I'm not crazy about Stephen Harper. He's a cold fish. When he tried a little victory smile the other day, he looked like he was having an attack of gas. I'd rather share a beer with Jack Layton or a glass of chardonnay with Michael Ignatieff than a double-double with Mr. Harper. He strikes me as a guy with little sense of humour and even less small talk. I didn't even vote for him this time around.
But the sheer animosity of many of my friends amazes me. They genuinely fear and loathe him. One of them unblushingly compares him to Hitler. Many of these otherwise smart, delightful and wise people sincerely believe that Mr. Harper wants to turn Canada into a right-wing theocracy where women have no abortion rights and petty criminals are executed at dawn.
"He'll try to repeal gay marriage and privatize health care," one of them predicted on Monday night. She was sitting next to me as we watched the returns on the CBC with a bunch of well-heeled downtown Torontonians. As the count of blue seats ticked steadily upward, the mood became funereal. They looked as if they wanted to don black armbands.
It's not unusual for politicians to be loathed. In the last leg of Brian Mulroney's reign, people took an irrational dislike to him. But the animosity displayed toward Mr. Harper is far more vitriolic. As Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick told British readers in The Guardian, Mr. Harper is "a Canadian version of George W. Bush, minus the warmth and intellect. … What happens now is the full-scale Americanization of Canada."
The intellect part is false, of course (as is the Americanization). You need a very big brain to steer your party from outer darkness to a majority government. What Mr. Harper lacks is emotional intelligence.
What are the roots of this animosity? An obvious one is Mr. Harper's public personality - dour, controlling and sometimes mean. He lacks a vision that calls us to a higher purpose. His leadership strength is managerial, not inspirational. He has many of the characteristics of those CEOs who succeed not through personal charm but by laying out a strategic plan and sweating the details. He is relentlessly determined to push the marble with his nose to get where he wants to go.
Many people have deplored Mr. Harper's efforts to demonize Michael Ignatieff as an opportunistic carpetbagger. But the hatchet job the Liberals have done on him goes back years, and has been devastatingly effective. Mr. Harper is routinely depicted as a cross between Darth Vader and Lord Voldemort, whose soulless band of Death Eaters will destroy democracy in Canada if they get the chance. They have successfully convinced themselves (and a large but shrinking part of the electorate) that a vote for Mr. Harper is un-Canadian.
It's not uncommon to find this paranoid streak in the smartest salons of Ottawa and Toronto. Strange to say, it reminds me of those Republican wing-nuts who believe Barack Obama isn't really an American.
There's also a lingering element of class and regional prejudice at play. When Mr. Harper (a Toronto boy) arrived in Ottawa, he was regarded with horror by the Ottawa establishment - including most of the Ottawa media - as an outsider from the land of pickup trucks, Bible thumpers and economic fundamentalism. Some members of his caucus certainly filled the bill. But there aren't that many of them. And they no more represent the right than the folks who want to nationalize big business represent the left.
Terry DiMonte is well acquainted with this brand of eastern prejudice. Until he moved to Calgary in 2008, he was a proud Montrealer. Today, he's a popular morning talk-show host on Q107. Before he moved, he says, his eastern friends warned him that they hate French people out there. It wasn't true, of course. "All of that's a load of nonsense," he says. "The people out west are good, decent, kind, proud Canadians. Just because they vote conservative doesn't mean their hearts are black."
Mr. DiMonte is dismayed that so many people like to post pictures of Mr. Harper with a Hitler mustache on their Facebook pages. "Nobody drew a Hitler mustache on Chrétien. How does that add to the discourse?"
Still, the eastern elites of downtown Toronto and Ottawa can't quite shake the conviction that most western conservatives are a bunch of rubes. After all, they didn't go to McGill or the U of T. They don't read Harper's Magazine or The Atlantic, and some of them have never even been to Europe. There's more than a touch of snobbism in all this. Besides, the new Conservative majority includes a bunch of people who look remarkably like old-time Red Tories - folks such as Chris Alexander, the personable former ambassador to Afghanistan whose foreign policy aspirations are remarkably Pearsonian.
In fact, the great mystery surrounding Mr. Harper is that there isn't one. "He's as ordinary as most Canadians, except he has a much bigger brain and he works much harder," Rex Murphy said the other day. Most of my friends are convinced that, after four more years under Mr. Harper's jackboot, the voters will be clamouring to kick him out. I'm not so sure. He may lack emotional intelligence, but he's too smart for that.