Imagine, if you will, somebody who only gets their news from Conservative Party attack ads.
It’s not as far-fetched as it might sound – it’s perilously easy to avoid paying any attention to what goes on in the world, but political advertising penetrates the farthest reaches of classic rock radio and sports highlight reels.
Such a person as we’ve imagined would be quite justified in wondering why, exactly, anybody in their right mind would vote for Justin Trudeau or his party.
It’s a fair question, to be sure. I think it’s safe to say that if Trudeau ever had a brain, at this point it’s been surgically removed and replaced by a committee of pollsters, focus group analysts, cigar-smoking backroom party strategists, and ordinary middle-class soccer moms. His every utterance is calculated for maximum political effect on swing voters, his party’s platform a hodgepodge collage of popular ideas cadged from any source he could get his hands on. (See this brilliant takedown of his recently announced electoral strategy.) If the man’s had an original thought in the last decade, he’s kept it to himself.
But this line of argument would be foreign to our hypothetical attack-ad-saturated individual. No, they would have a somewhat different view of Trudeau; he would seem to them to be dangerous, a man unhinged, bent on power at all costs, lacking in any basic human decency, a friend to our enemies and a menace to the nation. Just look at what the Conservative Party has paid advertising firms to say about him (CW: graphic violence against prisoners):
Or check out what Stephen Harper had to say about him in this interview:
For those whose stomachs literally will not tolerate listening to Stephen Harper for extended periods, here’s a transcript from the CBC:
“I think it’s very strange. At a time in history — in fact he made the announcement on the national day of remembrance for victims of terrorism — to say that his priority is the restoration, or to become best friends with one of the state sponsors of terrorism in the world, the government of Iran, and that he wants to cut the relationship we’ve established with all of our allies… and with a large international coalition to take the fight against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a group that… has executed and is planning attacks against Canada and Canadians,” the prime minister said.
“I think on behalf of both Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair, their positions on the military mission in Iraq and Syria, their mission against ISIS, is irresponsible electoral politics. And I think most Canadians understand that,” Harper said.
It should be pretty obvious to even the most inexperienced of political observers what Harper’s doing here. It’s what logicians call a straw man argument. The fallacy gets its name, I suppose, from the fact that when you fight a straw man, you’re sure to win, because he can’t fight back.
A straw man consists of laying out your opponent’s position to your audience, but twisting it and misrepresenting it in such a way that it becomes self-evidently false, laughable, even detestable.
And so even the slightest amount of digging reveals that Trudeau did not say, for instance, that he wanted to be “best friends” with Iran (which is no more a state sponsor of terrorism than the United States of America), nor that he wanted to “cut off” relations with Canada’s coalition allies in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and (illegally) in Syria. What he did say is that he wanted to normalize relations with Iran (after Harper abruptly cut them off in 2012) and that given the lessons of recent history (Libya, Iraq 2.0), it would be irresponsible to send ground troops into Iraq; Trudeau would prefer to emphasize military training.
Now, you can agree or disagree with those positions – but those aren’t the positions laid out either in the attack ad or in Harper’s statement. The picture of Trudeau that they present is demonstrably false, in a way which makes them easier to attack.
Incidentally, the attack ad is quite likely a violation of the recently passed Bill C-51, which forbids exactly the kind of broadcasting of “terrorist propaganda” that the ad accomplishes, as well as the Geneva Convention due to the disregard it shows for the prisoners of war depicted in the video. Harper spokescreature Kory Teneycke pushed back hard against the accusations, saying: “What we’re doing is no different than what you do on the news. We’re better than news – we’re truthful.” (Watch an incredulous Tom Clark of Global News struggle to believe the words coming out of Teneycke’s mouth here. Discussion of the ad starts around 3:00; the really fun part kicks in around 4:45.)
All of that illegality is irrelevant, though, because the ad – or some future one like it – will likely prove to be fatally effective. It won’t necessarily be an anti-Trudeau ad – it could be one with its barbs aimed at Thomas Mulcair, or even Stephen Harper. But if history is any guide, this election is going to be marked by vicious attack ads built around gross mischaracterizations of leaders’ positions on key issues.
Consider this one, which you probably saw back in 2011:
When I met my partner, they had literally no interest in or knowledge about federal politics. Once when I mentioned Ignatieff, they said, “He’s the one that didn’t come back for me, right?”
I mean, boom. There’s a simple little phrase that wormed its way right into our collective unconscious. Never mind that all of the quotes in the ad are overblown distortions of Ignatieff’s actual statements and positions (see here for a takedown of the “iPod tax”, for instance). The ad presents us with a simple, intuitive narrative, an easy way to reduce a complex human being into an understandable and thoroughly dislikable caricature.
It worked just as well on Stephane Dion three years prior. Hell, he was an easier target – his lack of facility with the English language made it child’s play to distort his meaning out of all recognition:
“Do you think it’s easy to make priorities?” A quote ripped from context, and certainly not as elegantly phrased as Dion would have desired, was used to demonize the man, to present him as indecisive and bereft of a plan.
Now, you may think that these are easy to spot – but notice that I’ve only chosen CPC examples. Here’s one from waaay back in 2006 – part of a desperate last-minute Liberal attempt to stop Harper from winning his first election – and I’m sure it had a ring of truth to it at the time for left-leaning folks:
Of course, that turned out to be blatantly false, and a gross misrepresentation of Harper’s statements. And this particular ad backfired, drawing condemnation and mockery from a lot of pundits in the dying days of the 2006 election. Similarly, it looks like the Cons have overreached with his “Trudeau + Iran + ISIS = <333” ad – although they’re still defending it. It’s likely, though, that next time they’ll be a little more subtle with their straw manning.
The cruel and simple beauty of the straw man is that it works. It works by creating a simple story that’s intuitive and features clear-cut good guys and bad guys. Love them or hate them, Stephane Dion’s policy on the GST or Justin Trudeau’s plan for our Glorious Non-Combat Operation against ISIS are nuanced and complex. They can’t be reduced to simple soundbites without distorting them out of all recognition.
But it’s these distorted simplifications which are easiest for uninformed voters to digest. Thus most attack ads in politics rely on these straw man arguments. And as you can see by comparing the Conservative’s 2008 efforts with its most recent ads, they’re becoming more polished and professional as time goes by.
So my simple rule of thumb is this: If you see a political ad paid for by one party which makes claims about another party, I assume that everything the ad claims is a lie. Disregard everything that it has to say. None of it is the whole unvarnished truth. All of it is designed to fool you into feeling the way the party paying for the ad wants you to feel.