For a party that won control of the House of Representatives in November’s midterm elections, the Republicans are doing an awful lot of losing these days. For the first time in more than a century, they’ve been unable to elect a Speaker of the House as the Trumpist wing of their party continues to torpedo Kevin McCarthy’s nomination (13 times, at last count).
Canada’s Conservative Party hasn’t gone nearly as far off the deep end, but there are lessons here for it about the dangers of trying to harness anger to their political aspirations — ones that its most recent former leader seems determined to draw out.
In a year-end blog post, Erin O’Toole criticized the party’s embrace of the far-right elements that new leader Pierre Poilievre has repeatedly cozied up to. Notably, he called out the “F*ck Trudeau” flags that have become a common sight whenever convoy-curious conservatives gather in groups.
“These flags and the hyper-aggressive rhetoric that often accompanies them are slowly normalizing rage and damaging our democracy,” O’Toole wrote. “Since so many people that display the flags claim to be conservative, this might also be an appropriate time to tell them that these flags are the very antithesis of what it means to be conservative.”
O’Toole’s post forced Poilievre to come out and finally acknowledge that yes, he too finds the flags distasteful. But he couldn’t help but add that the real issue is what made people fly them in the first place. “I don’t like the flags and I don’t like rage, but I think we have to ask ourselves, why are people so angry? And the answer is that they’re hurting.”
Poilievre says his goal is “turning hurt into hope.” But if his attempt to channel Barack Obama feels just a bit off, that’s because he’s personally responsible for much of the anger he claims to be worried about. After all, he’s the one who keeps telling Canadians their country feels “broken” — and that all of their woes are directly attributable to one source.
His promise to turn the hurt he’s cultivated into hope is a bit like an arsonist trying to put out the fire they started. Poilievre has been starting political fires all across the country over the last year, whether it’s stirring up anger in Vancouver over drug policy, frustration in Alberta about federal climate policies, or discontent among vaccine-skeptical protesters in Ottawa.
His willingness to blame the prime minister for almost anything was on display in a video he posted a few days ago when he shared the story of “Mustafa”, a Calgary man he apparently met in the Ottawa airport who was looking to get his passport renewed. According to Poilievre, “Mustafa” had applied 10 months ago, but still hadn’t received it — and his wedding in Cuba was supposed to happen the previous day. “They’re all down there in Cuba waiting for him to come down and get married, and he can’t get a passport. He applied 10 months earlier. This is how everything operates with Justin Trudeau.”
But as many people pointed out in the comments to his post, that isn’t actually how it operates. Much of the backlog in passport applications has been eliminated, and hundreds of people pointed out that they’d had their own applications processed in a matter of days or weeks. Meanwhile, if Mustafa was really in such dire straits, he could have simply gone to the Calgary passport office and requested the urgent or express delivery option rather than boarding a flight to Ottawa. For the leader of a party that claims to believe in personal responsibility, this is some pretty thin gruel.
Canadians seem to be taking notice. The most recent Angus Reid Institute poll showed more than half of Canadians (54 per cent) have a negative view of Poilievre, while only one-in-three like what he’s offering. “These levels of unfavourable sentiment are much higher than those of previous leaders Andrew Scheer, Erin O’Toole, and Stephen Harper at the beginning of their own leadership ventures.”
Pierre Poilievre says he wants to turn "hurt into hope." So why does he keep dumping gasoline on the fire he's trying to put out? Columnist @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver
If Poilievre wants to do more than just fire up his base, he might want to listen to O’Toole’s words of warning — and pay attention to what’s happening south of the border. Anger and frustration are potent political forces, especially in the context of an internal leadership contest. But they impose limitations on leaders who try to weaponize them for their own purposes.
And as the ongoing collapse of the Trumpist movement shows, a political firestarter can sometimes end up burning their own house to the ground.