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Justin Trudeau: the "Terrible Thing" From Papineau

03/07/2013 05:45 EST | Updated 05/07/2013 05:12 EDT
HuffPost Canada

I used to have this friend in high school who once said to me "You know why I act so dumb all the time? So when I do something well, I get double the praise." I had a hard time believing someone could put up this facade of idiocy for the sake of the occasional back-pat, but then again, I hadn't heard much of Justin Trudeau back then.

In Contender: The Story of Justin Trudeau, Althia Raj portrays the MP for Papineau not as the faux-idiot, but rather as the underdog. At the beginning of her engrossing, detail-focused book, the HuffPost Ottawa bureau chief quotes Trudeau as saying, "I go [into the Sun News boxing match against Senator Brazeau] as a massive underdog, nobody expects me to do well at all. If I do well, let alone [win] everyone will realize that there is a possibility that Justin Trudeau knows what he's doing."

The now-famous boxing match acts as a recurring device in Raj's work, with the author jumping back to the fight as she narrates the genesis and rise of Pierre Elliot Trudeau's son. Over the course of its roughly 64 pages (that's the problem with e-books; all formats have different lengths), she interviews family members, fawning friends, devoted staffers, and the everyday citizen who basks in the glow of those brown locks when they're on TV.

She touches on all the major periods of his life thus far. His childhood: he was "a smart, caring kid, with great sense of humour, who loved being outdoors," his aunt says (wild card). His years as a young man and the requisite Find Thyself Trip: "'I think Justin learned a lot on that trip [...] because in the middle of the Sahara desert, no one cares about your name, no one cares who you are" (this soul-challenging period of existential anonymity lasted all of three months). His quick-and-easy marriage to Sophie Grégoire, and the death of his father, which some say Trudeau used the coffin of as a launch pad for his political career.

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Justin Trudeau In Photos

But all throughout Contender, we really do hear the same thing over and over again. The Palin-like dodging of "Will he run, or won't he?" His immeasurable level of charm, his incredible humility, and also his desire to beat the odds. These are not Raj's words, but rather, those who surround Trudeau -- and they're empty, vapid, devoid of any meaning.

Strip Trudeau and his supporters of the expression "connect with," and you'll notice how little they have to say. Give the man a haircut, and see how quickly his Twitter followers dwindle. Strike a line through his last name and...well you get the picture.

All-in-all, Contender simply presents the reader with a man who's got drive and enthusiasm for rustling up a crowd, sort of like a popular DJ. And this is no fault of Raj, or her admiringly exhaustive research, but rather, the subject matter with which she is dealing.

For as much as people like to go on about how terrific Trudeau is, they really have a hard time explaining why he would be a wonderful leader. Even the candidate for the Liberal leadership has difficulty explaining to his opponents why he's suited to be prime minister. Lamely, at a debate, he stutters how he won his Papineau riding. And he repeats the same -- but with more gusto -- later at a fundraiser in B.C.:

"My experience is I win. I win in tough elections."

Well, that's a bit of a stretch. Trudeau has won two elections, and in the nation's poorest riding (why, wouldn't they like a high profile MP?) He had the help of an "army of people from Ottawa and volunteers from all across the country." And another hopeful candidate, Mary Deros, stayed in the race (though she knew she didn't stand a chance) because "It was good for Justin to have a battle [...] it was good for the party." But after clutching the election from the cruel claws of the Bloc Quebecois, would Trudeau go peacocking all over Ottawa? Oh, no; that's not Trudeau, at all. He "kept his head down and went out of his way to be a humble and hard working MP."

Again, those are Trudeau's words; not Raj's. For I doubt Raj would define "humble" as shouting "Fuck you" to the Minister of the Environment during a session in the House of Commons. And I doubt she would define "hard working" as not proposing a single piece of legislation over his two terms in office, and maintaining a pitiful attendance record while lining his personal coffers with money gained from public speaking arrangements.

What Contender is able to show the reader is that there are very good reasons why Trudeau's detractors focus on seemingly petty topics when they attack him; he has not given his opponents anything substantial. "Talking in generalities gives little ammunition to his opponents," Raj notes, and she is right.

But at the same time, one would be hard-pressed to agree this is but a move on Trudeau's part to guard himself against the nasty Conservatives, or his other fellow-candidates. By not proposing an actual political platform, by speaking in these fuzzy, feel-good platitudes, Trudeau is guarding himself against future failures. With no campaign promises, he cannot be held accountable for future fumbles. To me, that doesn't sound like the anti-politician's politician. It sounds like he's learnt from the best of them, albeit with two shirt-buttons undone, and the occasional Captain Morgan beard.

Marc Garneau -- the proven leader who is only now beginning to go on the offensive -- had it quite right when he wrote that Trudeau was asking voters to buy a car without having test driven it first. The MP from Papineau is begging for the benefit of the doubt. Trudeau is like the hopeful writer who asks a publisher for an advance for a book he has yet to write, but promises it will be a piece of staggering genius. Just trust him. After all, he's charming.

But while charm alone may make for a good one-night stand, the fact of the matter is that the Liberal party needs to get into a committed relationship with a leader who's proven himself as more than a haircut and photo-op. Marc Garneau is not flashy, I'll admit. But in Raj's work, the constant cycling back to the boxing match is meant to be the ultimate metaphor for Trudeau's perseverance and resolve. Imagine what could be said of a man prepping himself to go into space, and withstanding g-forces, as opposed to the jabs of a senator with a penchant for booze and skirt-raising? Furthermore, Garneau has had a career which took him from the tough Royal Military College to the gilded halls of the Imperial College in London. He's served his country in the navy, and was chancellor of Carleton University. Contrast this with Trudeau who feels the need to lie about spending a lot of time teaching at a B.C. public school in order to connect with British Columbians ("Nobody recalls him," the school principal says.) And this is nothing to say of the pick-up-then-drop way he's gone through careers his entire life.

And yet, people seem resolute on Trudeau, a man who has more experience with Facebook than he does with keeping his seat warm in the House. For some odd reason, this strikes millenials as Trudeau being "genuine," when in reality, he is nothing more than a carefully curated set of equations; he's a politician like any other. Only thing worse is that he puts on this act of being honest.

This might not be so bad if only Trudeau had something with which to show us he is good at something other than rustling up a crowd, or throwing a right-hook. But he isn't. He simply doesn't, and this point cannot be emphasized enough. The Liberals are hemorrhaging relevance, they're on their last legs. The last thing they need is to place all their faith in someone who is good at talking and basking in the limelight -- but little else.

There's a fantastic line near the beginning of Contender, which sums Trudeau up perfectly:

"I decided not to follow Justin without thinking about it next time," [a friend] says, "He's a good charmer. He can make terrible things look sometimes good."

And right now, that "terrible thing" is the MP from Papineau.