Basing his appeal on resentment will mean a big slog for Poilievre

Like the U.S., we have racism and rage here — but good luck finding enough Canadians that crazy to get you a majority in Parliament. .


I don’t believe I’m taking a substantial risk by assuming Pierre Poilievre is about to become Conservative party leader.

The party minimized that risk by throwing out the candidacy of Patrick Brown two months ago. Back then, the only real chance of beating Poilievre lay in a joint strategy between Brown — who’s been good at aggregating minority support — and Jean Charest, with a lock on Quebec votes. The party simply tossed Brown on the basis of allegations that weren’t stated with any specificity, much less proven. It was a stunning show of disdain for democracy or even a superficial pretence of fairness. Following that, former prime minister Stephen Harper screwed the lid tighter by endorsing Poilievre. Why leave democratic exercises to chance?

So, jumping to that conclusion, I want to ask about one obstacle that I think will make it a big slog for Poilievre to become PM.

He is the preeminent candidate of inchoate rage. He hailed the Ottawa convoy, which embodied that rage, and he embodies it himself. We saw that at the SNC-Lavalin hearings where he adopted the prosecutorial style familiar in U.S. politics: “Did you or did you not … Just answer the question … Yes or No?”

I think more than anything, that echoed the McCarthyite tone of the 1950s there (“Are you now or have you ever been a member of …”); it’s the famed “paranoid style” that’s always marked U.S. politics. It thrills his devotees and he seems addicted to it himself. The question is, Can you market it on a large enough basis up here to win power?

Let’s test that in a current case: U.S. President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness program. The main howl against it hasn’t been that it’s unjust or costly — it’s that it made fools of those who’d paid off their student debt, while bailing out, wrote Astra Taylor in the Times, “slacker baristas, over-educated Ivy League lawyers and impractical lesbian dance theory majors.” It made suckers of a big, fretting demographic. (Americans live in terror of looking like dummies. Even Barack Obama was obsessed with being surrounded by “really smart guys.”)

I don’t believe you can find this kind of mass “humiliation rage” anywhere else on the planet. In his book “Dying of Whiteness,” shrink Jonathan Metzl interviewed people willing to suffer ill health rather than extend Obamacare to those they considered inferior or unworthy. “To be honest I can’t even think about [improved health care] right now, I’m so concentrated on the illegals … no way I want my tax dollars paying for Mexicans or welfare queens.”

Metzl says Americans are ready to surrender their health, even survival, for the sake of fragile psychic dividends largely based on race. This is both crazy and rational, depending on the metric you use. Sure, we have racism and rage here — but good luck finding enough Canadians that crazy to get you a majority in Parliament. It takes a historically embedded mass societal insanity, which we may lack. At a time, for instance, when Canadians are, at least on some level, thinking about reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, the U.S. remains oblivious.

Suppose for the moment that’s true. Does Poilievre have anywhere else to go to build his vote? Not that we’ve seen so far. When his light first shone in those SNC-Lavalin days, he impressed with his fierceness and swagger. But, er, that was it. He appears not to have another gear. He’s been in Parliament since he was 25, and otherwise gone nowhere, done nothing.

When he’s tried something beyond inchoate rage, it’s been a tad embarrassing. On cost of living, for example, he yoked himself to crypto, presumably because it was beyond the reach of the dread “gatekeepers,” whoever they are, and incarnated individual economic “freedom.” Almost instantly, crypto nosedived. He’s seemed pretty quiet on it since.

Bilious resentment it is, then, at least for now. If he has another pitch in his repertoire, like almost every successful starter, we shall see.


This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in The Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He currently teaches a half course on Canadian media and culture in University College (CDN221) at the University of Toronto. He is a contributing editor of This Magazine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and got his Master of Arts degree in religion at Columbia University. He also studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was once a trade union organizer in Toronto and participated in the Artistic Woodwork strike.[