Justin Ling is a freelance journalist and author of the Bug-Eyed And Shameless newsletter.
“I can’t trust Obama. I’ve read about him: He’s an Arab.”
Before the woman in the bright red shirt could finish her thought about the Democratic presidential nominee at a Minnesota town hall, his Republican opponent, John McCain, vigorously shook his head and reached for the microphone in her hand: “No ma’am,” he said, “he’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
That moment in the 2008 race feels like a relic of a bygone civility in politics. But the woman’s comments also spoke to a problem that his own campaign helped stoke. Mr. McCain had chosen Sarah Palin as his running mate, in part because of her populist appeal to parts of the Republican base; on the campaign trail, she leaned into supporters’ hostilities toward Barack Obama. After the election, Ms. Palin would go on to help Donald Trump whip up the racist “birther” conspiracy theory, and became a natural star of the Tea Party movement.
Mr. McCain and his successors tried to carefully feed the base’s growing rage. They would all be eaten by it.
But U.S. Republicans aren’t the only ones. Moderate Tories thought a referendum on Britain’s exit from the European Union would marginalize the UK Independent Party, but watched the votes come in and found they had functionally become UKIP. Sweden’s Moderate Party cynically co-operated with the anti-immigration Swedish Democrats in recent years, and in this month’s election, fell behind the far-right for the first time. And in 1994, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi made room in his coalition for neo-fascists; now, it seems all but certain he will be a junior partner in Italy’s first far-right government since Benito Mussolini.
Here at home, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s shotgun marriage between the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Party wound up wrecking his career, as he was unable to control – in his words – the “lunatics” and “kooky people” in his United Conservative Party. As a result, the province is now on a course for a harebrained independence scheme.
At best, establishment conservative parties that have tried to tame paranoid populism brought into their ranks have only internalized it and abandoned their core principles – often failing to vanquish far-right parties in the process. At worst, they have been cannibalized by that paranoia.
Still, this growing pool of voters is tempting for politicians. Over the past decade, swaths of people – primarily but not uniquely on the right – have retreated into conspiracy theories and apocalyptic fantasies. In June, the pollster Abacus found that roughly one in five Canadians believe the government is covering up deaths caused by COVID-19 vaccines. Other pollsters have similarly reported mounting fears of a nefarious global elite pulling the strings.
Which brings us to newly elected federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre.
I’ve spoken with his high-profile supporters and organizers, and they clearly think they are more clever than their compatriots abroad. They argue that previous leaders – Erin O’Toole, a moderate, and Andrew Scheer, who played one on TV – strove for centrist voters and thus depressed excitement on the right, sacrificing support to Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party. When the Tories made marginal gains in the centre, Justin Trudeau raised anxieties around abortion rights and private health care to scare them back into the Liberal fold.
So to win, the Conservatives will expand to the right. Mr. Poilievre has already pandered to people who believe Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet is filled with traitors by whipping up conspiracy theories about the World Economic Forum. He’s bashed the Bank of Canada to appease those with bizarre affinity for the gold standard. He’s railed against vaccine mandates to appeal to those who think vaccines are a murderous plot.
None of this was actually necessary to win the leadership race, so don’t expect some fundamental strategy pivot now that Mr. Poilievre has been crowned leader. Indeed, he is keen to harness the excitement that fuelled the occupation of a frigid Ottawa, girded by millions of fundraising dollars. He may yet drop these particular symbolic positions in favour of new ones. He has already begun warning of the “woke” menace, eliciting glee from his supporters who feel vilified by Mr. Trudeau.
It should be acknowledged that the conspiratorial crowd is not a monolith. While many may peddle falsehoods about vaccines, for example, that does not preclude them from being otherwise perfectly reasonable on other policy matters.
Some, though, are outright extremists: A huge swell in real-world violence, harassment, intimidation and death threats against health care workers, journalists and politicians have shown how fervently these people believe in their cause. Indeed, anti-government fervour informed a plan to kill the Prime Minister in 2020 and an alleged plot to murder police officers during the blockade in Coutts, Alta.
Whether it is out of genuine concern or a post-facto justification, Mr. Poilievre’s camp believes that the Conservatives can moderate this small but vocal minority, even if extremists walk among them. But even if they don’t, they figure, beating Mr. Trudeau would vindicate the risk.
At the same time, Mr. Poilievre will pitch policies to position him as an enlightened, modern conservative. His rhetoric on housing and immigration is downright progressive, albeit superficial; his diagnosis of a government that is no longer working for ordinary people is painfully on point.
To that end, we need to keep two ideas in our heads about Mr. Poilievre: He is appealing to the fringe where extremists may live, but he is not himself an extremist, and won’t behave like one.
Some may argue that is a distinction without a difference – that putting food out for conspiracy theorists makes you one of them. Maybe they have a point. But Hillary Clinton’s stunning 2016 loss in the U.S. presidential race is a prime example in how writing off this populist anger, and refusing to battle charlatan politicians on their own turf, is a recipe for disaster. Mr. Poilievre’s electoral strategy is, unfortunately, solid – and he may yet endear himself to working-class voters who simply ignore his conspiratorial overtures.
To counteract that, Mr. Trudeau will unfortunately demonize that fringe to attack Mr. Poilievre, regardless of the ugliness it will unleash. There is thus a huge opportunity for the NDP to engage with those millions who feel left behind, but thus far it has been a miserable failure at doing so. And many of the centrist Conservatives who teased a breakaway party have already fallen in line behind Mr. Poilievre – showing just how much their principles are worth.
Of course, it’s not too late for Mr. Poilievre to repudiate this dangerous gamble and forgo the damage his tactical alliance could do to his own party and the country at large. But don’t count on it.