Trudeau attack ads new low in Tory messaging
It’s likely the new Liberal leader will only benefit
There was just one curious aspect to the Trudeau attack ads unveiled this week, in all their puerile glory, and almost comically faithful to the Conservative Party’s Harry Potter manual of the dark arts; that is the raptor speed of the assault.
In the past there was a brief pause, a stock-taking, before the barrage began. With Justin Trudeau, it seems, there’s no time to waste. Why?
It’s worth noting that, even measured against previous Conservative campaigns, these ads mark a new low. They convey all of the callow, schoolyard spite of the Stéphane Dion, Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae attack ads, but none of their gutpunching heft. It took maybe 10 minutes following the release of the first edited video, showing Trudeau doing a dandyish mock striptease, for it to emerge he’d been raising money for the Canadian Liver Foundation. The take-away was Conservatives, meanspirited and stodgy; Trudeau, good sport. Point, Trudeau.
The second ad was potentially more damaging, in that it features a clip of Trudeau asserting “Quebecers are better than the rest of Canada.” Ouch! Except the clip turned out to have been pulled out of context from a longer segment, filmed in the late 1990s, in which Trudeau inexpertly tried to explain his father’s view of Quebec. He wasn’t expressing his own opinion. Shockingly, Trudeau the Elder believed Quebecers have natural advantages within Confederation, chief among them bilingualism and biculturalism. Anyone who bothers to read the original interview will conclude the ad is a fraud. Its creators come off as mean-spirited, dishonest and incompetent. Point, Trudeau.
Now, Conservative strategists are anything but stupid. Surely they would have known the misdirection would be seen and exposed?
Conservative blogger and strategist Gerry Nicholls, writing in the Ottawa Citizen, offers an explanation that makes some sense: It’s all about the money. Given the saturation coverage of Trudeau’s ascension, it’s understandable, even inevitable, that the Conservatives would seek to use him as a fundraising goad. But there’s another factor, which Nicholls also briefly alludes to, that I suspect is actually more important: That is the visceral, subintellectual impact of the images themselves, regardless of context or source.
Conservative tacticians have long held a McLuhanesque view of political communications, whereby the visual backdrop is as important as any substantive content. By that standard, it doesn’t matter why Trudeau stripped to his undershirt, or whether the quote about Quebec was deliberately misleading. The images will stick, if repeated. Their purpose is to plant doubt and scorn that operate beneath reason.
This approach to politics, setting aside its rank cynicism, brings certain risks — particularly when employed against a figure such as Tru- deau. The most obvious is that many Canadians, particularly the older generation who remember his father, have known of him since he was a child, conferring on him a benign, generalized goodwill. That’s the very kind of visceral cushion that positive political messaging is designed to create. Trudeau had it long before he ran for office. He has built on it in the years since by, among other things, preaching a message of public service, political engagement and charity.
It was Arnold Schwarzenegger who said Califor- nians trusted him to be governor because he chose to work in politics, despite not needing the job. Trudeau, for all the froth about his being a child of privilege, benefits from the same phenomenon.
Since launching his leadership bid, Trudeau has further branded himself as a “positive” force, adopting the mantle of democratic reformer and someone who intends to “do politics differently.” The more savagely his opponents attack him, the more he will point to their tactics as proof of the truth of his narrative.
It will be lost on no one that Trudeau in his first days as Liberal leader has sought to project calm and a singleminded focus on the middle class. Among other things, this is intended to provide a reassuring visual contrast, on the evening news, to how he will be made to appear in Conservative ads. The implicit question in the contrast will be this: Who do you prefer to believe?
The Conservatives had two possible avenues, in response to Trudeau, 2.0: Strike hard, fast, below the belt; or wait for an unforced error. The fact they chose to damn the torpedoes, suggests they’re aware of the passage of time, and the potential for the Liberal leader’s “positives” to become entrenched. The Tories know as well as anyone that an attractive candidate with an upbeat message is the classic antidote to a late-cycle regime, which they will be by 2015.
Bottom line? The topline message says Trudeau is “in way over his head.” Everything else about the ads, from tone to timing, suggests Conservative strategists fear just the opposite. Trudeau’s team will be pleased: They’re having a good first week.