There was a time when people scoffed at the notion of far-right leader Marine Le Pen ever being palatable enough to the French public to be elected president.
She was an extremist; an anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, flame-throwing nationalist too outside the mainstream to lead the country. Then a funny thing happened: Over the years, her views became less scary. And her decision to focus on the economy and the high cost of living struck a chord with people.
Ms. Le Pen and her National Rally party may not win France’s presidential runoff later this month, but she certainly has given incumbent Emmanuel Macron something to think about. Her rising popularity has stunned many, both inside and outside the country. Times are changing, and so are people’s attitudes about many things.
Which brings me to federal Conservative party leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre.
While it may not be fair to strictly compare him with Ms. Le Pen, there are elements of their politics that are strikingly similar. First off, they are both populists who feed off the anger of the disenfranchised – particularly disgruntled white folks. Mr. Poilievre shocked many by supporting the truckers (and others) who occupied downtown Ottawa for three weeks earlier this year. That he would want to be associated with a group that had white-nationalist elements among it was beyond the pale for many. He didn’t see it that way.
Like Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Poilievre has made cost-of-living increases – something he has dubbed “Justinflation” in a bid to associate it with the policies of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – central to his campaign. And just like the National Rally leader, he is not allergic to making outlandish claims, such as suggesting cryptocurrency would allow people to “opt out of inflation,” or that he plans to make Canada “the world’s freest country,” as though we’re currently living under some sort of dictatorship.
While offbeat in many of his sound bites, Mr. Poilievre is running a highly effective campaign. His videos, for example, are slick. His latest situates him outside a rundown home in Vancouver that is on the market for $4.8-million. For several minutes Mr. Poilievre talks about the insanity of the housing market. Anyone watching it, even a federal Liberal, would find themselves nodding along in agreement.
Many have written Mr. Poilievre off as someone who can win the leadership of his party, but not the country. While I might have been inclined to share that view a few months ago, I don’t any more. There is a reason that thousands are flocking to his campaign rallies. In a recent swing through British Columbia, his events were packed – more than 1,000 people crammed into halls at several stops. Even university students are turning out in droves. Some people have lined up for an hour after one of his speeches to get a picture with him.
There is something happening here that is genuine. It’s easy to roll your eyes at Mr. Poilievre’s statement that he is starting a movement, but it has that certain feel to it.
At the very least, he is completely dominating the Tory leadership race. Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown’s campaign appears to have gone dark. Jean Charest, the former Quebec Liberal premier, seems to have finally awoken to the fact that Mr. Poilievre is miles ahead of him in the race. Mr. Charest has shown some fight in recent days, but it’s likely too late.
At one time, I thought Mr. Poilievre might have to pivot away from the policies he’s spouting if he hoped to win a general election as Tory leader. Erin O’Toole famously did this to disastrous effect.
While some of what Mr. Poilievre is saying is distasteful to many – his delegitimizing of the Bank of Canada and his amour for cryptocurrency chief among them – a lot of what he’s saying will resonate with many Canadians. And I’m not just talking about truckers, but middle-class Canadians across the country.
It doesn’t matter that he’s selling himself as an anti-elitist outsider when, in fact, he’s a career politician whose salary and benefits put him among the top echelons of wage earners in the country. He has absolutely zero in common with the people he’s preaching to, but he’s still able to appeal to them.
Even Donald Trump was able to do this. Either people are gullible, or they just like what they’re hearing and are prepared to ignore certain realities. It’s fair to argue that Mr. Poilievre could lead to the Trumpification of the Canadian conservative movement. This is a concern of many. He’s exploiting people’s fears and vulnerabilities, just as Mr. Trump did. Does Mr. Poilievre present the same danger to this country?
Odds are, we are going to find out.
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