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opinion

Melanie Paradis is a veteran conservative campaigner and an executive ghostwriter.

A month before Canada was first rocked by COVID-19 in March of 2020, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney leveraged his meteoric popularity and organizational mastery to endorse Erin O’Toole for leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. This week, he joined Mr. O’Toole on the pyre of discontent.

The ouster of a conservative heavyweight like Mr. Kenney should serve as a stark warning: The anger out there is so much bigger than the political establishment thought. People have a lot of reasons for being angry, many justified, but what matters is what’s being done with that anger and where it’s going to go.

We’ve been groomed for anger for the past decade. Social media algorithms incentivize outrage. Media outlets churn out clickbait. And bad actors like Russia and China use the long arm of the internet to run elaborate thought scams on Canadians, leveraging our distrust in the media, our governments, and even each other. This has all been bubbling under the surface for years, but during pandemic lockdowns, this toxic brew boiled over as anger and isolation collided with conspiracy on a mass scale.

Too many conservatives are now trapped in their own algorithmic echo chambers. For years, they could not understand how on earth Justin Trudeau, who has appeared in full blackface, was re-elected in 2019. The fairness equilibrium in their brains broke. To this day, the “blackface” insult is hurled around the House of Commons as if the Canadian public hasn’t moved on from it. Truthfully, only Conservatives haven’t.

People have become so divided and disassociated from one another – both online and off – they no longer even see everyday Liberals or the everyday things they say. The algorithm quite literally controls what they see. As a result, a real Liberal has become a thing of myth. This phenomenon exists on the left as well, but they haven’t started to cannibalize their leaders. Yet.

How Jason Kenney went from conservatism’s future to yesterday’s man

When we lost again to Mr. Trudeau in 2021, people dove even deeper into the comfort of their rabbit holes, searching for meaning. Surely someone else is to blame for all of this. Maybe it’s Klaus Schwab or the World Economic Forum’s cabal.

Conservatism at its best is cautious, optimistic and incremental. It is roots-based. It stands for personal accountability and responsibility, the rule of law, free markets and tradition. Quite simply, it’s about conserving. But people who are so angry at the system that they want to tear it down don’t care about conserving anything. Instead, they are now the party of 4chan and Facebook.

Mr. Kenney had desperately tried to address the conspiracy theories that now plague conservative politics head on. He did this during the pandemic, referring to protesters making threats to Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw as “unhinged conspiracy theorists” who were spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines. And more recently, Mr. Kenney responded to claims he was in league with the World Economic Forum to subvert the vote on his leadership.

Confronting conspiracies was part of his strategy to hold onto the leadership, hoping to convince enough members that a growing number of people with “extreme” views were trying to disrupt the leadership and the party.

In press conferences and live Facebook videos, the Premier of one of the most important provinces in our country collectively spent hours trying to dispel disinformation. It should be shocking to Canadians that this was necessary.

It is the responsibility of our leaders in the conservative movement to stop playing footsie with nonsense. Stop dog-whistling to it. That’s not leadership, it’s cowardice. And it most certainly is not love of country. Stoking and taking advantage of the anger of the mob and those who have become twisted by conspiracy is only to love one’s own ambition.

The Conservative leadership contest currently under way has spent more time focusing on who has, and hasn’t, boarded a plane to Davos than it has on how Canada will deal with a looming geopolitical confrontation with China, or how to build supply chain resilience as the continent grapples with a startling baby formula shortage. We are indulging the dangerous fantasies of people lost in their Facebook feeds instead of acting the way serious people who want to govern a G7 country should act.

We will lose more conservative leaders before this war of conspiracy is over. The angry will not be satisfied. If anything, the angry have been emboldened.

So, political leaders – conservative and otherwise – you have a choice. Come together to address these toxic thought scams and conspiracies head on. Or wait to see if you are next on the pyre.

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