There are big things happening in Canadian conservative politics: Mad Max is on the scene. That would be Quebec member of parliament Maxime Bernier, who recently parted ways with Canada’s Conservative Party over his more restrictionist views on immigration and his more libertarian position on ongoing trade disputes with the United States.
According to Bernier, the Conservatives are “morally corrupt” and he’s done with them. He also denounced the prevailing “extreme multiculturalism and cult of diversity” in Canada and stated his intention to bypass “political correctness” in favor of controversial issues like immigration and religion. With this, Bernier announced his new People’s Party on September 14 in the Canadian capital of Ottawa.
Canada’s Conservatives are currently led by a human mannequin named Andrew Scheer who has all the enthusiasm of a damp rug, allowing Mad Max the allure of the new kid on the block. Bernier has also taken a real shine to tweeting Trump-style. It’s a new Wild West of political showmanship here north of the border. The end result, many contend, will be vote splitting on the right and the likely re-election of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau next year. Former Canadian Alliance member Stockwell Day, whose party eventually merged into the Conservative Party to put former prime minister Stephen Harper in power, says Bernier’s potential to split votes on the right is a “nightmare scenario.” In Day’s statements, one can’t help but hear echoes of America’s establishment droning on about how Trump was ruining the GOP’s chances of winning the presidency in 2016. This script has played out before.
But Bernier should raise some red flags even for conservatives and populists, and not the communist kind. Apart from his theatrics and flair for Twitter, he appears to see a genuine market for hardline libertarianism in deeply statist Canada. Certainly, every political sea change comes with a bold vision, but the majority of Bernier’s base is riled up by red meat populism and nationalism, not Ayn Rand talking points. Talking about privatizing health care and opening up free markets is pretty far off-base from the prevailing populism of today, whether it’s in America or Canada.
Another unfortunate aspect of Bernier’s inchoate candidacy is that he seems prone to embroiling himself in media scandals. Right off the bat, the leader of Canada’s anti-immigrant Nationalist Party Travis Patron had a call with Bernier where they quibbled on immigration intake numbers. The call was splashed all over the headlines and trumpeted by anti-white racists like “reporter” Justin Ling. Bernier was made to appear quite media illiterate. There’s also been childish noise from Canada’s Libertarian Party over Bernier’s new party name (“I am not a communist,” he hilariously protested). Probably the real tip-off that he’s not a communist is that he keeps listing policy positions that sound like bullet points from a Ludwig Von Mises economic conference.
But seriously, has Bernier been living under a rock for the past decade? The Canadian mainstream media is notoriously noxious and politically deranged about anything to the right of Margaret Atwood. Sharing a phone call with Canada’s further right is exactly what the CBC wants to breathlessly discuss with Prius drivers heading into Toronto on their morning commutes.
Surely, when Bernier calls out the “arrogant members of a disconnected elite,” he’s on the right track; indeed, he’s tapping into a genuine current of working-class energy. Trudeau-worshipping journalist Paul Wells claims that Bernier’s voting base is made up of “the stupidest people on Twitter.” Bernier hits back calling him arrogant. It all makes for a good American-style roustabout, right? The problem is that Bernier thinks his pseudo-Twitter populism is good enough and that talking about “our values” and dangling immigration as an emotional wedge issue is what really brings voters to the polls and bulks up a new party. This is wrong.
America isn’t just an “idea,” and neither, for that matter, is Canada. Both are concrete post-colonial nations with legacies of distinct and intermingled historical peoples who settled the land and built civic and cultural institutions, from the First Nations to the Europeans. Granted, the New World does not have the rootedness or continuity of the Old, but real ancestors are buried in real graves and they did real things, not just uphold abstract “ideas” and “principles.” The idea, of course, that unalloyed mass immigration is just a continuation of this story is tenuous at best. Bernier may indeed have genuine misgivings about mass immigration and cultural changes in Canada, but his advisors appear to be using it more as a populist magnet than a topic they actually plan to act on.
In the United States, many have noted how many Ron Paul voters migrated over to the camp of Donald Trump—or, as neoconservative propagandist James Kirchick put it, “Trump’s debt to Ron Paul’s paranoid style.” While some Paulites from the Old School may still be hardline Adam Kokesh-style libertarians, a great number supported Paul not only for reasons of political ideology but because he was challenging planks of the neoliberal/neoconservative consensus on foreign policy, central economic planning, and tiresome universalistic rhetoric about “our values” and “democracy.” Yet when Bernier trots out rote pseudo-populism and talks about value-screening immigrants, he’s simply performing another aspect of the political correctness he claims to abhor. Saying that Canadian Liberals’ “cult of diversity” will “divide us into little tribes” is a bit of a misreading of the situation, since nationalism and populism are so popular right now in part because people are voluntarily seeking to rejoin tribes, whether those be ethnic, religious, ideological, gender-based, sexual identity-related, or other.
In other words, Bernier’s basic dislike of identity politics is one of those nice-sounding but effete statements that politicians like to make. Identity politics is here to stay, at least for the time being, and Bernier can’t wiggle out of the controversy by parroting anti-identity politics talking points. His base itself consists of many rightists and nationalists. (That includes, of course and unfortunately, the usual sprinkling of actual racists who will be frantically linked to Bernier’s movement by the media and soft-pedaled by Bernier with talk of “values” and such.)
Bernier will certainly be called a racist regardless, for even bringing up issues of immigration and cultural assimilation. But he nonetheless appears to crave some sort of approval from the mainstream. Populism wins elections: witness the decline and fall of the center-left in Europe, the election of Trump, Brexit. Love it or hate it, the old line of partisan politics is breaking down. Bernier may have more of a chance than many Canadians would like to admit, but he’s got to ditch the ideological libertarianism and fake populism and get on board with his actual base. A politically correct libertarian talking about values and how it’s okay to say the occasional semi-offensive thing might cause a rupture in the Conservative Party in next year’s Canadian election, but he’s not going to build a viable future party in the current year. To borrow a phrase from Trudeau: because it’s 2018.
Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.