13 June 2017

Trump, Trudeau and the worrying rise of the celebrity politician

By Bruno Alves

Last month, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shared some photographs on Twitter of himself with a five-year-old girl who’d won a competition to be “Prime Minister for a Day”, which included a visit to Trudeau’s office. The pictures suggest that they both had fun building a “pillow fort”. As one would expect, the internet went crazy with this, retweeting and sharing the pictures as proof of how “charming” and “adorable” Trudeau is.

The Canadian premier, of course, is no stranger to going viral. Only in May, he released pictures of him taking his three-year-old to work, and a few days later, staged a “accidental” “photobomb” of a group of Vancouver students on their way to the Prom. Back in 2014, he similarly inserted himself in the midst of a bridal party, and “crashed” a wedding in 2016. Most recently he kayaked up to an unsuspecting Canadian family’s house.

Whenever he pulls off one of these stunts he is heaped with praise about how immensely approachable and likeable he is. And yet, when I saw the “pillow fort” pictures, all I could think of was Donald Trump.

Few politicians would seem more different than the Canadian Prime Minister and the American President: one is young and handsome, the other is old, overweight and orange; one is the latest poster boy for faux-progressives with shallow good intentions, the other is arguably the most hated man on the planet.

And yet, both Trump and Trudeau thrive for the same reasons.  They are both a product of the “meme-ification” of politics. Trudeau’s canny use of social media only cleared the way for Trump.

Trump’s politics adds up to nothing more than posturing. (Even if that posturing has very real practical consequences in people’s lives.) For some, this makes him a crude fool. But to his supporters, those words and deeds are what make him a trailblazer; he is brave enough to declare what others think but daren’t say. He is pure id.

Part of his appeal is his wealth and fame, which free him from the constraints of us mere mortals and allow him to say what he wants and do as he pleases. Whether he is telling the truth, let alone achieving anything, is beside the point.

His supporters seem, to a large extent, to be people who feel the world they used to recognise as their own is rapidly going the way of the dodo. They have been, or have seen their neighbors or loved ones be, hit by forces outside of their control, be it globalisation, deindustrialisation, drug addiction, immigration, sexual liberation, even racial equality.

They feel threatened by the unknown they are now forced to familiarise themselves with, powerless to avoid that fate, while the establishment appears to welcome many if not all of those changes. Trump is able to tell his supporters that he alone can make sure they won’t be alone in this strange new world. He is an avatar for his supporter’s beliefs and grievances, even if he himself does not share them – let explain them coherently.

Trudeau is no different. He does politics in exactly the same way (and is himself a celebrity of sorts, being the son of a former Prime-Minister). His persona might be less aggressive and more well-meaning than Trump’s, but it is still a different version of the same style.

Both Trudeau’s photos and Trump’s diatribes reduce political discourse to a display (and exploitation) of emotion, depriving it of any shred of argumentation, rationality or meaning. They don’t reason; they advertise. Trudeau may appeal to “positive” emotions while Trump is almost exclusively “negative”, but their political styles are equally irrational.

Demagogues such as Trump (or Jeremy Corbyn, for that matter) can only survive in an environment where “passions” rule our political judgements. They feed off the idea that every evil in our societies can be attributed to simplified enemies – be it “the banks”, “the media”, “globalisation” or “the Mexicans”.  The approach flourishes in an environment in which public discussion is incapable of focusing on the reasoned analysis of competing arguments, recognising the complexity of a political community’s life, and consequently acknowledging the impossibility of the simple solutions.

When the debate is purely emotive, the appeal to irrationality – and therefore, to simplification – becomes not only possible but almost unavoidable; those that live off of irrationality find fertile ground to plant their destructive seeds.

When politicians who portray themselves as the beacons of progressiveness and the leaders of the free world indulge in the stunts of the sort Trudeau is fond of, they must realise that they are hollowing political discourse out and appealing exclusively to the voters’ emotions. They must also realise that, however upbeat those emotions, they reduce political discourse to ultimately irrational displays of emotion.

Understandably, many people find themselves seduced by Trudeau’s bonhomie – or Barack Obama’s, or the Pope’s – as they did by Ronald Reagan’s, Bill Clinton’s, Tony Blair’s or David Cameron’s before them. But the truth is that, without them, and their more benign side of the demagogic coin, Donald Trump would never have had a chance of becoming president.

Bruno Alves is a journalist based in Portugal. He writes for O Insurgente and is a contributor to Jornal Económico