let alone throughout the rest of his career, the younger Trudeau’s record is no better than interesting but iffy. He has yet to become prime minister. He has yet to win an election. And unlike his father, who from the first stood distinctively and defiantly for a “Just Society” and “One Canada,” he has yet to tell Canadians what he wants to do for them. Yet in one respect—and this, perhaps, is a harbinger—the son has already proven he can do something his father had not, at the same age, found necessary: he can sail into a prevailing wind.

The best expression of Trudeau the Father’s appeal from days past was articulated in a wonderful letter to Maclean’s magazine by an Ottawa woman named Norma Summers, who wrote, “What could we sober, Canadian squares possibly be thinking of, wanting this strange little customer for prime minister?… The whole country needs a cold shower! I, like the rest, will vote for him anyway.” The 1968 election has gone down in the history books as “Trudeaumania,” which it was indeed: Pierre Trudeau radiated pure sexual magnetism, whereas Trudeau the Son (though he resembles a Greek god and can stir up excitement among his audiences) does not. It may be easier to entertain sexual fantasies about a charming bachelor than a happily married husband and diligent father of two.

But that transformational election was as much about “Canada-mania” as it was about Trudeaumania. The success of the stylish and witty Expo 67 in Montreal had caused many in the outside world to notice Canada for the first time. By our own joyous celebration of the centennial of Confederation, we had discovered ourselves. The nation’s mood was expansive and optimistic. Essentially, Pierre Trudeau was blown into power with the prevailing wind at his back.

No such luck for Trudeau the Son. One statistic confirms the difference the passage of time has made: today only 14 percent of Canadians say they believe their children will enjoy a better life than they did. So we are not looking for a saviour. Mostly, we are looking for a good accountant. Today our proudest national boast is that our banks are boring. Indeed, if the prevailing wind benefits anyone, it would be Stephen Harper, since conservatives are assumed to be better than progressives at managing in difficult times.

In one way, the two Trudeaus are about equal in terms of their allure to voters. Trudeau the Father benefited because he fulfilled our need not to be outdone by the Americans, who had had a charismatic leader in John F. Kennedy. Trudeau the Son could be benefiting from our discomfort that we have yet to find our own Barack Obama.

The new phase he has embarked on as he leads his party into the next election will be far harder. His clumsy comments about the Boston Marathon bombings confirmed that he has only just started up a steep learning curve. Immigration minister Jason Kenney’s comment on Trudeau’s prime ministerial qualifications—“zero executive experience, zero governing experience, and zero record of putting forward substantive ideas to address the tough issues of the day”—is a view shared by quite a few others, including some Liberals. In other words, he may well catch the long pass and then, as Kim Campbell and John Diefenbaker did before him, drop it. Still, Justin Trudeau has already done something substantial; and, like his father, he has done it his way.

In an ebook published by the Toronto Star during the Liberal leadership race, reporter Susan Delacourt came up with a deft description for the centrepiece of Trudeau’s platform: “the no-policy policy.” He had spent the five months of the campaign telling voters precious little about what he would give them in terms of policies and programs. He did toss out a few thoughts: he wants 70 percent of young Canadians to attend universities or colleges or pursue apprenticeships; he is open to foreign takeovers of Canadian companies, seeing such transactions as necessary in a globalized world; he thinks we shouldn’t tinker with the Constitution. But that’s pretty much it.

Of course, the reason he avoided specifics, in addition to the fact that he is not a policy wonk, is that with two years until the next election any ideas he makes public will be attacked if they are flawed, or copied if they are good. Yet a no-policy policy is nevertheless a policy, and quite a coherent, creative one.

Its author was not Trudeau but Gerald Butts, his principal adviser, a.k.a. the backroom guy the leader listens to. They met at McGill University in Montreal in the early ’90s and became close friends. As a former principal secretary to Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, Butts knows a good many tricks of the political trade. He combines a first-rate intellect with the street smarts that come readily to the son of a Cape Breton coal miner.

