Justin Trudeau Lived By The ’Gram. Will He Also Die By It?

He was the first prime minister of the Instagram era, building a brand — and a government — with a series of infinitely like-able images. Four years later, they might also be his undoing.

Squiggly Line
There’s an exchange, at the beginning of Justin Trudeau’s recent interview with Jessi Cruickshank, where the host and her audience of six-year-olds tell the prime minister that he looks the same in person as he does on Instagram. “That’s cool, that’s a good thing,” Trudeau responds. “It means I don’t use too many filters.”
It was a joke — an offhand remark perhaps meant to convey that the PM speaks millennial (safe to assume Andrew Scheer thinks Sierra is a mountain range in California). But it was also one of those “you just said a mouthful” moments. Because while the PM’s social media hasn’t gone as far as puppy face or flower crowns, the art of image manipulation through Instagram has been essential to building the Trudeau brand. And now it could come back to bite him in his (viral) butt.
It’s true Team Trudeau borrowed some of his youthful, I-listen-to-cool-bands-and-wear-statement-socks vibe from the Obama playbook. But where the latter was celebrated for his arresting oration and quick one-liners, the “first Prime Minister of the Instagram age” achieved global icon status based on a series of infinitely like-able and sharable images. Not just the thirst traps (of which there were plenty), but visuals that presented Trudeau as a different kind of leader — a beacon of modern masculinity and progressive values, happy to bump shirtsleeves with his fellow Canadians. Here he is greeting Syrian refugees at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, here he is posing outside Rideau Hall with his gender-balanced cabinet (“because it’s 2015”), here he is lighting loins afire with his equally photo-friendly wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, in Vogue magazine, and here he is possibly out-cuting baby pandas at the Toronto Zoo. Photos of Trudeau not just marching, but dancing, in multiple Pride parades reflected the optimism and inclusivity that characterized his first year in office. Behind-the-scenes snaps captured by Trudeau’s personal photographer, Adam Scotti (himself an Instagram influencer), projected authenticity and humanity that stood out like a rainbow flag compared to the Orange Invasion south of the border.
“Canada’s just trolling us at this point,” tweeted CNN’s Amanda Wills when this photo of Trudeau executing an (extremely difficult!) yoga pose went viral the same week that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump refused to rule out dropping a nuclear bomb on Europe and mused on the possibility of a future where women would be punished for illegal abortions. Rolling Stone magazine even put Trudeau on its cover along with the headline “Why Can’t He Be Our President?” (“He’s always pushing his product: a kind but muscular Canada,” wrote journalist Stephen Rodrick in the accompanying article, using two adjectives frequently bestowed on the PM himself.)
Back when skies (and ways) were sunny, it didn’t matter so much that Trudeau was pulling double duty as Canada’s leader and the Internet’s boyfriend (here, Ryan Gosling talks to GQ about handing over that title). “In the last election campaign, we saw the Liberals, who had been totally decimated [in the 2011 election], rebuild as a focused expression of the party around its leader,” says Max Valiquette, Chief Strategic Officer with Diamond Marketing Group. “Obviously, that worked well for them.” Trudeau and his team met millennial voters on their preferred platforms, and the first gen of social media natives showed up for them big time at the polls.
One election cycle later, though, and the same images that are burned on our collective memory wouldn’t feel out of place in 2019 Conservative attack ads. “What we’re seeing now is a bit of live by the personal brand, die by the personal brand,” says Valiquette.
It’s almost eerie the way certain iconic shots of Trudeau now serve to highlight his scandals and stumbles. This well-circulated, intimate snap of the PM offering the Minister of Justice position to Jody Wilson-Raybould, now evokes corruption and casts some serious side eye on Trudeau’s feminist brand. The nature porn doesn't go down so well with young voters who feel betrayed by the Trans Mountain pipeline purchase. And, of course, the once fawned-over photo of the newly elected leader trick-or-treating with his kids is now a glaring reminder of the brownface/blackface revelations.
Where this leaves the Liberals will become a lot clearer next week. In previous political eras, it would have made sense to pull back on promoting the charismatic leader and push the accomplishments of the party instead. “This is the party that has lifted 300,000 children out of poverty, has improved the economy, supported trans rights,” says Valiquette, who has worked with the Liberals in the past. Had he been manning the re-election campaign this time around, Valiquette might have ditched the #TeamTrudeau hashtag, and used the PM’s Instagram account to highlight the accomplishments of various MPs: “If you’re Julie Dzerowicz [the incumbent MP in Toronto’s competitive Davenport riding], I’m not sure you want to have Trudeau’s face on your sign in this election.” 
Arguably though, that Trudeau-branded plane has left the airport: “His face is on the bus, it’s all over the commercials. The Liberals were all about Trudeau and continue to be all about Trudeau,” says Melissa Lantsman, a VP of Strategy at Hill+Knowlton Strategies who previously worked with the Ontario Conservatives. She agrees that the conventional branding wisdom says fall back on the institution (“the Liberal Party was around before Trudeau and will be around after”), but acknowledges that young voters may respond better to celebrity.
View this post on Instagram

