Is Justin Trudeau's profanity a slip or a strategy?

Justin Trudeau has been heard swearing publicly twice this week, making some wonder whether the coarse language is something inadvertent or a calculated — if slightly risky — strategy.

Crude language not part of a script, says Liberal leader's office

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has let loose a few swear words recently, at a boxing match and on a late-night talk show. Has this been less spontaneous than it might seem? (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau has been heard swearing publicly twice this week, making some wonder whether the coarse language is something inadvertent or a calculated — if slightly risky — strategy.

The Liberal leader's office staff say Trudeau's use of some choice words was not scripted, though they also hint he might cut loose again at the press gallery dinner in May.

At the same kind of late-night, no-kids venue — a charity boxing match Saturday night — Trudeau, speaking from the ring, told the crowd, "I will tell you, there is no experience like stepping into this ring and measuring yourself. All that — your name, your fortune, your intelligence, your beauty — none of that f--king matters."

Later, he told reporters his wife had scolded him for the public profanity.

But he did something similar again Tuesday night in an appearance on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight on CBC-TV (though the segment was taped two weeks earlier). A clip of former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was played in which Ignatieff explained that as a politician he had to fit a "filter between my brain and my mouth."   

"Is that true?" asked Stroumboulopoulos. Trudeau, after a long sigh, and laughing, replied, "Shit, what do I say?"

'It appears to be managed'

Stephen Carter, a political strategist who managed Naheed Nenshi's successful mayoralty campaign in Calgary, thinks the swear words were carefully timed.

"If this isn't managed, it appears to be managed … he's doing a pretty good job, the team is doing a pretty good job," Carter said, in a telephone interview.

But Ilona Dougherty, president and co-founder at Apathy is Boring, a civic and social organization, doesn't think Trudeau's language has any strategic value.  

Dougherty, whose organization is dedicated to persuading young people to vote, said "I don't think it was very smart. I think most of the folks he needs to be appealing to are kind of middle-aged, middle-class voters, and I don't think that's necessarily how to do it."

Pollster and author Michael Adams of the Environics Institute of Survey Research said, "This will do Trudeau no harm and may do him some good."

In an email, Adams wrote, "His dad [former prime minister Pierre Trudeau] said 'fuddle-duddle' too, and pirouetted behind the Queen."

PM Jean Chrétien swore in front of the Queen

Long after he'd left public office, former prime minister Jean Chrétien once told a group of reporters how he had uttered a swear word in the Queen's presence.

Chrétien said the incident occurred while he was signing the Proclamation of the Constitution Act of 1982. When his pen wouldn't work, he muttered "merde" under his breath.

To his dismay, he saw the Queen smile and realized — too late — she understood French.   

Adams sees Trudeau as a figure on the "politically incorrect left," just as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is on "the politically incorrect right." 

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, like Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, is a politician who's become a celebrity. For some voters, that's enough.

Carter also compares Trudeau with Ford, describing both as celebrities that some people like to vote for.

"Even Mayor Ford with his relatively crazy antics, everybody wants to have their picture taken with mayor Ford, perhaps somewhat ironically. But he's a celebrity and he's the guy that they saw on television news and on the Daily Show or the Colbert Report."

Carter thinks some voters don't see much difference between celebrities and politicians.

"So, celebrities aren't brought down by swearing, celebrities aren't brought down by smoking pot, celebrities aren't brought down by sex scandals. Celebrities are elevated by all these things."

Asked whether the swearing episodes or an earlier pot-smoking admission help or hurt Trudeau, Carter replied, "It absolutely hurts him with a small subset of people who didn't like him anyway."

Appealing to young voters

Adams points out that Trudeau's language will resonate with young people. "Swearing is especially prevalent these days among the millennials he hopes to attract to his cause. Just walk behind some young men or even some young women on the street and you hear the f-word almost as often as the word 'like.'"

But Dougherty says most young people don't vote at all, and a politician's reputation or attempts to humanize will work only with existing young voters.

She doesn't detect the Trudeau team employing tactics to win over young people who don't vote. "I don't think that will be the primary focus of their campaign."

Trudeau's language and perhaps carefully timed admissions might be part of plan to let the incidents make big news now so that they'll seem less significant in an election narrative.

"Imagine any other cheerful admissions that have to be made at some point," Carter said.

Adams concluded, "Justin Trudeau’s behaviour serves as a distinct contrast to his principal opponent, our stiff and guardedly correct prime minister."


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