What do Doug Ford and Justin Trudeau have in common, aside from being elected leaders of Canadian governments?
Fans of each would no doubt cry, “Nothing at all!” And they’d have a point. Mr. Ford, the Progressive Conservative Premier of Ontario, and Mr. Trudeau, the Liberal Prime Minister of Canada, are by many measures very different people.
It’s almost like the progressive Mr. Trudeau was created in a laboratory specifically to antagonize Ford voters, while Mr. Trudeau’s supporters must consider the populist Ontario Premier to be punishment for long-forgotten sins.
But for all that differentiates them, there is one important thing they seem to share – the belief that it’s in their interest to be the centre of attention at all times, even when that attention is not positive.
The old saying about there being no such thing as bad publicity has become a political mantra that transcends party affiliation. Everyone is doing it.
How else do you explain the Ford government’s recent announcements, some of which have been so inert as to compete for a spot on the Periodic Table as a new noble gas?
Take the decision to change the slogan on Ontario license plates from “Yours to Discover” to “A Place to Grow.” The rewrite had opponents apoplectic and fearing the worst; the bland new phrase revealed a complete non-story. Historians may one day regard it as the least significant initiative of any government, ever.
Larger in scope was the Ford government’s unveiling this week of billions in promised spending on new subway lines that were hastily sketched out, developed in a vacuum and which stand a good chance of never becoming reality. His plan drew fire from the usual opponents, and almost seems like it was designed to.
Many people hold their noses at the Ford government’s puffed-up announcements made to grandiose fanfare. But there is a purpose to them: The negative reaction or mockery they generate, either on social media or in the press, prompts Mr. Ford’s voters to stiffen their allegiance to him.
Mr. Ford needs ammunition to encourage his fans to donate, and to fuel their animosity toward his political adversaries and critics in the media, whom he paints as biased and untrustworthy. At the same time, he is secure in the knowledge there is virtually nothing he can do or say that will cost him the support of his polarized base.
U.S. President Donald Trump enunciated the founding principle of this political philosophy during his election campaign in 2016, when be boasted that he "could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
He was right. There is apparently no misleading tweet or outright lie, no evidence of immorality, personal wrongdoing or poor choices, that can shake his supporters’ faith. By being outrageous and often stunningly self-contradictory, Mr. Trump keeps himself squarely in the centre of American politics, where he plays the righteous hero beset on all sides by those who would do his followers wrong.
This strategy may explain Mr. Trudeau’s otherwise incomprehensible threat last week to sue Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer for libel and slander over statements Mr. Scheer made related to the SNC-Lavalin scandal.
When dealing with scandals, the old strategy called for those at the centre to keep their head down and let the danger pass. Mr. Trudeau was instead to be found hand-feeding fresh meat into the maw of the beast.
It’s inexplicable, at least under the old rules of politics. But under the new ones, Mr. Trudeau’s action might make sense. It reinforces the partisan narrative of a leader who has done nothing wrong and yet finds himself beleaguered by enemies making false accusations. And his Liberals are no strangers to riling up opponents to wake up their own base.
Mr. Trudeau can suffer the derision and criticism resulting from his libel threat, because what he referred to as a call for consequences for politicians who “choose to twist the truth and distort reality” will never cost him the votes of diehard supporters whose waking nightmare is a government led by Mr. Scheer.
Dominate the news at all costs. Remain defiant in the face of justified criticism. And tweak opponents, while always winking at diehard supporters. That’s 21st-century political leadership.