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Trudeau turns to Seinfeld tactics to tame town hall hecklers

A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse.

A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a town hall event at McMaster University in Hamilton on Wednesday, where an audience member heckled him over Ottawa's $10.5 million payout to former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr. (David Donnelly/CBC)

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Today in the newsletter:

  • Trudeau channels Seinfeld
  • Erdogan lashes out at U.S.
  • Five questions about early signs of dementia

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during Thursday's town hall at Western University in London, Ont. It was the third in a series of six such public meetings. (Geoff Robins/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau has an undeniable talent for keeping his cool.

And it has been on display more than ever this week as he crosses the country for a series of face-to-face "town hall" encounters with voters.

On Tuesday in Lower Sackville, N.S., the prime minister faced a pointed question about how it felt to be "the first prime minister ever found guilty of a federal crime." (An overreaching reference to the ethics commissioner's findings that his Christmas time 2016 visit to a billionaire's private island violated Parliamentary rules.) 

The next evening in Hamilton, it was an audience member who was riled up about Ottawa's $10.5-million payout to former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr.

And last night in London, Ont., there were repeated interruptions from two hecklers — one of whom was eventually removed by police.

Trudeau and the hecklers

4 years ago
Duration 1:45
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau deals with two different hecklers at his town hall event in London, Ontario

Trudeau's tactics rarely vary when a questioner gets in his grill or an audience member tries to hijack the proceedings. He is polite, patient, and lets his critics have a brief say without ever losing control of the proceedings.

And it's all straight from the public speaking textbook. Or, at least, the newer versions.

You might even call it the Seinfeld approach.

A few years ago, the American comedian did a Reddit AMA where he described the techniques he developed to counter the drunken boors who are a comedy club fact of life. 

A man heckles Prime Minister Trudeau during the Western University town hall. Trudeau has faced questions ranging from federal drug policy, to concerns over former ISIS fighters returning to Canada. (Geoff Robins/Canadian Press)
"Very early on in my career, I hit upon this idea of being the Heckle Therapist," Jerry Seinfeld says. "So that when people would say something nasty I would immediately become very sympathetic to them, and try to help them with their problem, and try to work out what was upsetting them, and try to be very understanding with their anger. It opened up this whole fun avenue for me as a comedian, and no one had ever seen that before."

"I would say, 'You seem so upset, and I know that's not what you wanted to have happen tonight. Let's talk about your problem.' And the audience would find it funny, and it would really discombobulate the heckler, too, because I wouldn't go against them, I would take their side."

It takes a certain theatrical ease, however, to be able to pull off such a balancing act in front of a crowd.

Stephen Harper tried to follow the textbook, too. In this video of a speech before the Israeli Knesset where an Arab MK tries to shout him down, the prime minister keeps on talking at first, then smiles and reaches for the water glass.

(The tight grin was a staple in Harper's anti-heckler arsenal. You can see it on display again here when one of his own supporters starts chastising reporters for their campaign-trail impertinence.)

A heckler is escorted out of the arena by security in Grand Rapids, Mich., as Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in December 2015. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)
There's also the old school approach, as championed by Donald Trump. Sometimes he engages like a veteran insult comic: "They remind me a little bit of Hillary. No energy, no stamina, no strength," Trump said about his hecklers at a January 2016 rally in Massachusetts.

On other occasions, the U.S. president advocates more direct and brutal tactics. "If you see somebody with a tomato, knock the crap out of them," he told an Iowa crowd. And there was the rally in Kentucky in the spring of 2016, where he repeatedly shouted "Get them out! Get them out!," and watched as the crowd manhandled three protesters out of the arena.

The challenge of disarming hecklers can change over the course of a career.

In his salad days as prime minister, Trudeau's late father Pierre brought charm and wit to the task, wooing the room to his side.

Later, familiarity bred contempt. This CBC Archive piece captures a far different Trudeau on the 1979 campaign trail, sparring with "creeps," and telling a hostile Toronto crowd to "get off your ass" and "look for some jobs." The Liberals lost that election to Joe Clark's Progressive Conservatives.

