Would Trump win the Tory leadership?

Scott Gilmore on spotting cynical opportunists in the Tory leadership race

From left to right, Chris Alexander, Maxime Bernier, Andrew Scheer, Erin O'Toole and Lisa Rait look on as Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong responds to questions from the audience at a Conservative leadership debate in Greely, Ont., on Sunday, November 13, 2016. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

From left to right, Chris Alexander, Maxime Bernier, Andrew Scheer, Erin O’Toole and Lisa Raitt look on as Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong responds to questions from the audience at a Conservative leadership debate in Greely, Ont., on Sunday, November 13, 2016. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

I spent the last year closely covering Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. From his first campaign speech to this moment, he has been a demoralizing manifestation of the worst in human nature. Every single day he lied shamelessly, scapegoated minorities, scorned the rule of law, and presented policy ideas that were as unworkable as they were damaging. And let’s be clear, these are all statements of fact. His lies were debunked daily. He repeatedly promised to violate the U.S. Constitution. And only a week after being elected he has already abandoned his biggest promises, such as building a wall.

I was sure he would lose. But he didn’t. I was dismayed that someone so poisonous could find such broad support among Americans. The day after the election I left New York for Ottawa, and I took comfort in thinking at least Canadian politics is still sane and decent. But perhaps I am wrong about that, too.

On this side of the border, the Conservative Party of Canada’s leadership race is marching forward with a series of debates. And, front and centre, one of the candidates shamelessly professes her sympathies for Trump and talks up “Canadian values.” (Until this candidate proposes some worthwhile policy ideas of her own, I won’t name her.) When the media pushed back, she offered some mealy-mouthed qualifications, and I told myself, “This is pathetic. No one will support her.”

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I am wrong here as well. According to a new poll from Forum Research this week, 52 per cent of Conservative voters approve of the Trump victory. And this pro-Trump candidate is raising more money than anyone else. In fact, a partner at the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright LLP hosted an expensive fundraiser for her this week. This is a firm that spends 2,000 words on its website boasting about how its lawyers support “diversity and inclusion,” which apparently means also supporting a politician who proposed a 1-800 cultural snitch line.

As a result, my expectations were very low when I attended the most recent Conservative leadership debate in Greely, Ont., this week. I settled in to be disappointed. But yet again, I was wrong.

The candidates gathered were solid, and the debate was surprisingly intellectual and mostly focused on policy. Identity politics were nowhere to be seen (perhaps not coincidentally, neither was the pro-Trump candidate). No one threatened to build a wall, or called Mexicans rapists, or praised Vladimir Putin. And from what I could tell, no one lied either. What ensued was a polite, mostly sincere and informative exchange of ideas—far more intellectual than a typical question period.

That being said, there were clearly two types of candidates on stage. The first and largest was composed of men who were, frankly, interchangeable. You could squint your eyes and not be able to tell one from the other—just white guys complaining about Liberals. Their answers to the questions posed by the audience were often just slogans and real policy positions were just promises to do the opposite of whatever Trudeau was doing. It was clear that these politicians were playing to the base. They didn’t have platforms, just a series of talking points calculated to rouse cheers from a partisan audience. It worked: the loudest applause was reserved for these guys, when they railed about a carbon tax or dumped on the CBC.

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Three candidates were operating at a different level, though. They were more sophisticated, better communicators and presented a coherent platform. Maxime Bernier flew the libertarian flag with vigor. It’s not easy for a Quebec politician to condemn supply management, and Bernier deserves credit for doing it again and again. Lisa Raitt came off as extremely empathetic, easily connected with the audience, and gave realistic answers grounded in her knowledge of what is and isn’t possible in Ottawa and across the country. And Michael Chong was there to represent the Progressive Conservative roots of the party, with a set of clearly thought-out policy ideas, fiscally conservative but socially liberal.

Of everyone in the race, only Chong and Raitt appear to be consciously running for prime minister. They are proposing policies that will resonate with all Canadians, not just the CPC faithful. Each talks about the need to attract a more diverse base. And both of them acknowledge that the party can’t ignore realities like climate change.

After the U.S. election, I’ve lost all faith in my ability to understand voters, either here or there. I’d like to think that the Tories will rally around Chong and Raitt, believing the party needs a leader who can communicate complicated ideas that all Canadians can support. But increasingly I fear cynical opportunists, leeches eager to latch on to the most divisive idea as long as it gets attention. Maybe they understand something about Canadians that I don’t. I hope that I am wrong here, too.

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