In the wake of an election marked by nastiness we are unaccustomed to in this country, and violence against politicians like we have never really seen before, there has been a lot of hand-wringing about how things got this bad. While many are quick to blame the Americans for somehow exporting this to our country, others are quick to point out that no, this is on us because we’ve got bad actors too in this country. Nevertheless, there is a prevailing sense among many in mainstream conservatism in this country who somehow believe that they can flirt with right-wing populism and somehow avoid the negative consequences that come along with it, as though there were some kind of “good parts only” version available to them. The hubris of that belief has come home to roost.
One of the most prominent proponents of using right-wing populism to his political advantage is Alberta premier Jason Kenney, who had spent years honing the craft of stoking and directing anger and turning it to his political advantage. First he sent it toward then-premier Rachel Notley, blaming her for every ill under the sun, and once she was defeated in the provincial election, he turned that anger entirely toward prime minister Justin Trudeau. It wasn’t Trudeau’s fault that a global supply glut in oil was depressing world prices because OPEC decided to open the taps in order to try and make the American’s shale oil unprofitable (which was even worse for the oil sands, for whom the shale boom was already sounding a death knell for their expansion plans), but Kenney was perfectly happy to blame Trudeau regardless – even if Trudeau was offering the province federal assistance that Stephen Harper had refused to.
Already, the signs were there that this was turning ugly. The “protesters” that Kenney was attracting were already selling t-shirts that promised to lynch Trudeau (or journalists, for that matter). “Lock her up!” chants about Notley and whoever else was convenient were starting, imported from the ugly Trump campaign, and Kenney gave a cursory “now, now, we vote them out,” rather than forcefully denouncing the practice and coming down hard on it and all that it entailed. Around the same time, there was a Conservative leadership contest happening, where there were candidates who were also willing to import this same American rhetoric for their own purposes.
Some of you may remember the campaign that Kellie Leitch ran, promising “values tests” and dog-whistling to the far right – so much so that Maxime Bernier denounced her as a “Karaoke Donald Trump,” while he was trying to run on libertarian values (and very nearly succeeded). That Bernier later left the party and started his own that embraced this very same rhetoric and tactics shows that he too believes there was political value in embracing it – the biggest difference seeming to be that he doesn’t seem to care about the negative consequences that come with the embrace, or he is willing to turn a very blind eye to it.
It should be no surprise that this stoking of anger in the service of political point-scoring turned to violence, whether that was with the gravel-throwing incident against the prime minister, or Liberal incumbent Marc Serré being assaulted in his campaign headquarters. And sure, the leaders of the other parties – including Bernier – denounced these acts, but again, a single statement of denunciation doesn’t go very far when you’ve amped up irrational anger in a group of people who are looking to hurt those who you have blamed for their woes. That anger needs to go somewhere, and it’s more than just forcefully marking a ballot on election day.
These kinds of tactics are deliberate. O’Toole’s social media consulting firm makes a point about messages shocking people in order to “invoke anger, pride, excitement or fear.” Kenney is a month away from holding a series of provincial referendums, one of which is to explicitly stoke anger at the federal government by asking a torqued question about equalization payments, as though the referendum could do anything about it. That referendum will also be held alongside blatantly unconstitutional “Senate nomination elections,” which is something invented whole cloth by Alberta governments in the past as a fictional grievance that they can then stoke, which Kenney was all too happy to resurrect – because he needs to keep directing that anger elsewhere. It’s too late, however – all of the anger he’s fomented is now being directed at him, and he won’t last much longer in the job.
It’s also not a surprise that this anger, not just in Alberta but in other parts of the country where the messages resonate, have led to an increase in threats against not only the prime minister (it was only a few months ago that someone rammed through the gates of Rideau Hall with a truck full of loaded weapons, intending to harm Trudeau), but also Notley, and ministers like Catherine McKenna. And it wasn’t just Kenney or Bernier stoking it either. Both Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole made a point of winking and nodding to these crowds, whether it was addressing the Yellow Vesters under the credulous guise of only seeing them as their fig-leaf cover story of being oil workers concerned about carbon prices (when in truth they were the same far-right operators mobilized by M-103 the year previous), or in stoking conspiracy theories about the United Nations Compact on Global Migration, the Great Reset initiative, or even George Soros. They knew what they were doing, and thought it could work for them.
The fact that things have taken a turn to physical violence was the least surprising thing, and yet both the Conservatives and their apologists are acting shocked. They tried cherry-picking elements from the fetid swamp that is the eco-system of right-wing populism, and pretended that it wouldn’t come with consequences. But now that those ugly consequences have reared their heads, it’s time to dismantle this system before it festers, and that means the Conservatives making a conscious choice not to double down in the hopes of regaining PPC votes that they blame for losing them the election.