, 01.22.2020 08:34 AM

Of doughnuts and beards and the like

The Conservative Party – back when it knew how to win, and when it was preoccupied with winning more than whining – was pretty good at symbols.

Symbol-wise, ten years ago, the Conservatives’ communications strategy always came back a single theme: that Michael Ignatieff out-of-touch and from Mars – while their guy, Stephen Harper, was intimately familiar with the day-to-day reality of an average Canadian’s life, and was in fact just like the guy next door.  “Everything they do, every speech, every photo-op, every avail, everything they do every single day – it’s all aimed at making people feel Harper understands their life, and Iggy has never lived their life,” I said to some Iggy folks.

For example, I said, look at the Conservative regime’s laser-like focus on (the cherished Canadian sport) hockey – and (the cherished Canadian coffee and doughnut franchise) Tim Horton’s.  Harper seems to be obsessively preoccupied with both, even though he had been photographed furtively drinking Starbucks on the campaign trail, and no can recall ever seeing a photo of him in a pair of skates, ever.

“They’re political Everyman symbols,” I said, “and he’s brilliantly swiped both of them.  He’s an economist, for Chrissakes – he’s just as much of an intellectual as Ignatieff, but he’s terrified of people finding that out.  He wants our guy to be the brainy geek; he wants our guy to be the snob.  So he goes after Joe and Jane Frontporch with hockey and Tim’s, and it works.  Tim Horton’s hockey Dads, voters get.  Harvard human rights professors, who don’t do sports and who hangs out with other pinheads, they don’t get.”

None of this was new, or exceptionally insightful.  As early as 2007, smart folks were noticing how Harper was fixated on political symbols like hockey.  The progressive folks at Straight Goods, for instance, wrote back in 2007 that “hockey is an important part of the frame of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.  Since [2004], Harper has strived to court for the vote of the urban working middle class – people earning under $50,000 in trades, service industries, small business or sales.  Establishing himself as a hockey-loving tough guy is intended to play to this demographic.”

To that end, Harper was frequently photographed cradling a cup of Tim Horton’s at hockey rinks, or chumming with National Hockey League all-stars.  He even let it be known that he was writing a book about hockey, even though I can’t remember if it ever came out.

None of this happens by accident.  Symbols aren’t part of politics – symbols are politics. Pierre Trudeau’s rose and pirouette; Jean Chretien’s Shawinigan handshake; Justin Trudeau’s baby-balancing and whatnot.

So, accordingly, I understand why many Conservatives dislike Justin Trudeau so much.  First, Trudeau is way better at symbols than them.  Way.  And, second, Trudeau swiped symbols from them.  It drives them crazy.

In their effort to get back at him, Cons overreact.  They see a beard, they start posting memes that his father was Fidel Castro.  They see him carrying doughnuts for his cabinet, and they actually go on websites to calculate (falsely) how much the doughnuts cost and (without proof) claim he expensed them.  They see him periodically without a wedding ring, and spin tales about the state of his marriage.  And so on.

I’m not saying political symbols don’t matter – they do, a lot.  It’s just that you shouldn’t be swinging at every damn symbol that comes along, like some latter-day Don Quixote.  You shouldn’t treat every photo op as a war crime.

Pick your targets.  Keep your powder dry.  Don’t overreact.

Symbols matter, a lot.  But not everything is a symbol.

Now go eat a doughnut.



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    Christian says:

    So, basically, these Conservative idiots would rather the Prime Minister of Canada buy a product from a foreign controlled company (which Tim Hortons now is) and not support local business because its cheaper. I can see the campaign slogan now: “Vote Conservative. Selling Out Canada to Get You Cheaper Crap”. They’re sure to win a majority with that……for the Liberal Party that is.

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      Ronald O'Dowd says:


      Most people are sheep. That’s why most everyone is already programmed to end up at Tim’s.

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    Ian says:

    Book came out in 2013, ISBN 978-1476716534

    It isn’t bad, there is a deep love of the game in there, but it won’t be for everyone. Too academic to be popular history, too popular in style to be academic, which seems appropriate somehow.