Trick or treat! Joyeuse #Halloween!

A post shared by Justin Trudeau (@justinpjtrudeau) on

In a lot of ways this reflects a new normal for politics. Institutions may be sturdy, but they lack star power and don’t look great in a selfie. Trudeau (who has 3.2-million Instagram followers) isn’t the only politician to be more popular than his party (34,900 followers): Jagmeet Singh’s recent surge with young voters has seen his own Instagram following spike to 372,000 (with an assist from Rihanna), while the NDP account has just over 15,000. Even Andrew Scheer has more followers (almost 55,000) than the Conservative Party of Canada (25,500), and no leader shows how the cult of personality has changed the political playing field like Donald Trump does.
On the one hand, Lantsman believes that an exceptionally strong personal brand is the only reason Trudeau is still in this election. (“There is no other politician who could have endured the blackface scandal,” she says.) On the other, Trudeau’s oversized personality offers an easy target for his opponents to go after.
Tamara Small is a political science prof at the University of Guelph and studied memes from the 2015 election. While both Trudeau and Stephen Harper were the subject of negative memes, people tended to go after Harper for his policies, whereas Trudeau was attacked over his personality. Harper, Smalls says, was like a high-school principal. “Nobody expects to like their principal. Approval and likability aren’t really connected.” Trudeau, she says, is more like the cool teacher, meaning he has a lot further to fall. “When the cool teacher lets you down it’s more like, ‘Oh man, how could he do that to us?’” says Small.
An overall sense of dissatisfaction and frustration around Trudeau’s leadership is what Refinery29 Canada heard in a survey of more than 1,000 voting-age women. Notably, 45% of respondents said his government has had no impact on women, and an additional 17% said it’s hurt women. This is demonstrably not true. (Since forming government, the Liberal Party has enacted pay equity legislation, pledged $1.4 billion for global women’s health, and introduced a gender-based analysis of federal budget.) Still, the fact that so many women see it that way suggests a perception along the lines of all selfie, no substance.
The strategy the Liberal Party has been employing on Instagram shows they have some idea that yoga poses aren’t what voters want to see this time around. “A major new focus of our digital campaign has been to feature stories from Canadians who have a real personal connection to Canada’s progress since 2015,” says the prime minister’s press secretary, Eleanore Catenaro. Recent Instagram posts include the PM alongside steelworkers in Hamilton, loved ones of Danforth shooting victims, and members of Canada’s armed forces. But there’s still some of that classic Trudeau iconography.   
The week following the blackface scandal, for example, Trudeau arrived at a press conference in Sudbury, ON, via canoe. No wait, first he paddled around the lake for a while, and then he arrived. Last election, this photo-op would have been a slam dunk: a nod to his political lineage (here’s Pierre Trudeau getting his paddle on), a sign of his anti-establishment hutzpah, and a demonstration of Trudeau as rugged outdoorsman. This time around though, the response was largely cynical, summed up pretty well by this Vice headline: “Reeling from his biggest scandal yet, Trudeau deployed some familiar weapons: a canoe and his tight ass.”
No question that part of Trudeau’s challenge lies in being the incumbent. Defending four years of governance, and the inevitable broken promises (ahem, electoral reform), doesn’t play so well to the camera. And there’s also our growing cynicism around authenticity and social media. But maybe his biggest hurdle of all — the opponent the PM may not be able to defeat — is the 2015 Justin Trudeau. Back then he put the “woke” in #iwokeuplikethis. Now we’re left wondering which version is for real.

More from Politics