Anne T. Donahue on Justin Trudeau & Living the Meme

We owe it to JT—and to ourselves—to call him out on his missteps as much as we celebrate his photo ops

Post Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest, the Justin Trudeau fatigue is setting in

Justin Trudeau with Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest earlier this week (Photo:

Somewhere, Justin Trudeau is posing for a photo op.

And that’s a reasonable thing, because that’s what politicians do. They shmooze and they meet and they greet and they pose, and our Prime Minister is hardly unique in his capacity for being photographed. It’s just that lately, Trudeau’s begun to cement himself as a meme.

He’s had quite a week. On Monday, Trudeau paddled his kayak up to some random people on the Niagara River, fresh off his appearance on Live With Kelly and Ryan. (Oh, and coincidentally, he had already taken a selfie with these very same people months earlier.) Come Tuesday, Justin’s dinner with former President Barack Obama re-ignited the bromance that briefly defined the Canadian-American partnership. Add to this his May 20 prom photobomb and last year’s shirtless wedding appearance, and dude seems almost guaranteed to show up and pose anywhere and with anyone. Which is fine! It’s fun. It is nice and it is cool that the Prime Minister of Canada doesn’t take himself too seriously. Nothing is wrong with any of this. Provided his policies are equally prioritized.

It’s important to remember that Justin Trudeau is more than a meme; he’s a politician. And not just a politician, but a man who was elected by and therefore works for Canadians based on the 200 campaign promises he made. And while some promises were kept, he also broke a few big ones by greenlighting the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and neglecting to put a direly needed rush on clean drinking water for First Nations communities. (Not to mention the matter of our $15 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia despite the country’s legacy of human rights violations. An irony, considering Trudeau prides himself on being a feminist.) He isn’t the worst, but he isn’t perfect. And when we meme-ify a world leader, we make it easier for them to be framed as the latter.

Admittedly, when compared to President Trump or Theresa May, Trudeau comes out on top. In the wake of Trump’s cries for an all-caps travel ban and May’s promise to bend laws to fit xenophobic and racist agendas, it’s comforting to look at photos of our PM welcoming refugee children or to remember his tweet promising that everyone is welcome here. It’s easy to throw these references in the face of our American or UK neighbours as a reminder that #meanwhileinCanada, everything’s fine—that we may have had a Conservative nightmare in office for the last decade, but we’ve changed and we’re cool now.

But we don’t do that because we know better, I hope. Because we know that a 140-character sentiment isn’t legislature, and that meaning well isn’t a free pass to side-step campaign promises. We know that leadership is more than a photo-op in a kayak because PR isn’t governance. And most importantly, we know that we are always just an election away from ushering in our own Trump equivalent and that a Cool Dad™ PM is one who has everyone’s back. He doesn’t just roll into the school dance to get compliments on his sick tie.

Of course, Trudeau deserves credit where credit is due: the man knows how to play the game. He knows how to appeal to our soundbite and social media-driven society, and he knows that public availability equates the idea of professional accessibility. For decades, we’ve been raised by the media to celebrate the stars who are just like us. So for Canada’s leader to embody the persona of a celebrity who doubles as our best friend perpetuates the myth that the best Canadians are friendly, affable, and never too self-serious.

And it’s easier to get shit done when you’re universally liked. It’s easier to finally (finally) ask the Pope to apologize for centuries of residential schools. It’s easier to tweet disappointment over Trump’s choice to bow out of the Paris Agreement. It’s easier to avoid outright condemning the President’s travel ban and instead parlay it into a message of Canadian warmth. Ultimately, it’s easier not to be a dick.

But the thing is, we owe it to Trudeau to not get caught up in his image. We owe it to him to hold his government accountable for the things they do and the things they don’t, and to call him out on his missteps as much as we celebrate his photo ops. For a leader to grow and make a difference, they must be regarded for the decisions they make and not just for their willingness to show up.

Plus, we owe it to ourselves. It’s great to have a Prime Minister who’s up for a good time. But it’d be even greater to have a Prime Minister whose idea of a good time is standing by his promises.

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