Leadership races are beautiful things. They represent the purest expression of the free marketplace of ideas that our political system can handle. Candidates appear as salespeople, hawking both themselves and their vision for the country to a group of rationally self-interested partisan supporters. Through the magic power of competitive forces, the products are honed until the superior one is purchased and/or is given monopoly rights within the party. Or something. I don't know, Conservatives love market metaphors.
But markets are rarely this elegant outside an economics textbook. The dialectic between the leader-commodity and the consumers it seeks to represent/articulate can lead to some pretty warped places. This can happen even under "normal" circumstances (there are no normal circumstances in the fluid history of politics) but things get significantly more unhinged when there are 14 forgettable candidates trying to shout over each other to fractured blocs of Tories at a historical moment when the worldwide right-wing zeitgeist is tracking in some wildly regressive directions. The Conservative leadership race looks less like a marketplace of ideas than a bizarre bazaar.
Obviously, the reigning champion of surrealism this campaign is Kellie Leitch. The campaign videos are just icing on the cake—the real feast is how vacuous the whole schtick really is. It's all innuendo and winking and dancing around her central, unstated premise that there are too many immigrants who don't act white enough—most auspiciously, Muslims who continue to be visibly Muslim in public. She will never outright say "Muslims are dangerous and maybe there are too many," but presumably her Canadian Values testers won't be digging through the social media history posts of Basque or Flemish migrants.
She won't (or can't) explain how, exactly, nefarious and nebulous elites are keeping the common man down. Instead she is relying on an unspoken political vocabulary largely imported from America and grafted onto the regional grievances of Western Canadians, mostly thanks to Ezra Levant's perpetual outrage machine. Leitch doesn't need to specifically call out Muslims are the problem, as the bearers of this insidious social disease called Islam; the Rebel and their ilk in traditional media will do it for her, and she just has to shrug on stage next to them or smugly cock her eyebrows into a camera for another eight grueling minutes.
Why else did she make a major announcement yesterday about her immigrant-screening plans via the Rebel Media platform? She's coasting on their hate so she can court the heavy xenophobe vote but still wash her hands of the hatemonger charge when her campaign crashes and burns. Which it will, because Kellie Leitch is not very good at what she does.
But as every market enthusiast will tell you, supply creates its own demand. Leitch's bargain-bin Trumpism has proved spectacular and darkly fascinating, like a circus freakshow where the geek threatening to eat Muslim children is given a cover story in Maclean's. The demand is there now, especially now in this brave new post-Trump world where the rock has been lifted and every dark impulse in the political life of our North American settler-state is slithering out into the sunlight. Every day the public discourse in this country lurches further toward total preoccupation with immigration and the porosity of our borders and threats to our way of life.
It's a good intellectual environment for a leadership race with 14 candidates and a ranked ballot. The winner will have to haul in other core constituencies by casting a wider net and dredging through the mud kicked up by candidates like Leitch. How else do you explain the strange turn of Maxime Bernier?
Mad Max: Fury Road
"Mad Max" Bernier—like Leitch, another forgettable Harper-era leftover reinventing himself as a contrarian maverick based on things he or his staffers have read on the internet—has spent most of the race angling for the libertarian vote. Two-tiered healthcare, slashed taxes, mass deregulation of nearly every economic sector bureaucrats meddle in, all the hits. In a regulatory race to the bottom, the best will soar to new heights and the moochers will get their just desserts.
It's a different core constituency than Leitch, so he's doing less scaremongering about Muslims and more clumsy trafficking in dank memes. Libertarians, largely, skew younger and more internet savvy than folks who froth about immigrants on talk radio. But it's late days now and Bernier has to broaden his appeal beyond people who get cheesed off about dairy supply management. Hence the sudden turn against "radical multiculturalism," the paranoid hand wringing about M-103, and his heel turn on a bill that would add gender identity and gender expression to the Canadian Human Rights Code. Hence also his dankest meme of all: urging supporters to join forces with Alberta Wildrose MLA Derek Fildebrandt in taking the red pill and liberating their minds from… the Social Justice Warriors, I guess.
Of course, as various Serious Pundit Men were quick to argue, cribbing a very famous metaphor from the biggest science fiction film of 1999 that has since been appropriated by nerdy misogynists on Reddit does not necessarily mean that Bernier is actively trying to court the anti-feminist underbelly of libertarianism.
But the timing is certainly auspicious. Here is Bernier, urging us to join Alberta's most obnoxious MLA in "taking the red pill" on the same night the Wildrose Campus Club at the University of Calgary sent out an email with the subject "Feminism Is Cancer" advertising an anti-feminist documentary called The Red Pill is either the greatest Freudian slip in Canadian political history or proof that God loves dunking on clowns as much as the rest of us. But given the general atmosphere of right-wing politics in 2017, Bernier's cozying up to figures like Jordan Peterson, and his core demographic of young contrarian Tories, it's pretty likely that this a Leitchian Bat Signal to the Rebel right that, hey, Bernier's sick of hearing about "gender issues" and "political correctness" too.
In retrospect, it's the logical endgame for a leadership race with a million candidates and no clear favourites that takes place in an ideological ecosystem poisoned by post-recession internet nihilism. Kellie Leitch created the demand (both in the party and in the media) for a candidate that would scandalize the political establishment and speak truth to the suffocating, spectral power of campus-driven "political correctness," even if she could never deliver. Maxime Bernier, ever tuned in to the subtle frequencies of market signals, is poised to swoop in and pick up the pieces. There's a good chance it could work.
Remember how comfortable we felt about a year ago that Trump was all fire and tweet brimstone and everything would be fine? Me too.
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