While working for McGuinty, he developed a close relationship with Matthew Taylor, a senior aide to Tony Blair, then the British prime minister. From Taylor, Butts learned the political lesson that forms the foundation of Trudeau’s governance strategy.

Early in Blair’s first term, his government poured out a mass of ambitious, clever programs and policies, all of which got instantly bogged down. Only then did Blair and his staff realize, in Butts’ words, that “their levers of office weren’t attached to anything.” So they did an about-face. They set out to earn the trust of suspicious interest groups—in some cases creating think tanks to facilitate dialogue—before asking them to buy in to the proposed schemes. It was slow, exhausting, and at times tedious, but it worked.

As Butts puts it, “The days of governing effectively by fiat are over, and by governing effectively I mean actually making things happen out there in the country.” Gaining the trust of stakeholders before bombarding them with bright ideas is Trudeau’s answer to what the experts call “public policy futility.” This phenomenon confronts pollsters when they ask people if they want improvements to, say, health care, and get a resounding yes, only to be followed by an equally resounding no when they ask whether the government should get on with making them. Government thus becomes paralyzed, not by its own incompetence, as is widely assumed, but by a deep and entrenched public skepticism about, if not outright contempt for, government itself.

To make this dysfunction worse, the welfare state—since the end of World War II the defining contract between governed and governing—has passed its best-before date. For decades, new social programs could be implemented or existing ones expanded by passing on the costs to future generations, but we have come to the end of that road. From now on, and simply to remain solvent, welfare states will be taking more from their citizens in the form of taxes than they can provide in the form of services. Public discontent will grow, and so will public cynicism.

Reinforcing this trend is the so-called “new individualism.” In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, political scientist Robert Putnam described how collective institutions, even informal ones like family dinners, were in decline. Condos, for example, are gated communities in all but name. In one way or another, more and more people are living by themselves; inevitably, many are living more and more for themselves rather than for the larger society. All institutions, from unions to mainstream religions, are affected, but none more so than political parties. Compared with what they were in the past, our parties are tiny; Canada may have the smallest, proportionally, among all of the industrial democracies. Nor does it help that contemporary political debates focus on managerial issues rather than ideological ones; even the NDP wants to cozy up to the capitalists. Our politics, like our banks, are boring.

The new individualism has a positive aspect, inasmuch as it reflects a better-educated electorate. Not just in universities and colleges, but also from the Internet—from Google, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and even Wikipedia—people can now learn for themselves much of what they once depended on learning from their representatives, the experts, and the media. And they can answer back, as many of Trudeau’s 221,000 Twitter followers do.

Justin Trudeau is attempting to reconnect the new individualists with the political system, offering cynics and skeptics a reason to give the system another chance. Simply put, he is trying to move Canadian politics into the twenty-first century, and the remedy he is advancing is like a mirror image of his own personality.

Of his father’s personality, Trudeau the Son has remarked that he was “extremely strong intellectually and academically, but it left him a little short on some of the interpersonal skills, the emotional intelligence.”

Beyond the least doubt, intellectual intelligence is Justin Trudeau’s short suit. He once declared, “I don’t read newspapers. I don’t watch the news. I figure if something happens, someone will tell me.” Yes, this was back in 2001, and it was mostly a young man’s braggadocio. But his credentials to govern are indeed scanty: he put in four years as a teacher at the Vancouver school he attended; he gave instruction in snowboarding; he chaired Katimavik, the youth organization funded by his father. Even his responsibilities as a party critic in Parliament have been of the second order: post-secondary education (anyway, a provincial responsibility); amateur sport; youth, citizenship, and immigration. By the time Trudeau the Father gained the Liberal leadership, he had, as justice minister, legalized homosexual relationships and bested Quebec premier Daniel Johnson in a public debate at a federal-provincial conference.

What the younger Trudeau does possess is an abundance of emotional intelligence. Some of it came to him via life’s hard knocks: the breakup of his parents’ marriage as the entire nation watched, and the tragic death of his beloved brother Michel in an avalanche. A major share of it comes from his mother, Margaret, troubled but brave. Some part, always overlooked, he inherited from his maternal grandfather, James Sinclair, an establishment rebel and federal cabinet minister who took an uninhibited pleasure in the zaniness of politics, especially at election times.

