The convoy of the confused that has been blocking the streets of Ottawa would seem to have failed in most of its aims. The government of Canada has not been replaced by a committee made up of protest organizers, the Governor-General, and the Senate. Vaccine mandates and other public-health measures remain in place over most of the country.
Public opinion, far from rallying to their side, has grown more hostile. Forty-four per cent of Canadians say the protest has made them more in favour of retaining public-health restrictions than they were before. Nearly three in four want the protest ended, by force if necessary. Two in three support the use of the Emergencies Act.
In one respect, however, the protest has been a brilliant success: It has reunited the right. While Conservatives have long flirted with populism, they had until now tried to distance themselves from its more extreme forms, if only to escape association with the deepening Trump disaster in the U.S. The departure of Maxime Bernier to found the People’s Party of Canada promised to leach the more toxic elements from the party, to be contained therein by his own increasing extremism.
No more. In the heat of the crisis, conservative opinion has radicalized. While the public generally has been repelled by the protesters, Conservatives and their media supporters are plainly fascinated by them. The bulwarks that had previously separated the far right, the near-far and the mainstream – bulwarks former leader Erin O’Toole had struggled to maintain – have all but collapsed.
Conservatives who were once considered part of the mainstream are spiralling down the same arc traced earlier by Mr. Bernier and others. For three weeks, with the country’s capital city held hostage, the party’s former leader, Andrew Scheer, its interim leader, Candice Bergen, and its probable future leader, Pierre Poilievre, have all openly sided with the hostage-takers, their rhetoric indistinguishable from Mr. Bernier’s.
Conservative MPs have posed for pictures with protest leaders. Others have minimized the occupation, with its lawlessness and intimidation, as mere “civil disobedience.” In the conservative commentariat, the protest is lauded as a popular uprising, in splendid defiance of the facts: the people are standing up, the convoy has won, the media are lying, and other clichés typical of the form – what might be called populist kitsch.
The effect has been to blur what was previously distinct, to telescope the distance between different points on the ideological spectrum. Right-wing opinion, formerly fragmented, now presents itself as something of a continuum, running all the way from The Rebel through True North to the Sun newspaper chain and, alas, the National Post. People you’d have thought would be able to spot this grift a mile away have instead been enthralled by it, as if the half-witted bros in the convoy really were “fighting for our freedom” and not providing cover for their anarcho-racist leaders.
Others have busied themselves, in the face of the most widespread breakdown in public order in decades – and the one with the least cause – with looking clever, settling scores, dwelling obsessively on mistakes in “the media” (always presented as a single entity) and otherwise quite spectacularly Missing The Point. Once, they might have ridiculed this sort of performative tantrum-throwing – over a needle! But what starts out as smirking detachment – anti-anti-occupation – seems to end, inevitably, in strident support. Populism is a black hole, sucking in all who draw near to it.
What explains this collective descent? It is tempting to put it down to simple lack of judgment – an inability to make basic moral and political distinctions, as between a genuine assault on freedom and a commonplace public-health measure, or between a peaceful protest and a ransom demand. But that is to describe the symptom, rather than the disease. Why should so many conservatives have suffered the same abrupt failure of judgement at the same time?
Part of it is the allure of tribalism. It ought to be possible to believe that Justin Trudeau is a terrible prime minister, who has serially broken faith with the voters, ruined the country’s finances, and governed the country as if he were president of a particularly woke student council, without rushing to the side of whichever group is calling him names at the moment.
But conservatives seem prone to an especially defensive form of insularity. It is not enough, in conservative circles, for the enemy of my enemy to be my friend – he must also be the friend of my enemy’s worst enemies. Conservatives have of late devolved into political magpies, snatching up whatever shiny object crosses their path, no matter how incoherent, indefensible or unconservative, just so long as it enrages liberals.
There is also a whiff of class war in the air – phony class war, but there you are. Conservative commentators have persuaded themselves, or at any rate would like to persuade others, that the blockade participants, because some of them brought trucks, are genuine representatives of truckers as a group, or better yet, the working class. It’s not remotely true – 90 per cent of the working class are fully vaccinated and at work – but it fits with the populist-conservative ambition of hiving off working-class voters from the left, whom they accuse of being more concerned with racial and sexual identity politics than traditional working-class issues.
But it’s also fun! Dressing up in class-warrior drag is a great way to scatter your enemies. It’s just another kind of identity politics; the players may be different, but the game is the same. Instead of playing “the race card” to rob your opponents of standing, you play the class card: If critics object to the occupation of downtown Ottawa or the blockading of important border crossings, it is not because they feel people should be able to go about their business without being harassed or obstructed, or because they think the law is something to be obeyed not defied, or because they think political differences should be settled by elections, not by brute force. It’s because they’re snobs!
It’s intoxicating, I don’t doubt. But however many likes and retweets conservatives may be gathering online with this sort of stuff, they are further alienating the broader public – the sort of people, if memory serves, who vote in elections, and choose governments.
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