WARNING: this is a geek-out post. Get ready to get a dose of rhetoric!
(I am so, so happy that we get to enjoy a nice, long Canadian Federal election this year! It’s like Christmas has come early and it’s going to last for two extra months.)
If you’ve been following the federal election at all, you’ve undoubtedly seen clips of Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau’s speech in Regina. If not, here it is:
Fear not, I don’t actually expect you to watch the whole thing. I know not everyone shares the ridiculous level of satirical joy I get out of election campaign speeches. I’ll spare you the 13 minutes of waffle leading up to it; the line from his speech that has been blasted through news and social media is “The fact is we are proposing a strong and real plan, one that invests in the middle class so that we can grow the economy not from the top down, the way Mr. Harper wants to, but from the heart outwards.” (If you want to find it in the clip, it starts at the 13:32 mark.)
It’s been ridiculed as not only having been ripped from a preceding Barack Obama speech, but also as being overly soft, idealistic, sappy.
I don’t disagree – it is a soft, sappy statement. It is a direct use of pathos – rhetorical appeal to emotion to persuade. There isn’t anything wrong with pathos. Actually, it’s my favourite rhetorical appeal and is incredibly effective.
But I don’t believe that Trudeau has either the right kind nor amount of gravitas to pull it off this particular shot of pathos. This youthful, energetic, informal, charismatic leader with pop-star good looks and buckets of charisma is an excellent speaker. But it’s that same youth and ease which makes this line fall utterly flat when it comes out of his mouth.
Picture that line being spoken by Churchill, or by Tommy Douglas, or by Barack Obama (hell, you can actually listen to him say it)*. It had – or would have had – a very different tone and a very different effect on the listener. Were those men to speak of an economy growing outwards from the heart, it would have sounded ponderous or full of deep but restrained emotion.
Coming from a youthful and even puppyish Trudeau, the line is ridiculous. It sounds naiive and idealistic, the vision of someone with no experience of the realities of the economy. The characteristics that usually work in Trudeau’s favour – his boyish charm, his ease and casual style – are now working against him. To really pull off a line as redolent with pathos as the one Trudeau used in his Regina speech, the speaker would need to be much more weathered from political experience and bearing some parliamentary battle scars. Even being a bit older would help – our hind brains, always so quick to judge, often equates age with experience and wisdom.
It wasn’t that the message was necessarily as bad as that; it was that Trudeau’s speechwriters committed the sin of creating a message that didn’t suit the messenger. It sat on Trudeau like an borrowed dinner jacket – ill-fitting, a bit silly, and clearly intended for somebody else.***
*He starts the line in question at 29:27 – skip to that if the link doesn’t automatically take you to that point.
**Of course, if you really, really disliked any of them, it would have probably come across as insincere or implausible. Oh well, we can’t appeal to everybody.
***Granted, you might argue that the line is a borrowed dinner jacket, but maybe that’s what happens when one borrows Obama’s campaign manager.