In the month of November, two leaders of the free world celebrated milestones in their leadership. Justin Trudeau celebrated two years in office, and Donald Trump, despite some reservations from his constituents, successfully saw the passing of one year since victory.
We love to believe that Trudeau and Trump are completely different species. Trudeau is generally considered to be the human embodiment of the fashionable aspects of the progressive movement. Everything he says fits with a larger narrative, yet consistently he comes across as inspiring and innovative. When he raises his voice for “change,” his voice is far too palatable to effect meaningful change. Largely due in part to his non-traditional manner with the press and with his constituents, Trump was initially dismissed by progressives, journalists, and political scientists alike. He circumvents traditional structures of communication to express his divisive policy. He is unafraid of language that is divisive, surprising and hostile to the status quo.
René Girard, a French philosopher, developed a theory of what he called “mimetic desire.” Mimetic desire is the desire to imitate the desires and ambitions of those around us. However, mimicry does not necessarily breed comparable behaviour. In fact, mimetic theory argues that when someone witnesses another individual’s behaviour and opts for the opposite, that is a form of “mimicry.” There is something inherently offensive about comparing Trump and Trudeau. However, it remains hard to divorce oneself from the notion that they are not two sides of the same coin.
Mimetic theory, as with all theory, allows us to examine behaviour in relationship to other behaviours or perspectives. Just as we like to imagine desire as unitary—between us and the object of our desire—we would like to believe the relationship between constituent and representative are unitary. However, pluralistic analysis, which examines the influence of “organizations” on political decision making, reveals the profound influence of oppositional world leaders.
This article is experimenting with the idea that mimetic theory can be used to analyze foreign policy decision making. To accomplish this, I will first give a brief summary of both leader’s legislative successes and failures, then I will compare each leader’s method of circulating rhetoric, and I will conclude with the significance of mimetic theory to our understanding of the political leader’s relationship with their constituents.
When Trudeau announced his candidacy, he was immediately met with concerns about his ability to be fiscally responsible. Many would argue that his recent budget proposal compromised his responsibility to small business owners and his promise to maintain a “modest deficit.” Marijuana is also widely considered to be one of Trudeau’s signature policies; the issue of legalization being especially important to college-aged voters. Unfortunately, he has proved disappointing to these voters. While he has made significant efforts to reach out to First Nations, his administration has struggled to make significant reconciliatory gains. Members of the First Nations community expressed concerns about his restructure of the Indigenous Affairs Ministry, late in the summer of 2017. The media has struggled to find language to describe these actions, some describing them as “dissolving” the Indigenous Affairs ministry, w
hile others use words like “renaming,” “splitting” or “overhauling the ‘colonial’… Ministry.” However, there is consensus that the people put in place are unqualified and under-resourced. Similarly, to the disappointment of many voters, the Prime Minister has failed to implement electoral reform. This failure compromised his position among other Liberals, the NDP and the Green Party.
It is easy to stand on this side of a politician’s administration and call them a disappointment based on their campaign promises. Frankly, many voters do not understand that when we elect politicians, they stop being candidates. A candidate’s job is to be idealistic, and invite the rest of the country to join in the fantasy. A politician’s job is to maintain their power.
Unfortunately, when Trudeau was elected, it quickly became clear that he struggled to tell the difference between rhetoric and reality. His record suggests that he lacks the legislative proficiency to reconcile his idealism with the experience of the everyday. Even the Prime Minister’s innocuous “Because it’s 2015,” in response to questions about his gender balanced cabinet, exposes the fact that he lives in an entirely different
world than the rest of us. The election of a president such as Donald Trump, who has been perpetually connected to allegations of sexual assault, suggests that Trudeau’s “2015” is not the same year in which the rest of us are living.
In light of Trump’s recent tirade on the “failing New York Times,” we will endeavour to proceed with caution. His struggle to “repeal and replace Obamacare,” navigates the interstate system, and responses to homeland security and natural disasters have not only been extensively catalogued in the press, but also expressed in his own words. The nation has often been treated to his unfiltered understanding of policy and the “pulling and hauling” that is politics. The media played out a lively philosophical debate about whether rhetoric on Twitter qualifies as “mandates from the President.” Politicians from both sides have offered their opinions, which are generally infused by partisan sentiment. However, in cases such as when Trump declared transgender people would be barred from military service, constituents struggled to craft their responses. Should they regard this as policy? Or should they disregard his message because of the medium? Putting aside the often indignant and occasionally nonsensical language, the apparent lack of concern for traditional structures of communication has significant implications on the relationship between the President and the electorate.
There is something inherently indignant about comparing Trump and Trudeau. However, instinctively, we know their image is connected. Both of these individuals tend to communicate opinions into the public sphere, not through policy, but through images and symbolism. Trudeau struggles to craft policy which conveys his mandate; however, I am generally aware of his policies. I do not know his stances because of Question Period, or his legislative success, but because he has found new ways of communicating with me. He attends gatherings, most notably Pride parades, and professes his solidarity. He is an intensely visible leader. One of the most infamous, and yet innocuous examples is his socks. Trudeau’s socks have conveyed his support for Ramadan, his delight in Star Wars and his patriotism while at NATO.
I would argue that both Trump and Trudeau have the same desire. They want reaction, response and relationship with their constituents. However, due to the extreme stances expressed by the other, their desire produces divergent behaviour. In order to initiate a comparable response from their loyal demographic, they pursue radically opposite action. They pride themselves on being the antithesis of each other, which Girard would argue is a form of mimicry.
Girard also explains why we have a hard time conceptualizing desire and mimicry, according to his theory. He argues that we want to believe that desire is solitary, or a unilateral relationship between the desirer, and the object being desired. However, mimetic theory exposes how we desire and behave in context of community. Similarly, we want to believe that our leaders’ policy is about us. We want to believe our leaders use our best interests as their unit of analysis. Instead, mimetic theory makes it clear that foreign policy is about relationships between interstate leaders. In sum, Trump and Trudeau have carefully curated oppositional identities, yet they reveal similar desires when they express these identities through comparable mediums.