How soon we forget the messages of optimism and positivity that propelled President Barack Obama to become the first African-American US president in 2008. This year’s US presidential race has thus far been characterized by fear mongering, divisiveness, and extremism.
However, if you need recent evidence of political figures’ ability to positively rouse a nation, even the world, look no further than our neighbors to the north.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Canada was at the forefront of discussions about the environment, income and gender equality, and diversity – some of the most pressing social issues of our time. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held court with top business leaders, including from Facebook and Alibaba Group, and celebrity advocates such as Bono and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Trudeau has given the media worldwide a political star in the making about whom to wax poetic. Vogue anointed him the “New Young Face of Canadian Politics.” The New York Times marveled “With the Rise of Justin Trudeau, Canada is Suddenly…Hip?” And The Guardian declared post-Davos that “Trudeau is living up to his reputation as a 21st century leader.”
Yes, the man is good looking. At 44, he is notably youthful for someone holding a nation’s top government post. He also comes from a prominent political family, which explains the frequent comparisons to John F. Kennedy. Trudeau is the first-born son of the late Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, himself known for his charm and socializing with Hollywood stars such as Barbara Streisand.
His pedigree, however, is not why the former schoolteacher is getting an audience with world leaders in politics, business, and arts and culture. It is not the reason he is lapping up so much positive press. And it is certainly not the reason for his Liberal Party’s stunning come-from-behind election victory last October over the incumbent party, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
“We beat fear with hope. We beat cynicism with hard work. We beat negative politics,” Trudeau said in his victory speech. “You can appeal to better angels of our nature and you can win while doing that.”
His party didn’t run any negative attack ads. Throughout the campaign, a Conservative ad in heavy rotation featured a group of people dismissing Trudeau’s qualifications for the job. “Nice hair, though” one of them quips. Resisting the urge to lob a backhanded compliment of his own, Trudeau responded on Twitter: “Stephen Harper and I have different priorities. He’s focused on me. I’m focused on you.”
Even Canada’s other party, the New Democratic Party, couldn’t resist lampooning the ad.
Polls initially had Trudeau in third place, but he kept on message about what he would do for Canadians, particularly the middle class. He would cut taxes, raise them for the country’s richest income earners, and run deficits for the three years to fund infrastructure spending. The Liberal’s most popular ad showed Trudeau walking up an escalator going down, suggesting his plan would get it moving forward again.
It proved a powerful metaphor. He proved – and continues to prove – a powerful communicator who understands message and delivery.
While presidential contenders talked about closing their borders to Syrians, Trudeau welcomed Syrian refugees at the airport. The heartwarming images spurred an outpouring of support from Canadians, who by the thousands posted messages with the hashtag #WelcomeToCanada. He would later say in London, “We have a responsibility — to ourselves and to the world — to show that inclusive diversity is a strength and a force that can vanquish intolerance, radicalism, and hate.”
A self-described feminist, he made good on an election promise to appoint Canada’s first cabinet with an equal number of men and women. That elicited a Facebook post from one woman that spread like wildfire in which she listed how each appointment made her proud. “Our Minister of Status of Women is an actual woman!” “Our Minister of Democratic Institutions is a Muslim Refugee!”
It also earned Trudeau a seat on a Davos panel about gender parity with Melinda Gates and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Sharing the stage with this high-powered company, he spoke of the digital and social media outreach his party did to achieve gender parity in cabinet. “I personally convinced a number of extraordinary women to step forward, as well as a number of extraordinary men, at a time when politics can be very, very divisive,” he said.
Divisive, acrimonious messaging has been the name of the game in the 2016 US presidential campaign – on both sides of the aisle. To rise above it, the candidate with the best chance to be sworn in next January as the US’ 45th Commander in Chief would do wise to follow the lead of a shaggy-haired former Canadian educator who is using Canada’s top post to give the world a master class on political messaging.