Trudeau returns as PM in 1980

42 years ago
Duration 5:21
Pierre Trudeau is back as prime minister, ready to lead Canadians into a new decade.

Five questions about dementia

Peter Garrard is a professor of neurology at St. George's University in London, U.K., who researches early language changes associated with neurodegenerative diseases and mental illness.

Some of his past studies have scoured the writings of George III, Iris Murdoch and Margaret Thatcher for the first warning signs of the cognitive difficulties that followed.

Now he and his team are examining the tweets of U.S. President Donald Trump.

U.S. President Donald Trump is scheduled to undergo his first presidential physical on Friday. The results are expected next week. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Q: You study language changes that are associated with dementia and neuropsychiatric conditions. What kind of things do you look for?

A: We use computers to identify trends in language use in large volumes of text. There are a range of measures, including the number of times a word is used, and the "recycling rate" of previously used words compared to the introduction of new ones — the writer's breadth of vocabulary.

One of my favourite metrics is derived from information theory. Shannon entropy is a measure of the predictability of a piece of discourse; sentences with lower entropy are ones that people find easier to finish off for you.

People with dementia tend to recycle words more, to use higher frequency terms and speak in sentences that are less complex and more predictable.

Or in the case of politicians who develop "Hubris syndrome," their discourse can become dominated by words expressing confidence, like "sure," "certain," "no doubt," and self-reference that can favour the "royal we" over "I."

It all reflects an impulsive, erratic style of thinking.

Q: Do these signatures present themselves in advance of other symptoms, or are there behavioural changes as well?

A: Iris Murdoch wrote her final novel well before any symptoms had begun to emerge, or anyone close to her had noticed anything to suggest that dementia was developing. Remarkably, textual analysis identified changes typical of Alzheimer's disease.

So yes, a characteristic change in language may precede the more typical symptoms of forgetfulness, loss of spatial awareness and disorganization that are currently considered to be the hallmarks of early dementia.

Q: Now you're studying Donald Trump. How? He's not much of a writer…

A: Not in the conventional sense, but he could tweet for the U.S. at the Olympics.

Of course, using Twitter is different from writing a letter, let alone a novel. So we are currently looking for the best combination of algorithms to characterize these short and frequent messages.

Analyzing speech samples is labour intensive because of the transcription and data-checking stages that are required, so we expect to report our analysis of @realDonaldTrump before any work on the texts of his speeches.

Q: Recently there has been speculation that he is suffering from the early stages of dementia. Do you see any proof of that?

A: Proof is a strong word in neurology. It implies that a tissue biopsy, scan or diagnostic blood test has been done.

At Trump's first medical examination today there will no doubt be blood tests and possibly scans, but nothing that will tell us anything definite about the state of his brain. Even brain scans can be misleading without relevant clinical information.

Psychometric tests will be done, but again, these are insensitive to the early stages of dementia and there is massive variation between individuals.

Even if Trump is right about his own intelligence and turns out to have an IQ in the "genius" range — 145 or above — if this were lower than, say, five years before, his gradual impairment could have gone undetected over time. There is no way of knowing what this baseline was.

But if President Trump were to hand-write me a 150-word letter every month until the end of 2018, then I might be able to comment on the state and stability of his cognition.

Q: During the election campaign, there were many experts who suggested that he suffers from some sort narcissistic personality disorder. Would that manifest itself differently?

A: Personality disorders are also difficult territory.

When it comes to describing people from a distance, terms like "narcissist" and "sociopath" are often used to make visceral dislike sound measured and scientific. These terms are also tempting labels for anyone we find personally objectionable.

Politics is full of people with unusual personalities and strong views, and these terms probably crop up regularly when they speak about one another. I'll leave that to the psychiatrists to analyze.

Talking Turkey

The fraught relationship between the United States and Turkey has hit a new low.

Yesterday, Turkish president Tayyip Recep Erdogan made a bold vow: to stop honouring American extradition requests unless Washington hands over Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric he says was the force behind an attempted coup in 2016.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Turkey will stop honouring American extradition requests unless Washington hands over Fethullah Gulen. (Yasin Bulbul/Associated Press)
More than 50,000 people have been arrested within Turkey since the failed putsch.