Trudeau is exceptional at street politics, because he genuinely likes people. He in turn is impossible not to like, a carefree extrovert, forever smiling, happy to kiss babies and their mothers, happy to hug their fathers, and blessed with a keen remembrance for peoples’ names. One savvy old Ottawa hand suggests another attraction: “It’s so refreshing that he doesn’t pretend to know everything.”

Add to this another legacy from his father, which enables him to attract attention to an unusual degree: Justin Trudeau is fearless. He showed this quality when he out-boxed Senator Patrick Brazeau, a stronger and larger opponent, in a charity bout, and since then he has taken up extreme surfing. Attacks by opponents faze him not in the least; he lights up when an aide warns him that one is coming. In an actual election, he will be hard to beat, although he is quite capable of beating himself—as in the toe-curling YouTube video in which his florid rhetoric convinces a scrum of reporters (some of which may be his own young volunteers) that he can solve all of Canada’s problems just with good intentions.

His most persuasive quality in an election will be his skill as an actor, a performer, a ham. Had Bill Clinton not made the phrase his hallmark, Trudeau would probably be telling audiences, “I feel your pain.” He has the intelligence to understand that people are not moved by analysis or reasoned argument but by emotion and empathy. He has thus spotted, as many others have yet to do, a major new political trend.

At its extreme, this involves questioning the Enlightenment, and since the Enlightenment gave us the scientific method, democracy, the rule of law, and the rule of reason, it is like questioning evolution; still, it is now beginning to be done. In his influential 2008 book, The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain, the cognitive linguist George Lakoff took off after reason. The brain, he pointed out, is not “a disembodied thought machine,” but rather an intrinsic part of the body. According to scientists, about 98 percent of reasoning is unconscious and reflexive. What is needed in contemporary politics (hence Lakoff’s subtitle) is a new Enlightenment that adds emotion and empathy to reason. The best expression of this view—that because of the Internet the twenty-first century differs radically from previous ones—was offered by the rapper Kanye West on Twitter in September 2012. “Feelings,” he said, “are the only facts.”

He was on to something. Some of the world’s best and brightest, its bankers and financiers, almost brought about a global depression in 2008, whereas the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements have managed to mobilize huge numbers of people with calls to action that are largely emotional. With no money or organization, comedian Beppe Grillo won the support of a quarter of the Italian electorate just by saying that what ailed the country was not debt but neck-deep corruption. Even Pierre Trudeau might say today not “reason over passion” but “reason and passion.”

This kind of comment comes as naturally to Trudeau the Son as his no-policy policy. Transforming it into practical politics is quite another matter. Butts talks about the need for “a structure in which all citizens can connect directly and easily [to government] if they want to,” which sounds like a sort of permanent genteel revolution, excruciatingly difficult to sustain. Trudeau offers generalities: “The Liberals must trust Canadians”; “Canadians want to again be nation builders”; “Young people are looking for something they can believe in.” So, yes, he could very well drop the ball. To compound his challenge, the three biggest issues that concern Canadians these days are economics, economics, and economics. There, he presents no serious threat to Harper.

Yet it is possible to see how Justin Trudeau could join the trio of leaders—John Diefenbaker, Pierre Trudeau, and Jack Layton—who in different ways made the country different. By virtue of his personality and, as can never be underestimated, his name, he has helped revive the underlying sense, now part of Canada’s DNA, that there is more to the country than balancing the budget and trimming the fat, or that there should be and so can be again. His is the kind of fearlessness it took, more than a century back, to build a transcontinental railway and, more than a quarter-century back, to enact a charter of rights and freedoms. The ball may yet slip out of his hands, but it is still in play.

The Walrus thanks the Writers’ Trust of Canada for its financial support of this story.

This appeared in the July/August 2013 issue.

Richard Gwyn wrote The Northern Magus: Pierre Trudeau and Canadians and Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times.

Karsten Petrat won a silver medal in the 2011 international 3 x 3 Professional Show.