How Justin Trudeau became the world’s first Millennial leader

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau gets up close and personal with two panda cubs at the Toronto Zoo. (Facebook)
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau gets up close and personal with two panda cubs at the Toronto Zoo. (Facebook)

Technically speaking, Justin Trudeau belongs to Generation X.Canada Flag Icon

But you’d be excused for mistaking him for a Millennial because Trudeau is, in essence, the world’s first Millennial leader.

Even his political enemies realize this. Preston Manning, who founded the Reform Party in 1987 (it eventually became the Western anchor of today’s Conservative Party), mocked the new Liberal prime minister and his state visit to Washington, D.C. last week:

In many respects he epitomizes the “it’s all about me” generation and its self-expression and promotion via social media. So let’s like him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter – and while we’re at it, why not a selfie?

What the 73-year-old Manning, who once led his party to such a failure that it won fewer seats in the House of Commons than the pro-independence Bloc Québécois, doesn’t realize is that social media fluency in the politics of the 2010s is currency. It’s a feature, not a bug. (Just ask Donald Trump, who might single-handedly be reinvigorating Twitter as a medium for political communication).

While Trudeau, at 44, might be too old to be a Millennial as a technical matter, he certainly mastered the political vocabulary of young voters. Twenty years ago, younger Canadian voters might have viewed the New Democratic Party’s Thomas Mulcair as the kind of prudent, centrist leader that would make a superb prime minister. Not in 2015, when young voters swarmed to Trudeau in record numbers, to the dismay of both the NDP and Conservatives.

In 2014, a year after Trudeau assumed the leadership of the Liberal Party, he was already leading 18-to-29-year-olds by a larger margin than any other age group. Polls in the immediate aftermath of last October’s Liberal landslide showed that young voters supported Trudeau at higher proportions than other age groups. 

For a generation marked and mocked by its quest for ‘authenticity’ (just look to the margins that Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has racked up against former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton), Trudeau has the je-ne-sais-quoi ability to connect, even when he’s preening for the cameras with two panda cubs in hand. Millennials are more diverse than prior generations, in Canada as well as the United States. It was their generation, in particular, that cheered when Trudeau responded to a question about gender parity in his new cabinet with a shrug and a kurt, ‘Because it’s 2015.’ They loved when he personally welcomed Syrian refugees to Canada in December at Toronto’s airport.

It’s reminiscent of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. But eight years ago, many Millennials were still too young to vote, and Obama, a decade older, lacks the social media finesse that Trudeau embodies. With the burden of a global financial crisis and two failing foreign wars, not to mention the historical nature of the first African American presidency, there was always a certain restraint, in policy and in tone, to Obama’s approach.

In his ‘sunny ways’ talk, Trudeau wields the legitimacy of the son of a (mostly) beloved former prime minister. He doesn’t have to worry about a ‘birther’ movement or racial backlash.

More importantly, he wields the optimism of a leader who presides over a far less gridlocked political system than Obama. Under Canada’s parliamentary system, Trudeau doesn’t need to win over hardline conservative Republicans or even skittish Democrats. He just needs to convince the members of a Liberal caucus who owe their seats in the House chiefly to Trudeau’s popularity.

If Obama directed his campaign to voters of all ages, Trudeau, by contrast, explicitly targeted Millennials, ditching a bipartisan consensus of over two decades in bias of fiscal restraint by promising to deploy deficit spending in the face of a sputtering economy. But that’s a perfectly reasonable response when the electorate’s most powerful demographic (18-to-34-year-olds) leans so firmly to the left, in Europe and the United States as well as Canada, a generation so young that it associates socialism with Scandinavia and not with Soviet totalitarianism, it’s perfectly reasonable. It helps explain not only Sanders’s improbable rise on the American left, but that of British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturegon’s sunny Scottish independence movement and the success of both the leftist Podemos and the liberal Ciudadanos in Spain.

None of Trudeau’s Millennial alchemy will necessarily matter if Canada’s commodities-based economy sinks deeper into recession, or if a terrorist attack spooks a chiefly pro-immigration culture to turn inward. But it’s more likely than not that the next Canadian opposition leader will have to wield the same can-do optimism and savvy social media skills.

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