Fiona Ness: Sorry, Leo, novelty socks don't equal charisma
In truth, it was never about the socks. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lovebombed his way into Ireland on Monday, the question on everyone’s lips was “will a trade deal between Europe and Canada damage Irish agriculture, the backbone of our economy?”. Nah, I’m only messing, it was “what did you think of Leo’s socks?”
Because cheekie chappie Leo had decided to engage the world’s favourite PM in his own sport – no not boxing (Trudeau would have floored him) – but the wearing of novelty socks. In this case, the Taoiseach’s were a pair of red socks with Mounties and maple leaves.
It was hilarious! It was love, actually, between two men who communed over their mutual grá for hosiery. Yes. Give a man an election mandate and he gives you bin charges; give him a pair of novelty socks and he can conquer the world.
Only, Leo, it was never about the socks. What our Taoiseach was possibly hoping to achieve with his pale homage to the man who famously wore ‘Star Wars’ socks on May the 4th (‘may the force be with you’, geddit?), was star quality by association. He was reaching out to Trudeau, letting him know that he was one of his own – that he too was a politician with charisma.
And there’s no doubt that Trudeau has charisma, that special part of a person’s makeup that combines quality with conviction. That ‘je ne sais quoi’ we all want, but that few of us have.
Strange then that quality and conviction – attributes you’d assume to be essential in our political representatives –
are such an unusual combination that when they do pop up in a person, we’re left blindsided and bedazzled in their wake.
Charisma, according to the ‘Oxford English Dictionary’, is “compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others”. And this, apparently, is Trudeau. Women love him, men love him (but hate the fact that women love him), small children love him, and no doubt he’s great with animals too. He even understands quantum physics. Swoon!
Leo, by comparison, is finding out that women don’t love him any more after he left them out of his Cabinet, that men are vaguely resentful of his triathlon body, and that we’re waiting to see what happens when he starts kissing babies. As for explaining quantum physics, I’d settle for, as Trudeau would say, an “open and respectful” explanation of the new waste disposal charges.
And let’s just be clear about this: the fact that Trudeau can explain quantum physics in layman’s terms while wearing novelty socks isn’t genius – it’s being a good politician.
Trudeau isn’t special. It’s just that we’ve been fed a diet of so many political dullards we think he is. US academic Robert House has studied the link between charisma and leadership. There is believed to be a strong link between the two.
He has said a charismatic leader is “supportive, sensitive, nurturing and considerate”, whereas a non-charismatic leader is “aggressive, demanding, dominant and critical”. He found that “the ability of a leader to address a crisis, while exercising restraint in their deployment of power, were crucial factors of charismatic leadership”. Another academic defines a charismatic leader as someone who is “socially aware and sensitive to the concerns of the followers they hope to attract”. Not a word, then, about socks.
In April 2016, five months after Trudeau’s election, the Irish Independent’s Saturday ‘Review’ examined if his substance matched his style: “While Trudeau and his Instagram-perfect family pepper glossy front pages, [his electoral campaign slogan] Sunny Ways has shone strong through the bitter cold of a Canadian winter. Trudeau’s landmark cabinet – exactly half female and more multicultural than any in history with the PM symbolically appointing himself minister for youth – have got to work on enacting his vision,” the paper reported.
“While Europe has dallied as children drown, Canada has resettled 25,000 Syrian refugees in four months. Many more are en route. Last week, Trudeau’s maiden budget looked to kick-start a lagging economy. Benefits for families and children were to the fore. Many challenges await but the positivity and transparency remain.”
Today, Trudeau has form for substance matching style. But amid the adulation, the naysayers remain. “We’ve been sold a pup. Trudeau’s just a showboat,” one friend opined on his Irish visit.
It’s somewhere, at least, that Leo may yet find common ground.