Corporeality IV: Personality, the Body Politic – Obama and Trudeau

Corporeality IV: Personality, the Body Politic – Obama and Trudeau


Howard Adelman

I now return to an examination of Obama’s role as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the U.S., in particular, in the fight against ISIS. On the way, I have taken two side excursions. The first examined that role in the Torah at the time when the fundamental constitution was given to the Israelites. Commander-in-Chief was not vested in the political leader, Moses, but in the High Priest, his older brother Aaron, who was neither the Chief Justice nor a legislator, but the man charged with the responsibility for upholding the fundamental laws of the people.

The second side excursion detoured via Canada and depicted Justin Trudeau, the current Prime Minister of Canada, as not Commander-in-Chief, but as a political leader with a quasi-pacifist propensity, one who sees that his primary responsibility in protecting Canadians is by manning the first line of defense, ensuring that the virtues of Canadians as tolerant and just are upheld and witnessed. That does not mean disregarding the second line of defence, the need to take a war into the territory of a source of evil and threat to the way of life of one’s own nation and its allies. This second obligation need not be abrogated. I tried to show that Justin Trudeau, in the fight against ISIS, seems to have displayed precisely such a propensity, to minimize the responsibility for ensuring that the second line of defence is both well maintained and utilized when required.

In this and the next blog I concentrate on the latter excursion before I follow up with an examination of the structural differences between Canada and the United States in relationship to the role of Commander-in-Chief. An initial examination of the leadership of Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau suggests that both strongly favour peaceful and diplomatic means relative to the use of the military to resolve conflicts. Both operate primarily as prophets of hope rather than stoking the fires of fear and even panic in the population at large. But there are two fundamental differences. The first is the constitutional difference which I will concentrate on in a subsequent blog. The second is the psychological dimension which I will deal with in this and the next blog, even if only very superficially.

Jonathan Kay, who spent the latter part of 2013 as “a freelance editorial assistant on Justin Trudeau’s memoir, Common Ground (some would dub Kay as Trudeau’s ghostwriter), recently wrote an article in the magazine Walrus, which he currently edits, entitled, “The Justin Trudeau I Can’t Forget.”  In it he offered a pop psychological analysis of Justin as fundamentally “shaped by the emotional agony caused by his mother’s abandonment.” Like I am, Kay was critical of Trudeau’s comments about ISIS and the decision to withdraw the six CF-18 Hornet fighter craft from Iraq. Kay found Trudeau’s comments flippant, but, at the same time, simply reflective of the reflexive leftism of campus politics rather than attributing some responsibility to the shaping of his personality by his childhood experience. Yet Kay claimed that the latter lay at the core of Trudeau’s personality.

What remained in Kay’s memory from working with Justin, “are the stories from his childhood. It’s one thing for daddy to leave. That happens all the time, sadly. But when mommy walks out, that’s something very different. We are conditioned to think of a mother’s love as the one unshakable emotional pillar of a child’s life. When that pillar folds up and walks out the front door, how do you keep the roof from collapsing?” Further, the experience of abandonment by one’s mother was exacerbated and greatly exaggerated because it took place in the public limelight; Justin was subjected to the taunts of his fellow students about his mother’s “waywardness.” Justin could never leave behind the basic experience of “a childhood parched of mother’s milk” that left an inchoate urge from those around him to protect the man from further pain. I would add, there was also his own urge to relieve the pain of abandonment in others – hence the enormous personal and emotional involvement in the Syrian refugee crisis in such stark contrast with that of Barack Obama. This does not mean that Trudeau as a politician is not “light on his feet,” cannot take “a punch stoically” nor “devise stratagems under fire.”

Abandonment can leave one feeling betrayed and deserted, left with an anxiety state about separation and isolation. At its worst, it can instill in a child even a sense of rejection and alienation with deep fears for one’s personal security. The latter fears, sense of rejection and alienation seem totally absent in Obama as well as Trudeau. The question is why since children accepted by both their parents seem to be most likely to emerge as independent and emotionally stable adults. They have self-esteem and hold a positive worldview. In contrast, those who experience abandonment, all too frequently demonstrate that they continually feel rejected expressed in feelings of hostility and inadequacy resulting in instability. They generally possess a very negative view of the world.

