There’s an odd thing about political columnists.
Although they are usually bright people with highly informed views about politics, they generally tend to have a blind spot when it comes to negative attack ads.
Not only do they generally dislike such ads (National Post columnist Andrew Coyne calls them pollution) but they also don’t understand what makes them effective.
A case in point is the recently released Conservative Partyads which feature clips of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau performing a mock striptease and executing a dramatic operatic bow.
These ads opened to almost universally poor reviews.
National Post editor Jon Kay called them “disappointing;” Post Media columnist Michael Den Tandt said the ads marked a “new low” and that they were “mean-spirited, dishonest and incompetent”; while the Toronto Star’s Tim Harper predicted the Conservatives won’t “find any traction in mocking Justin Trudeau’s pretend striptease.”
At the root of their criticism is the idea that Trudeau, to use the Nicholas Taleb’s term, is “anti-fragile”, that is Conservative attacks will only make him stronger.
As Den Tandt put it, “Trudeau has further branded himself as a ‘positive’ force, adopting the mantle of democratic reformer and someone who intends to ‘do politics differently.’ The more savagely his opponents attack him, the more he will point to their tactics as proof of the truth of his narrative.”
And the Star’s Tim Harper noted, “Every time he is criticized for being a celebrity, his political stock is sure to rise.”
Now if Den Tandt and Harper are correct then the Conservatives and the New Democrats are indeed in trouble; a politician who only grows stronger from attacks would be a formidable opponent.
And yes, politicians can be “anti-fragile”. Take Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. The more the left-leaning Toronto Star attacked him during the last mayoralty campaign, the more it mobilized and energized his base.
Yet, it’s also true that every politician has a weakness and every weakness can be exploited.
The way I see it, Trudeau has three main weaknesses: a) he lacks political savvy, b) he is inexperienced at the leadership level, and c) he is known more for his dramatic flair than for his intellect.
The Conservative ads not only masterfully exploit each of these weaknesses, they also manage to do so with strong visuals and just as importantly with humor, meaning it doesn’t come across as a typical nasty political ad.
In the process the Conservatives are planting in the minds of voters the idea that Trudeau is “in over his head,” and that he just doesn’t have what it takes to run a government.
They make him, in short, look silly.
And for the life of me, I can’t see how such an attack would make Trudeau stronger.
Voters will forgive a lot of flaws in a politician, but one thing they won’t forgive in their potential leaders is incompetence and it doesn’t matter if the inept politician is likable or positive or a celebrity.
That means if Canadians start to view Trudeau as a clown, he’s finished
And given Trudeau’s lack of a resume, his lack of experience, his tendency to say ill-considered remarks, there’s a good chance the Conservatives’ branding of Trudeau will resonate.
Plus any rookie mistakes Trudeau makes in the upcoming weeks and months will only serve to reinforce the Conservative narrative.
I suspect, for instance, that Trudeau “bleeding heart” comments in the wake of the Boston bombing about needing to seek out the “root cause” of terrorism, will provide fodder for the next round of Tory attack ads.
So despite what the columnists are saying, the Tory attacks should concern the Liberals.