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In 1972, when Justin Trudeau was not yet even one year old, author Peter C. Newman and Marshall McLuhan were chatting over lunch about the impressive communication skills of his father, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, when talk turned to the future of politics. With fewer Canadians “bothering to listen” to politicians, Mr. McLuhan predicted, “The successor to politics will be propaganda … So politics will eventually be replaced by imagery.”

Decades later, the younger Trudeau became a global manifestation of that prophecy, propelled to his father’s old office and onto the world stage at least in part by his canny use of imagery.

Social media was his natural home: He became the first Instagram Prime Minister of Canada, posting snaps shot by his official photographer, Adam Scotti, that toggled between dimpled, Kennedy-esque heroism and man-of-the-people humility.

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And legacy media outlets championed Mr. Trudeau, too. On the day after he was elected in 2015, Britain’s Daily Mirror mused that he might be the “sexiest politician in the world.” American outlets, desperate for a fresh-faced liberal alternative to their growing national nightmare, seemed especially eager to amplify his image. Weeks after his election, both Vogue and the New York Times magazine published glowing profiles: the former, adorned with a pair of photos shot by the fashion photographer Norman Jean Roy, included one of Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, in an intimate clutch.

Later, Rolling Stone put a photo of him in shirtsleeves, leaning against his office desk, on its cover, and asked in an oversized font: “JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Why Can’t He Be Our President?”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

Rolling Stone/The Canadian Press

Well, heck, America, maybe you just spoke too soon! Now that Mr. Trudeau has been caught indulging in ugly race play (at least) three times, maybe he actually can be your president!

Mr. McLuhan may not have envisioned Instagram, but he understood that we would, as a species, blithely return to the preliterate state of our ancestors, surrendering to the power of images.

One of the chief criticisms of Mr. Trudeau is that he is concerned entirely with the superficial messages he sends. But politicking by imagery and symbols has value. When Mr. Trudeau made it a priority to have a gender-balanced cabinet – and Canada saw them all, smiling and sunny, crossing the lawn at Rideau Hall to meet regular people who had gone to cheer their swearing-in – many scoffed, but others recognized the quietly revolutionary power of his symbolic move.

Politicians – like many in the public eye nowadays, from athletes to Instagram influencers – model behaviour for the rest of us. So when Mr. Scotti snapped a photo of Mr. Trudeau helping to carry a man in a wheelchair down the stairs at a Montreal Metro station in 2014, it may have seemed calculated, cynical; but it was also a quiet reminder of our obligation to help others.

In those cases, Mr. Trudeau was in control of the imagery and symbols. But over the past couple of days, as ugly images from his past have exploded into our social-media feeds, our news outlets and our TVs – and, astonishingly, he’s been unable to tell us whether there are others on the way – Mr. Trudeau has seemed like a punch-drunk boxer who has lost his uppercut.

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Having lost control of the most powerful medium of our time, Mr. Trudeau can’t get back on message.

Still, he tries mightily. During a 30-minute press conference on Thursday afternoon, he offered repeated apologies and attempted explanations for his bizarre fixation with facial darkening. But, if they were earnest and heartfelt, they were still just words. As Mr. McLuhan predicted, most of us have stopped listening.

During that lunch with Mr. Newman, Mr. McLuhan offered another observation: “The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favour of his image, because the image will be so much more powerful than he could ever be.”

At the time, it seemed like a promise. Now, we understand it was a warning.

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