As a malaprop-prone former U.S. President might have put it, they misunderestimated him.
It’s a dark Tuesday morning, the blue jays (birds, not baseball team) are swiping peanuts from the feeder outside and I’m sipping on my homemade caramel latte, watching CBC Newsworld recap the incredible achievement of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party in the 2015 federal election. The voters of Canada, who at the outset of the unprecedentedly-lengthy campaign had seemed content to muddle on with the same old crew of Conservatives for another few years, turfed them with a resounding choice for positive change. The Liberals won 184 seats – 14 more than was needed for a majority – in a 338-seat House of Commons, whose recent redistricting was supposed to have favoured the Conservative incumbents. That’s seven more seats than Jean Chretien managed in his best performance in 1993, and in each of his victories he had been running against a divided right. Crushed in the red tide was Tom Mulcair and the New Democrats, who will be trundling back to their old, familiar berth of third place after flirting with the possibility of power in early polls back in August. Departing the political stage entirely will be Stephen Harper, and while the temptation to bid him good riddance and thanks for nothing is strong, to do so would run contrary to the sentiment provided in Trudeau’s inspiring acceptance speech, that “Conservatives are not our enemies, they are our neighbours.” Fair enough. Best to focus then on the man of the hour, and the man who will guide Canada for at least the next four years.
For years, Conservative supporters, both from prominent mainstream media perches and flailing at the keyboard in dank basements, have tried to dismiss all criticism of their party’s policies as “Harper Derangement Syndrome.” Basically, that any legitimate argument one might make against the Conservatives is automatically rendered moot because it must originate from a place of deep, embittered loathing of the popular kid, because he’s just so awesome. Even before he won the leadership of the Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau endured a far more acute case of “Trudeau Derangement Syndrome” from those on both the near and extreme right. All style and no substance was the theme of the more complimentary of the relentless slams against him – some of which are far too ugly to reference here. The pattern of the intent was to utterly belittle and destroy the public image of a man whom those in power recognized, quite rightly as it turns out, presented a formidable challenge to the rightward tilt they were trying to shove a largely progressive country. You saw this in the early days of the rumblings of Trudeau’s candidacy for the Liberal leadership in 2012 after interim chief Bob Rae withdrew himself from consideration. Innumerable op-eds and website comments penned by sympathetic-sounding Conservatives suggested that Justin Trudeau at its head meant the end of the Liberal Party as a viable force in Canadian politics, and the Liberals should really pick someone else if they want to get back to relevance, maybe in two elections or so. There is a term for this, as you know: concern troll.
In June 2012 I wrote a piece about it. I suggested that these sentiments were appearing because the Conservatives were afraid that they couldn’t beat someone who had the capacity to inspire hope and a desire for positive change the way Barack Obama did. The morning after I published it, I was dropping my wife off at the train station when my phone began to buzz and ding and buzz, over and over again. I opened it and discovered this tweet:
Needless to say, I was as bowled over as it is possible for a neophyte, unknown writer to be. I got almost 3,600 hits on my site that day (it had been averaging a mere 20), a whackload of new Twitter followers, and a plethora of comments agreeing with me and hoping that what I had written about would eventually come to pass. Not too long afterwards, Trudeau declared for the leadership, won it convincingly, and set about rebuilding the battered Liberal Party and getting it into fighting shape to contest the coming election. I’m not going to pretend I’m a soothsayer or that I had any influence whatsoever in what followed. That credit goes entirely to Trudeau, his family and his incredible team of supporters and volunteers who battled with him for three long years, under the interminable assault of Conservative war chest-funded attack ads highlighting out-of-context quotes, and a compliant corporate media all to eager to jump on everything that might be interpreted as a gaffe given the proper spin – anything to reinforce the meme that had been established to keep Trudeau out of contention, to force his support down into the low teens so that the election would come down to a fight between the veteran, battle-hardened Conservatives and the untested NDP with its roll of accidental MP’s left over from the 2011 Jack Layton surge.
But it sure is nice to be proven right.
Not long after he won the Liberal leadership, Trudeau disappointed a few of the old diehard politicos by publicly declaring that he would not resort to negative attacks. Surely, they argued, the game has changed, and if you’re not willing to punch hard then you risk being defined before you can define yourself. When the Just Not Ready campaign fired into gear, it looked as though it was Dion/Ignatieff all over again. Initial response suggested that the ads weren’t working and that there was even some backlash, but as they lingered and repeated ad nauseum ad absurdum, the effectiveness of the Big Lie began to seep in to the Canadian consciousness, abetted by media overreaction to off-the-cuff comments. Maybe he wasn’t ready after all? Eventually, Trudeau’s numbers started to sink. When he supported the loathed Bill C-51 (which everyone forgets was going to pass even if the entire Liberal caucus spent the day of the vote in the Bahamas, and that Trudeau was able to get some of the more odious language removed through amendments because he offered public support, i.e. political cover, hence him making the best of a truly rotten situation) and the NDP surprised everyone by winning government in deep blue Alberta, the Liberals plummeted to third and progressive Canada turned its lonely eyes to Mulcair as its only possible salvation. It was a rough time to be sure. But faith untested is not true faith. And as the Toronto Blue Jays have proven time and again this year, real fighters are never down for the count.