Neither Trudeau nor Obama seem to possess a negative view of the world. Neither seems in the least unstable, but rather appear self-possessed and at ease with themselves and the world. They radiate no sense of hostility or inadequacy. However, Trudeau is energized by his contact, particularly emotional contact, with people. “His boyish, eager-to-please personality leads him to project publicly in a way that can seem intellectually unsophisticated.” “Seem” is the right word. For Justin Trudeau is very well read. But his wide reading combined with his hyperactivity for a time gave his speeches a stiff and fabricated air, the opposite of conveying a more relaxed and natural one. Unless he could pace! However, with practice even his stand-up speeches have become far less stilted allowing his personable style to emerge. For his very natural engagement on a very physical level with Canadians, just watch this excellent and delightful video of Justin Obama as a Bollywood dancer.

Though one cannot imagine Stephen Harper in such a role, neither can one imagine Barack Obama, even though Barack possesses the required smooth physicality on the basketball court, It is not because Obama lacked those skills, though they were not on display in a bowling alley in Pennsylvania when he only attained 37 points in seven frames and became a butt of humour for the working men of that state. It is just that, one cannot imagine Obama surrendering his stoical reserve to engage in such an expression of sheer joy. For Barack Obama is a cerebral boardroom liberal; Justin, with all his elite breeding, is a street liberal.

In contrast to Justin Trudeau, Barack Obama gets his strength from within, from a stoical reserve and a retreat into a much smaller world initially centred on his family. His empathy comes from his intellect, not his gut. Hence, his emotional attachment to the suffering in the world is sentimental rather than arising from a deep feeling for the other. (Cf. Richard Koestner, Carol Franz and Joel Weinberger (1999) “The family origins of empathic concern: a 26-year longitudinal study,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58: 709-717.)

When, in February 2014, Obama announced the program called “My Brother’s Keeper” to attempt to counteract the absence of fathers in the lives of many black males by focusing on education, reading, job training and mentoring, he admitted that he too always felt a hole left in his heart by his father’s abandonment. Why did Obama succeed while a great many black boys abandoned by their fathers struggle and too many of them fall by the wayside, drop out, and are either  unemployed or engage in socially unacceptable behaviour, including drugs and crime?

Scholarly research seems to have established that a father’s absence increases anti-social behavior, such as drug use, and reduces a child’s employment prospects (Cory Ellis, “Growing Up Withuout Father: The Effects on African-American Boys”). How did Obama escape? Did his mother, Ann Dunham, substitute for the absent father? She seems to have deliberately kept it a secret from Barack Obama that she maintained regular contact with his father so she did not seem interested let alone eager in ensuring Barack developed a relationship with his absent father. In Barack Obama’s biography, Dreams of My Father, he recognized the powerful force of that absence. He credits his ability to overcome this handicap by his deliberate construction of three different rings of intimacy around himself. Instead of empathy arising from natural contact with others, Obama constructed by himself and within himself in a deliberately formulated way a rational system for constructing and controlling intimacy and empathy.

Obama erected three imaginary rings around himself. Within his first ring, he was a loner. The first ring itself was wo-manned by his wife and closest political confidant and intimate friend of Michele, Valerie Jarrett. Obama became disabused of including his blood relatives following his visit to Kenya even between the first and second ring, even though he by and large felt very warm with most of that extended Kenyan family. Manning the second ring of protection around himself and between the second and third ring are to be found his intimate friends and close advisers. Outside the third ring can be found his associates, colleagues, other state leaders, and then the American public. But the most intimate person for Obama is his wife, Michele Obama, for who else would tolerate Barack Obama when he left his underwear in the kitchen.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Tomorrow: Barack Obama and his Intimates


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