It’s been a shirtless summer for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In late July, in the Gatineau region of Quebec, he emerged from a cave, bare-chested, to surprise a vacationing family and posed for a series of selfies. A few days later, again shirtless, he photo-bombed a beach wedding in Tofino on the West Coast. Both events made the international press and were shared, at a conservative estimate, several million times each. Since his election, barely a week has gone by without the prime minister going viral. Canadian government is becoming an experiment in virocracy—rule through social media.
There is a U.S. parallel, though he’s not in government yet: Donald Trump also uses social media to garner vast influence. In the American presidential campaign, the Republican candidate has relied on the mass exposure of his various feeds and accounts instead of traditional advertising. But while his influence over social media is immense, its actual effect on American politics has yet to be proven. Still, the power of the new media is unquestionable. Rick Perry has joined the next season of Dancing With the Stars because he’s realized that dumb celebrity provides more political clout than having run a state for 15 years.
Trudeau’s exploitation of social media is different from his American counterpart’s. Here’s a quick summary of his biggest hits since he became prime minister last October: He was photographed hugging panda cubs, he gave a (possibly prepared) answer revealing his knowledge of quantum computing, he smiled while performing the peacock yoga pose on a conference table, and he went jogging with the president of Mexico in suggestively short shorts.
There have been embarrassing viral flubs as well: a cringeworthy push-up video for the Invictus games, the time he put his hand on his wife’s bum at the Ottawa Press Gallery Dinner, and, infamously, Elbowgate, in which Trudeau “manhandled” a fellow MP (accidentally brushed might be a more accurate description) and apologized, in a distressingly Canadian way, four times for it. These are hardly the long-running garbage fires of Trump, but traditionally, they would be gaffes. They don’t appear to have affected Trudeau adversely. Being a meme actually helps him.
In Canada, this is even more surprising than in the U.S., because a prime minister doesn’t need to maintain constant popularity. Trudeau’s parliamentary majority gives him complete control of the legislature and judicial appointments, and everything else important—unlike a U.S. president, who has to help congressional allies win elections every two years.
So why does Trudeau do it if he doesn’t need to? His opponents have claimed it’s simple vanity, a mania for attention, the Trudashian effect. But already, less than a year into his government, it’s obvious that condescension is misplaced. In his short tenure, Trudeau has demonstrated the political effectiveness of virocracy as a governing strategy—a way of overcoming criticism and skirting controversy by the sheer power of viral personality.
Trudeau’s dominance of social media has made him wildly popular. A poll in the middle of the summer claimed that he would “win 80 percent of seats if an election were held today.” And this during a period when Canada shed 71,000 full-time jobs; the justice minister informed the Assembly of First Nations that Canada wouldn’t be adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as it had repeatedly promised; and the Atlantic provinces also lost their traditional guaranteed appointment to the Supreme Court, a matter of importance to a country with intense regional differences. Each of these issues, in any other period of Canadian history, might have led to serious political crises.
Here’s the foremost of Trudeau’s lessons so far: If you can control the viral space, traditional politics don’t matter. Virality provides one of the greatest political covers ever. While Trudeau was being photographed with the pandas, Canada quietly approved a sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia that made it the second-biggest arms dealer in the Middle East. During Elbowgate, an assisted suicide law was passed that should have been hugely controversial. Instead of discussing the medicalization of death, Canada’s public media were obsessed with how forcefully the prime minister had brushed aside one of his colleagues and whether he apologized too much.
Trudeau’s virocracy is welded to technocracy—this is his other important innovation, and the key for anyone who wants to follow his lead. Recently, at a party in Ottawa to celebrate Barack Obama’s speech to Parliament, I happened to be talking to an economist and former adviser to conservative politicians, a man who had twice voted for Stephen Harper, Trudeau’s Conservative predecessor. Trudeau had come to see him to seek his advice about pension plans. The economist had started sketching out proposals, stopping himself at an option he considered politically unviable. “No,” Trudeau told him. “Don’t worry about the politics. That’s my job. You just tell me what you think the right thing to do is.”
His opponents, who’ve tried to paint him as shallow and stupid, miss the point. He understands the division of labor: He’s the Face, so that the faceless bureaucrats can do their jobs. His task as prime minister is to create the conditions under which what he considers the best policies, crafted by experts, can be implemented. He possesses an odd combination of total narcissism and complete lack of ego. If I were his political opponents, I’d fear him deeply. He can get things done with the Canadian people barely noticing, whether they like it or not.
The shirtless episodes seem silly; that’s just what Trudeau wants. His achievements, which have received nowhere near the attention of his constant photo opportunities, are real, and they’re substantial. In the first six months, he enacted massive child-care grants for the poor; reinstated the long-form census, which the previous government had canceled; and brought in 25,000 Syrian refugees.
Trudeau’s viral politics is a tool of global influence as well. Usually, Canada’s foreign policy amounts to supporting its allies in more or less irrelevant ways in various wars that aren’t of its creation—an impotent and expensive business. Trudeau’s viral politics is far more effective in promoting Canada’s vision for the world. His greeting of Syrian refugees may well define the image of Canada for decades. It showed the world that there’s a way to respond to Syrians that isn’t fearful. Trudeau’s skill at media manipulation is a legitimately significant national asset. His recent trip to China was a huge success: Chinese social media implored its audience to “lick the screen.”
A traditional politician, in most of the world, is a policymaker who tries to give exciting speeches; a viral politician is a celebrity who knows enough to listen to policymakers. If recent history is any guide, both sides of that equation are essential. You need the celebrity. You also need the experts. Social media success without conscious policy ultimately fails.
The 2016 U.S. election is a confrontation between viral celebrity and a policy wonk. The two sides of the Trudeau equation—virocracy and technocracy—couldn’t be more separate in the American scenario. Trump has almost 11 million Twitter followers to Hillary Clinton’s 8 million, and 22.7 million Facebook likes and followers to Clinton’s 15 million. Meanwhile, Clinton has arguably the most comprehensive policy platform in the history of American presidential campaigns.
American progressives wish that Clinton were more entertaining; she herself acknowledges that weakness. For Republicans, their crisis boils down to one tantalizing question: What if Trump had real policies instead of just making America great again? No one truly knows where he stands on Mexico, even though he made a huge social media splash with his unexpected visit on Aug. 31. Trump may yet pick up on Trudeau’s techniques. But for now, because he can’t provide a broader platform or a consistent one, the billionaire is devolving into a viral celebrity who’s hijacked politics rather than a viral leader.
Trudeau is beyond both Clinton and Trump; he’s the next generation, using virality to govern, not simply to win campaigns. Politicians in other parts of the world are experimenting with virality, too. Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya uses social media both to project a cuddly persona and to issue stern warnings to toe the official line. Vladimir Putin benefits from state-sponsored “internet brigades” who troll critics of his regime. Boris Johnson could have been Britain’s first viral politician if he’d espoused a policy that experts could actually implement.
Trudeau’s innovation hasn’t yet reached the U.S., but it will. For people who trust technocrats, who believe in government, the new virocracy is somewhat utopian. But there’s something intensely undemocratic about it as well. Issues aren’t debated as they once were. Instead, there’s a froth of social media and beneath it, almost invisibly, the business of government by experts.
The shirtless man emerging from the Quebec cave is eager to smile for the selfie. That way, you won’t look to see what’s behind him. Everyone on Facebook will love it.
Stephen Marche is a columnist for Esquire magazine and the author most recently of The Hunger of the Wolf.