You don’t have to squint too hard to see the parallels between former U.S. president Donald Trump and newly crowned Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre.
Both are economic populists with a gift for weaponizing working-class grievances and an unusual ability to connect with their audiences through social media. But that comparison does a disservice to Poilievre, who has never traded in the sort of bald-faced nativism and unapologetic bigotry that were inextricable aspects of Trump’s political brand.
It also ignores the fact that there’s a far better point of comparison for Poilievre in Trump’s own midst: Steve Bannon.
The two men have many of the same attitudes and beliefs, from their disdain for elites to their willingness to challenge the conventional orientation of the political spectrum. But above all else, they share a loathing of the professional media — and a belief that it’s OK to shoot the messenger from time to time.
Bannon famously declared war on the press during his time as Trump’s key strategist and made it clear that he wasn’t prepared to treat them as a neutral force in his country’s political life. As he reportedly said in 2018, “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
Poilievre, who assiduously avoided doing interviews with mainstream outlets throughout the course of his leadership campaign, took a swipe of his own during a May appearance on Jordan Peterson’s podcast. “The political media in the parliamentary press gallery are part of the establishment that finds me threatening because I’m upsetting the apple cart,” he said.
Poilievre also has an obvious gift for shit-flooding, as his numerous YouTube videos about lumber, cryptocurrency and the Bank of Canada make clear. But while those were distractions or diversions, his attack on Global News’ Rachel Gilmore was a direct assault on democracy. She covered Poilievre’s march with anti-mandate activist James Topp and tried to ask some probing questions of the candidate, but instead of actually answering them, his campaign decided to counterattack.
“No wonder trust in the media is at an all-time low,” he tweeted. “One of Global News' so-called journalists decided to smear me & thousands of other Canadians because we criticized the federal government's unscientific & discriminatory vaccine mandates.”
The online blowback Gilmore faced for simply doing her job was almost instantaneous. It wasn’t her first rodeo of this sort, either. Back in January, she and colleague Alex Boutilier were name-checked by People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier in a tweet about their coverage of the occupation of Ottawa. And when pressed about the consequences of his actions on journalists who were simply doing their jobs, Bernier doubled down. “You’re not victims, you’re liars, haters and abusers,” he tweeted. “You reap what you sow.”
Opinion: You don’t have to squint too hard to see the parallels between former U.S. president Donald Trump and newly crowned Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre, writes columnist @maxfawcett for @NatObserver.
The endgame for politicians who stir up this sort of anti-media sentiment seems clear. “We have no doubt that this is deliberately done to rile their supporters against the media,” said Kiran Nazish, a longtime foreign correspondent who founded the Coalition For Women in Journalism.
Brent Jolly, the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, was even more unsparing in his analysis at the time. “The fact that this kind of behaviour is being pushed out by someone running to be the leader of a major Canadian political party should send a shiver down the spine of Canadians concerned about the future of democracy in this country,” he told Rabble.ca.
That person is now the leader of the official Opposition, and he looks poised to become prime minister whenever the next election takes place. If you think he’s about to moderate his tone or tamp down his instinctive combativeness, well, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. The gentleman, you might say, is not for pivoting.
Instead, he’ll continue framing the media as the enemy of his people rather than an essential component of any vibrant and healthy democracy. Perhaps he’ll take a page from the book Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban presented earlier this year at CPAC, when he told the assembled right-wing guests they needed to “have their own media. It’s the only way to point out the insanity of the progressive left.”
You can be sure Poilievre’s allies in this emerging right-wing media ecosystem, which include outlets like True North, Rebel Media and the Western Standard, will be in thrall to this concept.
If he gets elected — and again, that’s a very real possibility — he’ll start by defunding the CBC and cancelling the subsidies that many journalism outlets receive (including, it should be noted, Canada’s National Observer). He’ll almost certainly overhaul whatever changes the current government makes to constrain online speech through bills C-11 and C-36, which seek to regulate digital media and crack down on the spread of online hate. And his government might even pass some new legislation that provides incentives to new upstart organizations — which just happen to lean more in his preferred ideological direction.
All of these policies are fair game. Politics, at its best, is a contest of ideas. But the personal nature of his attacks on journalism, and even specific journalists, is deeply out of bounds. It’s the sort of stuff you see in decidedly un-free countries, whether it’s Russia or Saudi Arabia. When journalists can’t do their jobs without fear of recourse or threat, that’s a direct affront to everyone’s freedom.
If Poilievre actually cared as much about it as he claims, he’d be standing up for the much-maligned mainstream media rather than trying to tear it down.