Hey, Conservatives: Donald J.-style politics won’t work in Canada. Well, probably.
Feature | by Paul Dechene
Sometimes I write articles for Planet S because I’m curious about a subject. Sometimes it’s because there’s news out of city hall. Sometimes something’s pissed me off and Whitworth found my rant amusing.
This one is not any of those articles. This is me writing from a place of deep, existential anxiety.
A little over a year ago, we turfed the scientist-muzzling, fiscal austerity-promoting, oil industry-fondling Harper government. We got Trudeau’s Liberals in its place. It wasn’t a perfect outcome but the world got a smidgen better that day.
And then it all went to shit. Brexit. Trump. And soon, no doubt, Le Pen. As the sanity and democracy quotients ticked up a couple notches at home, they plunged into uncharted what-the-fuck waters everywhere else.
Politics has shucked off any pretence of predictability. World leaders are acting like the boneheads I read about in history books. Things seem so dire and volatile globally, I don’t know if I can even trust that Canada’s revived tick-tock from centre-right to centre-left will carry on like the clockwork I grew up with.
As evidence: the Conservative leadership candidate eating up most of the headlines these days is Kellie Leitch. Her career was supposed to be over after her Barbaric Culture Practices Hotline helped sink Harper’s re-election dreams. Instead, she’s back, applauding Trump’s rise to power and integrating some of his immigration-skeptic language into her platform. It seems to be working, as polls show she has a legitimate shot at winning the party.
Meanwhile, anti-carbon-tax protesters in Alberta are chanting “lock her up” about NDP premier Rachel Notley, and worse fates are pondered on social media for her and Liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau.
So this article is me worried about our future and trying to read Canada’s tea leaves. When I went out looking for sources for this piece, I was hoping to find oracles.
I first spoke with a blogger for the Anti-Racism Canada Collective. He writes under the pen-name of Nosferatu200 and asked that I protect his anonymity. For the past 10 years, he’s been wading through the muck of Canada’s most pernicious neo-Nazi and Aryan-whatsit organizations and, naturally, doesn’t want the subjects of his investigations to find out where he lives.
When I asked him, as an expert on Canada’s organized anti-immigrant movements, if he feared those racist sentiments could become mainstream here, his answer wasn’t encouraging.
“I think it already is. And always has been under the surface,” says Nosferatu200.
“People say if Kellie Leitch wins, that’ll ensure the Liberals will be in government for a generation and I’m thinking, ‘did you not watch what happened in the United States?’,” he says. “It might even be easier in Canada, because in Canada you can win a majority in parliament with 36.8% of the vote.”
Nosferatu200 argues that the election of Justin Trudeau “broke the brains of a lot of people on the Right” — many of whom took to venting their hatred anonymously online.
It was there that a lot of bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiments were expressed that would otherwise be considered socially unacceptable.
But Trump’s electoral victory, he says, has emboldened all of these people.
“A lot of them aren’t ashamed of it anymore because the election of Trump showed that they’re ‘right’. So now they have very little concern about being made public,” he says.
Is he worried about the influence this will have?
“Absolutely. I’m really worried about politics here and all over. I think we’re entering into a really scary period in our history, nationally and internationally. It’s ugly and it’s polarized.”
Fortunately for my sanity, my conversation with Jim Farney went in a more optimistic direction. Farney — the co-editor of Conservatism In Canada and a politics and international studies professor at the University of Regina — doesn’t see the white supremacist movement that underpinned the Trump campaign being quite so relevant in Canada.
“You’d have to go back to the Diefenbaker era and the debates over the flag and God Save The Queen to see a very clear notion of a British identity or white identity being part of mainstream conservatism,” Farney says. “There’s been dog-whistle politics, the barbaric practices hotline, but as something that you’d really see as central to a party platform, it’s fringe and it’s been fringe for a long time.”
“In terms of ethnic background and immigration status, we’re a much more diverse society. And that diversity is very different. There’s a great body of academic literature on immigration and the welfare state that says the reason immigration has worked in Canada is not because Canadians are a wonderfully open and accepting people. It’s because they’ve had a point system so that people who are immigrants into the country are coming as business leaders or as very well educated professionals so they integrate economically very quickly.
“One of the results of that is we have way higher levels of diversity in battle-ground ridings that you have to win to win the federal government,” says Farney. And this means that it would be very difficult to succeed politically on the back of dog-whistle politics — Harper’s drubbing being a perfect example of that.
While Farney doesn’t see nationalism or anti-immigrant sentiments gaining much traction politically here, he does see potential for a populist backlash against carbon taxes whereby regional animosities against “the green elites in Toronto” could be exploited.
“But I don’t think [the backlash is] nearly as strong as in the U.S. because I don’t think there’s the same set of overlapping crises,” says Farney. “There’s not the ‘We’re no longer a great power’ crisis overlaid on top of the demographic changes in the U.S. overlaid on the economy overlaid on illegals overlaid on terrorism.”
Farney also doesn’t see Trump’s trade protectionism gaining much ground here either. “Canada is a small, open economy, so it would be very costly for us,” he says.
In the end, is Farney worried about Trumpism weaseling its way into Canada?
“No,” he says. “I mean, I’m worried about Trump. But not about the Conservative [leadership] race.”
I suppose that’s reassuring. But I still can’t shake Nosferatu200’s reminder that no one thought Brexit or President Trump plausible either. So I’m not letting my guard down.
Maybe Kellie Leitch won’t be able to coast into a position of power on Trump’s coattails… this time. But as Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard once said, “She, or someone like her, will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness.
“Vigilance, Mr Worf: that is the price we have to continually pay.”
Conservatism: Dying, Dead or Malignantly Mutating?
Donald Trump ran on an anti-free trade, anti-globalization platform and since being elected he’s already started tearing up America’s post-WWII alliances by saying things like NATO is obsolete and the EU is falling apart. This puts him at odds with over 30 years of Republican orthodoxy.
Does this mean that what we’ve come to know of as “conservatism” is dying?
“I think in the U.S., yeah,” says University of Regina political scientist Jim Farney. “In the U.S., what’s happened is the religious right is still there but it’s much weaker. And the ability of the free-trade folks to mobilize voters is weaker than it’s ever been. So I think what’s happening is this once-in-a-generation reconfiguration of what the word ‘conservative’ means.
“Trumpism is a really complex thing to me,” says Farney. “The single factor that matters is the decline in trust in elites in general, but especially the coastal media and corporate elites. People say, ‘Even though they’re claiming to be conservative, and maybe they are conservative, whatever this stuff is, it isn’t working out in our interests.’ And it’s coming out in Trump as alt-right nationalism, the anti-globalization stuff — and it’s kind of breaking a core deal.
“One of the things I find interesting is, Left critics of globalization for years have said the problem is the free movement of capital. Right critics have said it’s the free movement of people,” Farney says.
“I think it’s the Right critics who have had electoral success,” he says. /Paul Dechene