One of the most execrable yet pivotal moments of the campaign came when smug Conservative spokesperson Kory Teneycke (he who failed utterly to establish Fox News North) sneered that Trudeau could exceed expectations for the first leader’s debate simply by showing up wearing pants. It crystallized what Trudeau was up against: a party drunk on its own press releases, bulging with establishment bloat, so enamored of themselves and so contemptuous of anyone who dared question them that they were practically begging, like a political Biff Tannen, for a good old-fashioned solid left hook to the jaw. Which Trudeau promptly delivered. Not a knockout, but as Trudeau the boxer would certainly explain, a much more effective solid series of jabs, over and over again. Debate after debate. Event after event. Rally after rally. People listened. People got on board. Trudeau turned “Just Not Ready” to his own advantage. I am ready, he declared, and set about proving it. The other established media meme, that the Conservatives were brilliant campaigners, was wiped out, as true to form, they could not seem to answer what Trudeau was offering voters, their collected intellect unable to compute why Canadians wanted to hear more than just promises of tax cuts and overwrought head scarf hysteria. But, they cried, we balanced the budget! We sent you all free (not really) cheques! But a country, Trudeau said, in words echoing the great statesmen of the past, is far, far more than how much money you have in your pocket at the end of the day. A country is an idea, formed by the hopes of its people, greater than the sum of its parts, and much stronger when unified in a bold vision than when stymied by exaggerated regional differences for the sake of a few swing votes. Canadians want something positive to believe in together; exemplified best, perhaps, by the excitement of the Blue Jays’ 2015 playoff run. We were thirsting for it so badly and didn’t even realize it. And Justin Trudeau was giving it to us.
As numbers for the Liberals began to climb, the concern trolls bounded back into gear. The polls are wrong, they bleated. Look what happened in the UK. Conservative support is always underestimated, the youth won’t come out to vote, seniors love the Conservatives, “shy Tories” will ultimately turn this election in favour of Harper. It’s all going to collapse, and such a shame, we would’ve voted Liberal if only you’d picked the astronaut. Okay, fine, whatever. The Conservatives’ cash register stunt, hysterical warnings of legalized brothels and the dragging out of the Ford brothers in the final week showed the flailing desperation of a side that knows they’ve lost, and most telling of all were Harper’s visits to what had been thought of as safe Conservative ridings in the final days. “Just Not Ready” kept running on TV, but Trudeau’s numbers kept rising, and the NDP fell away as the large progressive Canadian majority pledged its troth to the man who had defined himself in the long, long campaign that was supposed to have bankrupted his party. A last ditch attempt by Postmedia ownership to swing support back to Harper by having all its newspapers endorse the Conservatives was fruitless, and probably did more to insult the intelligence of the Canadian voter than it did to move numbers to Team Blue. Still, we were warned, the best Liberals can hope for is a decent minority. Harper might even be able to cling to power if he gets a small plurality of seats. We’ll be back at this in six months.
As Troy Tulowitzki smashed another three-run home run last night in what would become an 11-8 victory for Toronto over Kansas City and a cutting of KC’s lead in the ALCS in half, the returns started to come in, heralded by Atlantic Canada with its complete Liberal sweep. Then came Quebec, shrugging off most of the 2011 NDP wave and giving the Liberals the highest total of seats they’d earned in the province since the first Trudeau won his final election in 1980. Ontario shut the Conservatives out of The Six and most of the 905, and as polls closed in the west and Canadian political junkies flipped back and forth from Game 3 to Peter Mansbridge, the unexpected, the undreamed of, became reality. You had to just stop and soak it in for a long moment. 1-8-4. A freaking majority.
It is not possible, I think, to overstate the accomplishment of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party in this election, coming back from the doldrums of a little over 30 seats to a solid mandate to establish a new and uniquely hopeful and very much Canadian tone of governance for the next four years. Coming back from being written off only a few months ago as a lightweight with a famous name, unsuited to step into the ring with the big boys. It’s difficult not to compare the tone of this moment to the election of Barack Obama. In Trudeau’s victory speech, he invoked Abraham Lincoln (and The West Wing) in referring to the better angels of our nature, before reminding us again, as he had many times on the campaign trail, that in Canada, better is always possible. Many of us knew this all along. And now we have the right person with the right team for the right time to make better happen. I won’t lie. It feels amazing today. Today has more promise than most of the yesterdays in the past ten years, and we can look to tomorrow with excitement and anticipation, as we just watch him.
I don’t write about politics very often anymore. My focus has changed as I’ve grown older, become a father, diverted my interests and attentions. But I think often about what I wrote about Justin Trudeau three years ago, how it connected with him that day, and how generous he was to share my thoughts with the people who supported him. (And I’m just a little bit proud that he still follows me on Twitter.) But I couldn’t let today pass without writing the words that I hoped I might be able to one day, when I first clicked “publish” on Justin Trudeau vs. the Concern Trolls and sent it out into the world:
Congratulations, Mr. Prime Minister. And thank you.