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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Trudeau’s terror gaffe a winner for Conservatives Add to ...

Conservative Party spin masters, with their ingrained mixture of malice and mendacity, could not have planted their trap any better.

Within days of the launch of their attack campaign portraying new Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau as in over his head, the young Mr. Trudeau demonstrated that, yes, he was in over his head. At least he was in his foolish comments about the need to discover the roots of the terror that struck Boston.

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At the time of Mr. Trudeau’s gum-flapping, the identities, let alone the motivations, of the bombers remained unknown. How could anyone probe the roots of terror when the perpetrators were unknown? Mr. Trudeau’s comments suggested an alarming confusion of logic and a propensity, always dangerous in public affairs, to wander lightly around a serious subject.

Successful politicians come in all shapes and sizes, and offer different ideologies, but they all have one thing in common: judgment rooted in experience and, most important, instincts. If a national leader doesn’t have the basic instinct to know that condemning terror – and stopping right there – is what the occasion requires, then legitimate questions can be raised about his instincts, or lack thereof.

What made the Trudeau gaffe worse was its confluence with the Conservatives’ first attack salvo – there will be many, many more – against Mr. Trudeau. It’s one thing for the Conservatives’ attack machine ads to portray their victim in a certain unfavourable light; it’s a stroke of rare good fortune for the ads to confirm the portrayal of the victim, at least in part.

These ads, of course, are dishonest, misleading and nasty – which is what Canadians have come to expect from the Conservative Party. The ads rip from proper context Mr. Trudeau’s words, to the point of utterly deforming their meaning; they seize on an out-of-context film clip making Mr. Trudeau look juvenile whereas he was assisting a deserving charity by removing his shirt; they attack his past careers, as if Stephen Harper’s one term as an MP and work for the National Citizens’ Coalition constituted some great preparation for becoming party leader and prime minister.

This is the style of politics the Conservatives have imported into Canada from the United States: full-scale frontal assaults between elections on the personality and background of their opponents with only the faintest regard for truth – except that, in the preparation of the attack ads, the Conservatives probe their adversaries’ weaknesses in the eyes of focus groups, then exploit those weaknesses. So there’s always just a hint of truth in the portrayal of their victim – which, in Mr. Trudeau’s case, he unwisely underscored.

We’re a very long way from the days of the Reform Party, from which Mr. Harper sprang, with its promises to “do politics differently,” by which Reformers meant something other than the slanging they associated with the old-line parties.

Instead, we’re in a party where public expressions of even mild dissent are muzzled, civil servants are instructed not to reveal information, scientists are told to vet their statements with the Prime Minister’s Office, communications apparatchiks whose abiding preoccupation is not to divulge information are deployed, and a collection of hit men and women at party central are tasked to demolish by just about any means available the character of the party’s political opponents.

Will the demonization of Justin Trudeau succeed, as did similar campaigns against Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff? If the past is any guide, yes, because the ads were so ubiquitous and, like the one about Mr. Trudeau, they presented a distorted image with just enough truth to be believable.

Negative ads work, which is why political parties use them. They aren’t designed to change minds already made up but to create an image of a leader for voters for whom politics is at best of passing interest. The less informed the voter, the more attack ads work.

The country knows little of Justin Trudeau, apart from his name and his hair. His comments about terrorism were maladroit and troubling. We can be sure that the Conservative attack machine will ensure that Canadians haven’t heard the last of them.

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