"We have given the United States 12 terrorists so far, but they have not given us back the one we want. They made up excuses from thin air," Erdogan said during a Thursday media appearance at his presidential palace in Ankara. "If you're not giving [Gulen] to us, then excuse us, but from now on whenever you ask us for another terrorist, as long as I am in office, you will not get them."

The Erdogan government has been having similar battles with European nations — most recently Greece — over its attempts to extradite political opponents who it claims are actually terrorists.

Fethullah Gulen is a U.S.-based Islamic cleric the Turkish government was the force behind an attempted coup in 2016. (Chris Post/Associated Press)
But most of its anger seems to be reserved for the United States and Donald Trump.

The relationship between the NATO allies has been strained since last spring, when the Trump administration began arming Kurdish YPG militants as part of its strategy to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq. (Kurdish independence groups have been waging an insurgency campaign inside Turkey for decades.)

And matters haven't been helped by the high-profile New York trial of a Turkish banker who was accused of helping Iran avoid international sanctions. The prosecution's star witness in the case, a Turkish-Iranian gold trader named Reza Zarrab, testified that Erdogan personally ordered that two Turkish financial institutions be permitted to run an oil-for-gold scheme. Zarrab also claimed to have paid over $50 million US in bribes to Turkey's finance minister.

The Turkish government has denied the claims and seized property belonging to Zarrab and his family in retribution.

U.S. President Donald Trump met with Erdogan during the UN General Assembly in New York in September. Relations between the pair have been strained. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
But an American jury believed the testimony. It convicted Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a deputy general manager of the state-run Halkbank, on four counts of conspiracy and one of fraud last week.

Given the egos of their respective leaders, it seems unlikely that the U.S.-Turkey feud will be patched up any time soon. When Erdogan visited Washington to meet with the U.S. president last May, he was reportedly insulted that he was only granted a 22 minute audience.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Erdogan after a press conference during their meeting in Ankara on Dec. 11. The pair reportedly had a phone conversation Thursday about the situation in Syria, energy cooperation and plans for an upcoming summit. (Alexei Druzhinin/Associated Press)
Things only got worse after the Turkish president's bodyguards and supporters — including two Toronto residents — attacked anti-Erdogan protesters outside the Turkish ambassador's D.C. residence.

Following yesterday's extradition vow, Erdogan made it clear who he'd prefer to be friends with these days, picking up the phone and calling Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two discussed the situation in Syria, energy cooperation and plans for an upcoming summit.

Quote of the moment

"They will be wearing shirts that say 'Olympic athlete from Russia,' and will be allowed to parade in the closing ceremony. It's a gift to Putin, so he can put images of triumphant Russian athletes on TV."

- Dan Cogan, the director of the documentary that first exposed Russia's state-sponsored doping program, on the "backroom deals" that will take the sting out of the International Olympic Committee's "ban" on Team Russia at the Pyeongchang Winter Games.

Dan Cogan. (Matthew Eisman/Getty Images)

What The National is reading

  • German coalition talks: Merkel welcomes breakthrough (BBC)
  • Canada's economy set to 'wane,' says internal government memo (CBC)
  • Ikea asks pregnant women to pee on a magazine ad to reveal a discount (Washington Post)
  • Norwegians aren't likely to move to America, even if they're welcome (CNN)
  • Surgeon who burned initials into patients' livers fined (Guardian)
  • Bali's Mount Agung volcano spews ash again (South China Morning Post)
  • Queen's lingerie maker loses royal warrant over bra-fitting details. (Deutsche Welle)

This weekend in history

Jan. 12, 1983: Cat crazy.

The Journal's Tom Alderman investigates North America's "cat revival," driven by a desire for "the perfect pet for recessionary times." With cameos from Morris, Andrew Lloyd Webber's hairball musical, and (God help us) Garfield creator Jim Davis.

Cat crazy in 1983

39 years ago
Duration 12:09
Wildly popular on the stage and the comics page, cats have really caught on among Canadians.

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Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.