Wave of authoritarian populism washing over Canada

“The tyranny we have witnessed in Canada in recent weeks should shock and dismay people all over the world.” – former US president Donald Trump, Feb. 26, 2022 at Conservative Political Action Conference

First, Donald Trump called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “a far-left lunatic.” Then over the weekend he told an American conservative gathering that Canada has descended into “tyranny.” What is the former president up to and why should Canadians care?

The oft-bankrupt businessman and former reality TV star has improbably emerged as the leading voice of the rising authoritarian populist movement. This type of populism has deep roots in anxiety about the economy. Disruption caused by the energy transition is a leading cause of that economic anxiety, especially among conservatives, who are the Canadians most supportive of the oil and gas sector, which is arguably a sunset industry.

David Coletto of Abacus Data calls them “anxious conservatives.” Money issues during the pandemic have been a significant source of stress. They don’t trust government. They worry about the future and they are voracious consumers of disinformation. More of them live on the Prairies and they overwhelmingly vote Conservative. No surprise, Trump is popular with these voters.

Authoritarian populism is a huge problem for the conservative parties, argues National Observer columnist Max Fawcett: “Just as Trumpism transformed the Republican Party from a political vehicle for the interests of the wealthy into a clearing house for conspiracy theories and other flavours of paranoid nonsense, so too has it corrupted Canada’s Conservatives and alienated any remaining moderates in their midst.”

The CPC has rolled the dice, betting that it can capture all of the “anxious conservative” vote, which make up 21 per cent of voters according to Coletto, then find another 10 per cent to 15 per cent in the “secure middle,” which comprises 39% of voters and splits between the Liberals and the Conservatives.

In an extraordinary interview with Energi Media, Frank Graves of EKOS Research Associates carefully lays out the dangers that authoritarian populism holds for Canada. (see below)

Once the body politick is infected with authoritarian populism, or Trumpism as it’s often called, restoring the patient to health is incredibly difficult. Canada can do three things, according to Graves.

One, in the short-term, Canada has to press ahead with public health measures like vaccine mandates, regardless of the outcry from “freedom” protestors and populist politicians. Two, Canada needs a better understanding of disinformation sources – like Russia, China, and Trump – and a better policy and regulatory toolkit to combat them. Three, a kind of Canadian New Deal (like Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era New Deal) to restore economic inequality and alleviate anxiety.

I would add a fourth, reframing the narrative.

Here’s how Trump frames the authoritarian populist narrative about Canada: “A line has been crossed — you’re either with the peaceful truckers or you are with the left-wing fascists.” After the “freedom convoy” occupation of Ottawa, the idea of “peaceful truckers” doesn’t carry much weight with most Canadians but it does with “anxious conservatives.” And while “left-wing fascists” seems almost laughable, the phrase seems to be picking up steam on social media, especially on Facebook, where much of the “freedom” organizing is taking place.

What the new narratives should be is grist for another column. But there can be no doubt that Canada needs new ways of thinking and talking about this pernicious problem. As Graves says, once authoritarian populism gets a grip on citizens, it’s difficult to free them. But free them we must. Our country’s future peace and prosperity depends upon it.

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