Campus Conservatives Are Still Keeping Their Heads Down in the Age of Trump (and Leitch and O’Leary)
"Being a conservative is not something we advertise."
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The bullshit detector started going off right from the top.
Writing an opinion piece for the CBC, Steven Zhou, a Toronto-based human rights writer, laid out a nightmare vision that was sure to cause a frisson of fear go rippling up the tender spine of readers: The alt-right weren't just in the US voting for Donald Trump and getting yelled at by Shia LaBeouf. They were also in Canada, on our campuses, polluting our kids.
"It may be true that the right wing in Canada has yet to cough up the same kind of populist threat now arising in European liberal democracies like France, Germany or the Netherlands. But the success of president-elect Donald Trump has emboldened nativist elements of Canadian society just the same.
And nowhere has this been more obvious than on Canadian university campuses."
As proof, Zhou cites the scattering of racist, idiotic posters found in recent months on campuses in Toronto and at McGill, UAlberta and McMaster. The material contained racist, anti-Muslim and anti-gay messages that were quickly torn down, destroyed and publicly denounced.
However, warns Zhou, "it will likely take more than tweets and press releases to stem the growth of such messaging on campuses."
Alarming, isn't it?
But for all his dire warnings, Zhou doesn't offer any kind of evidence that the alt-right is in fact growing anywhere, on Canada's campuses or off of them. The fact that those flyers could have been distributed by a single neckbeard with a beef doesn't seem to have entered his mind.
It's the kind of thing that makes Adam Wilson's eyes do somersaults into the back of his head.
I met the president of the Conservative Association at McGill University to figure out just where campus conservatives—a rare and elusive group at the best of times—stand in the age of Trump, the alt-right and the sudden near-respectability of white nationalism.
Not surprisingly, most them are wary of Trump, denounce the policies he espouses and certainly aren't sympathetic to the racists who voted for him. They've heard of the alt-right of course, but haven't seen any of it on campus, they say.
Wilson is an articulate, button-down 21-year-old fourth year BA student originally from Kelowna, BC. He identifies himself as a fiscal, not social, conservative, though he is active in Kellie Leitch's campaign, which has been accused of courting the alt-right. Wilson says he is used to keeping his head down most of the time but he says that's been harder in recent months and years as opinions become more extreme—especially, he says, on the left, which he believes has been quick to shout down dissenting opinion.
But he's no Trump supporter. "I think it's worrying that someone with a lot of reason why you shouldn't vote for him will still get elected," he says. "But a lot of people on campus now are worried about right-wing politics, and they associate all right-wing politics—meaning conservative politics or anything remotely right-leaning—with Donald Trump. And I think that's diminishing people's willingness to listen to right-leaning opinions."
He doesn't think Trump-ism can succeed here, but his imitators, especially fellow blowhard businessman/reality TV personality Kevin O'Leary, leave Wilson unenthused. "It is worrying for me when people who have never held public office want to seek public office," he says. "They only want to be [in politics] if they're in charge…. They're not in it for the country."
He won't lump Leitch into that group, though. According to Wilson, her message has been wildly distorted in the media and by her critics, although her own campaign manager makes it difficult not to make a Trump comparison.
Just as at McGill, wariness of Trump is common among the student Conservative clubs at the Université de Montréal and Concordia. (A request for an interview with a representative from the University of Toronto Campus Conservatives went unanswered and an interview scheduled with the UAlberta Conservative Association was abruptly cancelled at the last minute.) At all three universities, club executives, while acknowledging there are Trump supporters among their membership, were quick to point out that the issues that Trump capitalized on are unique to the United States—particularly those that thrived on grievances common to white America.
Jean-Philippe Fournier from Conservateurs UdeM says the Trump effect was and remains marginal in Canadian conservative circles, particularly in university clubs in Quebec—something he personally is relieved by. He says he and other young conservatives watched Trump's rise like everyone else: as entertainment. But now that he's installed in the White House, he says, "It will have real repercussions for our country in terms of trade, and that's a bit worrying." Fournier, however, is more willing to give someone like Kevin O'Leary a chance, mainly because his position on free trade is the polar opposite of Trump's.
Members of Conservative Concordia, meanwhile, say they are quietly optimistic about the prospects of a Trump presidency, mostly in terms of trade. That doesn't mean they are ready to party about it though.
"We're a very left-wing campus," says Conservative Concordia VP of Events Maria Yordanova. "So being a conservative is not something we advertise, and sometimes it is not very welcome."
Still, says CC president David Dunleavy, there is a clear line between Trumpism and the conservative movement. He says Canada's conservatives have a record of fiscal responsibility and moderation on social issues (though some would argue that). "We disassociate ourselves from [the Trump] movement. And we're not seeing a rise in Trump-style politics in Canada."
Since Zhou's article came out, things have been fairly quiet on the campus alt-right front. No one has come forward to claim responsibility for the flyers (although an alt-right Montreal Facebook page suggests that it was responsible for the McGill incident). There haven't been any alt-right campus clubs organized, or white student unions. If there is a growing movement, it is decidedly underground and invisible.
If Zhou is right and there has been an "emboldening populist wave following the election of Trump" on Canadian campuses, it doesn't seem to have gone much further than a wave of emboldened jerkoffs who've been thrown into the spotlight by a frightened media.
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