On Dec. 7, 2015, Justin Trudeau stood in front of the Canadian Parliament and delivered his first speech as Prime Minister of Canada. For Trudeau, the sky seemed to be the limit: At the young age of 43, he had helped the Liberal Party win back the government for the first time in nearly a decade, come into office with an impressive 63 percent approval rating and promised ambitious government reforms, including more transparency and accountability

However, fast-forward to today, and things look radically different for Trudeau. In a political system where incumbent prime ministers are strong favorites, Trudeau finds himself struggling. His Liberals are neck-and-neck with the rival Conservative Party, and his approval rating has dropped into the 20s. As with most political issues, there is no single component of Trudeau’s government to blame. Instead, Trudeau’s struggles can be attributed to a multitude of factors, most importantly his inability to live up to his self-created political brand, combined with his vacillating positions on climate change.

To begin, it is important to acknowledge that while Trudeau’s government is obviously far from perfect, it has still accomplished a great deal in certain areas. One of Trudeau’s campaign pledges was to create a gender-balanced cabinet comprised of 15 men and 15 women, a promise he ultimately followed through with. Additionally, while his environmental record is far from perfect, he has still shown some effort to improve environmental policy.

Outside of pure politics, Trudeau has also been enormously effective at crafting his personal image, something which plays to his strengths. Similar to former President Barack Obama in the U.S., Trudeau worked hard to brand himself as a liberal politician for the modern era: hip, cool and charismatic, with a strong social media presence and a focus on political values held by young people, like diversity and environmentalism. For Trudeau, this branding was enormously effective. His aforementioned gender-balanced ministerial cabinet, his Bhangra-dancing and sari-wearing when he visited India and his consistent presence at Canadian Pride festivals are just some examples of how well he’s marketed himself as a charismatic liberal figure. 

Additionally, America’s election of Donald Trump in 2016 turned Trudeau into something of a liberal icon, with his good looks, sharp dressing and eloquent speeches making him a natural foil to America’s president. 

Unfortunately for Trudeau, his strong personal image is actually at the heart of his struggles. In many ways, Trudeau’s image has actually been too effective, ultimately hindering him once real political concerns are present. While Trudeau’s brand represents ambitious ideas and liberal values, government politics, gridlock and electoral concerns have often forced him to deviate from his stated goals, most likely leaving progressive Canadian voters frustrated and disappointed.

Trudeau’s failure to live up to his own political hype has been apparent in his environmental policies. Throughout his tenure as prime minister, Trudeau has laid out ambitious and far-reaching plans for fighting climate change, and he received worldwide attention for his proactive role in the negotiation of the Paris climate accord. After President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord in 2017, Trudeau even issued a thinly-veiled rebuke, saying, “for our part, Canada will continue to fight for the global plan that has a realistic chance of countering it. We have a responsibility to future generations and we will uphold it.”

However, in contrast with his stated goals, Trudeau’s actual environmental measures have been subdued and disappointing. The most glaring example of this came in spring 2018, when Trudeau’s government decided to nationalize the Trans Mountain Pipeline for $4.5 billion CSD to ensure it was expanded. The pipeline, originally built in the 1950s, carries oil from tar sands in northern Alberta to Canada’s west coast, and is seen by liberals as an inhibitor of Canada’s efforts to become a leader in renewable energy and environmental activism. Despite those issues, and protests from First Nations groups over the potential concern of oil spills on their land, Trudeau went ahead with the purchase. Though Trudeau’s (somewhat convoluted) explanation for nationalizing the pipeline is that if Canada can produce more oil, it can make more money and therefore invest more heavily in renewables, it is also likely a political move. The pipeline provides a number of jobs in Alberta, a place where Trudeau is historically quite unpopular but would like to garner more support. Just last week, Trudeau skipped a ministerial debate to hold the second rally of his 2019 campaign in Edmonton. 

Unfortunately for Trudeau, issues like his environmental policies and his mishandling of the SNC-Lavalin scandal, which ended with the resignation of one of his government ministers, have emboldened a swath of leftist voters who believe he is not sufficiently dedicated to his stated goals. Both of Canada’s other influential leftist parties, the New Democratic Party (polling around 13 percent for the upcoming election) and the Green Party (polling around 10 percent) have released statements demanding the Canadian government take a more aggressive position in the fight against climate change. The NDP even called Trudeau out by name over his proposed carbon tax reforms, saying in an April 2019 press release, “Unfortunately, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have failed to bring the provinces together in support of a federal carbon tax. At the same time, they are asking everyday Canadians to do more, while practically eliminating the carbon tax for some of our biggest polluters.”

Ultimately, Trudeau’s problem is not that he’s been a bad prime minister. Instead, his issue is actually that he branded himself too effectively, creating hype around ambitious proposals which he was ultimately unable to follow through on. Thanks to this predicament, Trudeau has faced attacks from the right (he is still a Liberal PM, after all) and left, with many liberal voters feeling disenchanted with Trudeau’s inability to implement his lofty goals. 

Trudeau’s image crisis has been compounded in recent days by a series of revelations about his usage of blackface in his younger years, something which points to a similar problem, but on a larger scale: While carefully working to portray himself in one way, Trudeau has covered up or failed to take responsibility for actions which go against his self-created brand. In regard to his incidents with blackface, they undercut his strong rhetoric on racial equality and call into question his devotion to looking good versus taking action, much the way his environmental rhetoric has been undercut by his policies in that sphere. 

Ultimately, while Trudeau is still the narrow favorite in Canada’s upcoming election, he finds himself in a radically different position than he did four years ago, with an onerous tenure as prime minister shattering the golden boy persona he had so carefully cultivated in years prior. 

Zack Blumberg can be reached at zblumber@umich.edu.

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