The Prince: The Turbulent Reign of Justin Trudeau

In The Prince: The Turbulent Reign of Justin Trudeau, his highly anticipated new political biography of a sitting Canadian prime minister, Stephen Maher makes the case that Trudeau has been personally and professionally shaped by being a metaphorical prince. That is, he is the son of a popular and long-serving prime minister who for better and worse made significant impact on our national identity. Moreover, Canadians of a certain age grew up with Trudeau the junior being super cute in newspapers and magazines and on their television screens. 

Maher often attributes political successes and mistakes to the princely characteristic of growing up in the political spotlight, which comes with gross privilege, scrutiny, and pressure. Justin avoided politics for much of his life, and still made news for that avoidance. After eulogizing his own father, pundits roasted his dramatic sentimentality. 

Describing the start of Justin’s political career, Maher writes, “he had great hair, a famous name, and a friendly, open way with people, but he had no particular accomplishments …” Still, he rode that name, that hair, and a natural instinct for the gruel of a political campaign to pull a third-place polling Liberal Party to majority power in 2015, temporarily restoring the luster of one of the most dominant political forces in the history of democracy. 

If the spotlight has shaped the personality of our prime minister, we could perhaps conclude that such intense scrutiny can cause one to at times seek more attention, and at other times shy away. Trudeau is of course famous for having been a drama teacher, and one prone to dress up (at times going to highly inappropriate extremes). But on the other hand, Maher writes of intense introversion. For example: “he had never had meaningful exchanges with people in his orbit — MPs and staffers who have made important contributions to the country and his government.” 

Maher builds a fascinating history of not only Trudeau, but also the recent political history of our nation. He draws on decades of political reporting, including time as Ottawa bureau chief for the Halifax Chronicle Herald, and countless behind-the-scenes conversations with the people around, and opposing, the current prime minister. He has a strong impression that Justin’s persona is “a construction, something he has worked hard to develop,” which includes “princely certainty in the importance of his ideas.”

The insights on his personality are interesting, but what I found most valuable reading Maher’s book were his discussions on political process. The two are bound together, as big P politics are very much an interpersonal affair. When a rising star seemingly floats in and takes all the attention, bruised egos can block progress on policy that affects millions of lives. 

The Prince also makes clear how important framing issues is for political job security. Framing as in how you outline an issue to the public, controlling the narrative of public discourse. That goes hand in hand with a politician’s image. Justin Trudeau literally outboxing a conservative MP is not only entertaining as hell, it also shows he’s no sissy, and we can feel confident looking to him as a stern father figure. At least until the next news cycle. 

The right image usurps discussion of policy every election. Trudeau’s predecessor, Stéphane Dion, had the way-wrong image of a policy nerd, forcing the Liberals to conclude “it was a mistake to offer ambitious environmental policies” in 2008. And when leading in the polls, there is no need to discuss policy at all, lest an opponent find holes to poke. (We see the current Conservative leader following this tactic now.)  

Maher rolls out his mix of personality and political storytelling in a roughly chronological roll call of Justin’s greatest hits, from beating Dion for party leadership to recent waffling on Gaza, desperately trying to keep votes from both Muslim and Jewish communities. News junkies will be familiar with much of this content, but Maher always offers fresh insight, often from behind the scenes. He also effectively draws on the writings of some of the key players including former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould, former finance minister Bill Morneau, and Trudeau himself. 

I appreciated Maher’s analysis of the prime minister’s successes and failures while in office (so far), which goes beyond the political and takes pains to explain why these issues matter (or should matter) to Canadians. I didn’t agree with all of his assessments, but then let’s face it, Maher is probably a lot closer to objective than I am.  

He notes that Trudeau has brought forth “progressive policies, on abortions, same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, and the economy.” On the other hand, he lied about electoral reform to help him get elected. Maher blames the housing crisis on Trudeau, which seems a lot to put on any one man. As the wise t-shirt says, “homelessness is a policy choice,” and it has been so in Canada through many political reigns. 

Maher correctly notes that under this government, we have seen “real progress for children, women, families, and the most significant effort to fight poverty in a generation.” Other positives include the carbon tax and “other steps to protect the environment and reduce emissions.” 

The carbon tax a win? Politically, absolutely not. If anything the carbon tax is a great example of a Trudeau weakness, failing to explain policy simply and clearly the first time around and verbally two-stepping to correct himself. But Maher rightly points out that Trudeau’s government has “done the difficult work necessary to bring in a carbon tax, and taken other steps to protect the environment and reduce emissions.” Because yes, it’s an existential crisis we’re dealing with.

Trudeau and his government have had an up-and-down relationship with Indigenous people and governments during his time in office, but Maher credits it for investing “more money, energy, and political capital than any before it” in reconciliation. Trudeau has also shown that one of the most essential resources Canada can invest in its relationship with Indigenous people and governments is respect. The damage caused by his mistreatment of the nation’s first Indigenous attorney general is incalculable, and it hast been far from his only misstep to discredit his rhetoric on reconciliation. 

The Prince is a valuable political recent history and overview heading into the year of an election that looks destined to end Trudeau’s “turbulent reign.” (Then again, as Maher explains, he’s the consummate comeback kid, and a political campaigner yet to meet his match.) Although I follow the issues closely, I come from this reading experience more informed on many of the issues that will drive Canadian votes into one box or another. 

The Prince is a valuable political recent history and overview heading into the year of an election that looks destined to end Trudeau’s “turbulent reign.”

I also come away all the more skeptical of the three mainstream national parties. Maher portrays current leaders as a BMW driver purporting to be the voice of the downtrodden, a consummate progressive alley with a history of wearing Blackface, and a man of the people who is a shrewd and vicious career politician driven only by ambition. All three may need an image makeover, pronto.

Stephen Maher has been writing about Canadian politics since 1989. As a columnist and investigative reporter for Postmedia News, iPolitics, and Maclean’s, he has often set the agenda on Parliament Hill, covering political corruption, electoral wrongdoing, misinformation, and human rights abuses. He has also won many awards, including the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, the Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism, the National Newspaper Award, two Canadian Association of Journalism Awards, a Canadian Hillman Prize, and has been nominated for several National Magazine Awards.

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 28, 2024)
Hardcover 9″ x 6″ | 400 pages
ISBN: 9781668024492

Chris Benjamin is the author of five books including his most recent hitchhiking memoir, Chasing Paradise: A hitchhiker’s search for home in a world at war with itself. His short-story collection, Boy With A Problem, was shortlisted for the Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction. He is the former editor of Atlantic Books Today magazine.

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