What is the secret to film-making magic? Often, it is when an actor plays against type to make a role come alive. Think of the goofball comedy maestro Adam Sandler winning plaudits for a darker, straighter turn in Punch-Drunk Love. Or the glamorous Charlize Theron garnering an Academy Award for her role as hard-bitten serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster.
Playing against type can be powerful in politics as well. It forces politicians’ sharpest critics to look differently at leaders they distrust. COVID-19 is providing political leaders with opportunities to play new roles and many are excelling in the spotlight.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s performance has earned accolades from critics who couldn’t find a nice word to say about the man before the pandemic. The Toronto Star’s political columnist, Martin Regg Cohn, wrote, “Give him credit for being the best premier he can be when his province needs him most.”
Meanwhile, voters who thought Ford could never park his partisan instincts and bellicose ways are applauding the premier’s calling out of free-market price gougers, wise deference to public health experts, and large capacity for compassion and empathy.
Why this effusive praise? Regg Cohn believes, “Ford’s daily performance is so remarkable because it is so unexpected, so unlike the public persona he has cultivated throughout his public life.”
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Like the actor who steps outside his or her comfort zone, the politician who delivers a surprise performance cuts against the cynicism so many hold toward our leaders. That unexpected tour de force is even more inspiring in a situation like a pandemic, when people crave comfort and hope.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s approval ratings have also jumped in the COVID-19 crisis. While Trudeau has always excelled at emoting and expressing empathy, he is playing against type by leaving his partisan instincts aside.
His few poor days came when his government appeared to attempt to avoid parliamentary scrutiny and kneecap his political foes, but once he returned to a position of acting in the interest of all Canadians, the criticism faded.
The most against-type move a political leader can make, of course, is to not act political.
Ironically, the most “anti-establishment” politician of our age is failing miserably at this. U.S. President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 performance has won him few new fans. He has lashed out, mangled facts, repeatedly reversed course and generally been his uncouth, partisan self.
By comparison, another unconventional world leader has seen his approval ratings rise. Despite Britain’s high death toll, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has earned good marks for his partisan-free, straight talk.
The group struggling most to play against type in this environment are opposition leaders. At a time when the public has little tolerance for politics, opposition leaders are flummoxed. Their main job is to hold a government’s feet to the fire, but how can they perform that role and not sound political?
No one illustrates this dilemma better than Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. By mid-March, as the frightening realities of this pandemic became clearer and clearer to Canadians, Scheer couldn’t resist using his time in question period to scold the Trudeau government for running up debt in pre-pandemic times and limiting its capacity to respond to the crisis.
Fair point. But as Canadians fall prey to this horrid virus, they’re not looking to the opposition for “we told you so”-style critique. Ford hasn’t complained about the debt former premier Kathleen Wynne left him.
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The shrewdest move for most opposition party leaders may well be to keep their powder dry. Once Canada escapes from the teeth of this crisis, there will be plenty of time for accountability.
The against-type theory also presents interesting possibilities for policy reform. An accepted reality of politics is that it is often easier for conservatives to play in liberal sandboxes, and vice versa.
Voters will give more latitude to a centre-left government that tightens up the welfare system than they would to a centre-right administration. Conversely, they will applaud a centre-right party that tightens regulation on the banking industry, a policy traditionally advanced by left-wingers. Because such moves work against the public’s archetypes of political actors, they short-circuit voters’ cynical instincts.
So, if we play the tape forward, what happens if Ford champions a universal basic income or Trudeau commits to getting Alberta’s oil to tidewater? The could be an Oscar in a performance like that.
Mike Van Soelen is a managing principal with crisis management and media relations firm Navigator Ltd.