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Why the Liberals and Netflix don’t mix

Andrew MacDougall: The Liberals leaned in on Justin Trudeau’s appearance on the ’Patriot Act.’ But what was supposed to be a push for ’celebrity cool’ turned into one glorious disaster.
Hasan Minhaj hosts Patriot Act (Netflix)
Hasan Minhaj hosts Patriot Act (Netflix)

Andrew MacDougall is a London (U.K.) based columnist, commentator and consultant. He was formerly director of communications to Stephen Harper.

Memo to Justin Trudeau: any danger lurks to your left, not your right.

It’s a memo the Prime Minister ought to keep in mind as he recovers from his flaying at the hands of the left-wing American comic Hasan Minhaj.

Minhaj, host of the Netflix series “Patriot Act,” tore Trudeau apart in an episode titled “The Two Sides of Canada,” a segment that put more dents in the Trudeau record in 30 minutes than NDP leader Jagmeet Singh could manage in thirty lifetimes. If you haven’t yet watched it, take the half-hour. You won’t regret it. We’ll wait.

Forget the cheap embarrassment of Trudeau not recognizing his fellow world leaders. Ignore the unfavourable re-hash of the SNC Lavalin scandal, complete with a piercing dig at Trudeau’s feminism. Clear away the cringe of Trudeau citing his 1/16th (or was that 1/32nd ?) Malaysian heritage in response to being labeled the ‘White Panther of Wacanada.’ That’s all window dressing.

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What Minhaj managed to do is scythe through Trudeau’s credibility and celebrity in a way his many right-wing critics could never do. And in a format that was vastly more entertaining than a recent and critical long-read look at the Trudeau record in The Guardian. It was devastating.

For one, it proved that even though Justin Trudeau is indisputably politician cool, he’s not celebrity cool. Or comedian funny. He’s just a good-looking bloke who happens to be a politician. A politician with a record. A spotty record at that.

To his credit, Minhaj went through that record and found that, once you strip away the rhetoric and spot-on social media presence, there isn’t as much there as you’d expect from someone who was branded as the saviour of global liberalism. Indeed, there’s a lot of the opposite. Hard questions on the environment, Indigenous relations, Quebec’s Bill 21, and Saudi arms sales elicited nothing but waffle from Trudeau. Minhaj’s trenchant critique shows just how beatable Trudeau could (and should) be to a competent progressive politician.

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Surely Trudeau’s people realize this vulnerability too, which makes their decision to offer the boss up to Minhaj a head scratcher. Where was the potential win? Who watches “Patriot Act” already who doesn’t vote for Trudeau? Did the Liberal brain trust not think they had the ‘celebrity cool’ vote cornered? Weren’t Vogue and Rolling Stone enough? More to the point, do they not realize that any fatal blow—if one is to come—will come from someone who is ideologically simpatico?

In the Liberals’ defence, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Trudeau went (back) to the well of celebrity because it’s been a long time since he was able to draw any of its water. Minhaj was his attempt and it backfired.

Thankfully for the Liberals, none of this is likely to matter and it will probably all soon be forgotten. What an American comedian says about Trudeau matters far less than what his fellow Canadians have to say about him. At best, people will watch the “Patriot Act” segment and conclude that Trudeau might not be as advertised but Andrew Scheer would be worse (Minhaj’s conclusion). At worst, they’ll take a hard look at Elizabeth May and Jagmeet Singh. And with 14 NDP politicians in New Brunswick choosing to abandon their party in favour of the Greens this week, the momentum appears to be with May.

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May’s decision to rule out propping up a future minority government on climate grounds is another statement of intent. If climate change is the grave threat we say it is, May is saying, then Justin Trudeau’s half-way there plans to not meet Canada’s Paris targets (to say nothing of Scheer’s) isn’t good enough. Or, to use Minhaj’s words: “There are realities about Canada and Trudeau that we cannot ignore.”

If the Liberals were thinking of leaning on celebrity in the upcoming campaign Minhaj should force them to think again. They need to consolidate the progressive vote, not risk losing it to principled and funny critiques. To keep progressives in the tent the Liberals should instead stick to attacking Scheer through the Canadian press, a much more reliable means of transmission.