    Agree about the doughnuts, and Tim Horton’s sucks now.

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    Michael says:

    I was in Ottawa over the holidays and they are still selling Obama cookies in the market.

    Much like the Obama cookies, this bakery is going to be selling Trudonuts for a long time. They will make a killing.

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    the real Sean says:

    agreed… Cons need to stick to meat and potatoes… IE wild out of control deficits with no hope of ever developing a plan to get out of it. This is where you will find the red tories / blue liberals who you need for a majority. Children haven’t even been born yet who will be paying for JT / BM ‘s irresponsible budgets.

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    J.H. says:

    Ah well, at least he didn’t get a $16 glass of orange juice. His own Liberals & their captive media would demand he resign if he had done that.
    Sauce for the goose etc.

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    Douglas W says:

    Nice touch: doughnuts.
    Tougher times ahead for JT: Parliament resumes, Monday.
    Government becomes red meat.

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    Robert White says:

    Today’s lecture is an excellent one in that it is a revelation to admit that Harper’s governance was fairly stellar from a perspective of tactical Impression Management. I have to admit that Harper et al. are much brighter than myself when it comes to electioneering & political leadership. It was my self-rage at my own incompetence that riled me all along when it comes to the person of Steven Harper.

    I voted that smart bastard in unwittingly and have never managed to deal with the issue until I read this perfectly written article above that addresses the whole issue for myself in that Harper hit Canadian politics like a whirlwind to catch the great unwashed [read moi] ungarded vis-a-vis
    political epistemological knowhow.

    Harper gets credit where credit is due. Yes, he was an excellent manager of Impression Management for politics, electioneering, marketing, branding, Macroeconomic progressiveness, & requisite symbolism needed for momentum.

    That rat bastard is very smart indeed.


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    Ronald O'Dowd says:


    All parties have their rabid sort. That variety is constantly in attack mode and is not known for pause or even judgment. To buttonhole the CPC is to underestimate the extent of the problem across party lines.

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      Fred from BC says:

      I have to wonder, who says it is only Conservatives trying to make a big deal of this photo- op (and it IS indeed a photo-op, as Steve says below)? Why are the NDP and the Greens getting a pass here? Or the Liberals who still want JT gone?

      This was a bad idea all around, I think…both the decision to have Trudeau photographed picking up donuts, and the decisions of others to ridicule him for it.

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    Ronald O'Dowd says:

    It’s been quite a while since I saw a smile on the Prime Minister’s face. It will be interesting to see if Pablo can keep it there. LOL.

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    Steve says:

    Sorry, but the use of symbolism has to be BELIEVABLE. And the idea that Junior would be dispatched to the local donut shop to buy a bunch of crullers for the “big staff meeting” strains credulity. This is the return of government by selfie and by Twitter, barely three months after the election that should have served Junior not donuts but humble pie.

    What next? Picking up a bunch of pizzas from Dominos when things go late in the House of Commons?

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      Chris Sigvaldason says:

      Pizza Pizza, not Dominoes. Symbols and all that.

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    Pedant says:

    Warren, I seem to recall Liberals going out of their minds in 2006 when Stephen Harper gave his son a little handshake after walking him to school shortly after winning his first election (presumably not wanting to embarrass his son by hugging him in front of a camera). This was news for DAYS and continued on leftist blogs for months thereafter. The left was apoplectic with spit-flecked fury. From the reaction you would’ve thought he had slapped the boy across the face.

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      Fred from BC says:

      “Stephen Harper gave his son a little handshake after walking him to school shortly after winning his first election (presumably not wanting to embarrass his son by hugging him in front of a camera).”

      I remember that one well. I was just as dumbfounded as you when he was immediately attacked for it. Do the Liberals and NDP not have children anymore? Harper actually showed his son *respect* by shaking his hand that way; anyone who has kids that age can tell you that they would be MORTIFIED to be hugged in front of the school (and all their friends) by one of their parents.

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