Andrew Scheer's problematic approach to his populist supporters - 2019-03-26
Earlier this month, from a flag-draped dais in Kitchener, Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer looked on earnestly as an audience member asked him whether Justin Trudeau should be in jail for, among other things, supporting ritual child abuse. "Trudeau gave $600 million to the Clinton Foundation," the man said by way of prelude at a town-hall meeting organized by the Conservative Party of Canada. "The Clinton Foundation is part of child trafficking and child sacrifice, if you study it. It's in the pizzagate."
Scheer gamely answered the question as though he hadn't just been asked about one of the most notorious (and widely debunked) conspiracies in modern political history. He later claimed to have not heard the question. To be fair to him, the audience began clapping loudly at the man's suggestion that one of the biggest charities in America was secretly trafficking and sacrificing children. In any event, the question was indicative of the conundrum Scheer now faces, as he attempts to harness the raucous strain of anti-Trudeau animus sweeping across the country: embrace the motivated populist anger of these crowds, along with the unhinged bits seemingly inherent in them, or cede this support to his rightward rival, Maxime Bernier and the People's Party of Canada. Scheer has chosen a third option, which is to welcome the crowds while denying the ugly bits even exist — even as they pop up in front of Scheer's very eyes. Consider his February appearance at a rally organized by United We Roll, which has a well-established connection to the country's yellow vest movement, the proudly anti-immigrant group that sprung up in the wake of a similar movement in France.
Scheer's speech, which focused on Trudeau's alleged hatred of the oil and gas industry, was a play for truckers and their supporters, United We Roll's ostensible supporters. Yet an apparent conspiracy-obsessed heckler peppered his three-minute spiel with familiar "He's attacking your children" rhetoric, while another wondered out loud, in both official languages, what Scheer was going to do about the United Nations. A sign outside Ottawa's West Block also critiqued the U.N. and said Trudeau should be charged with treason. The relationship between Scheer and these populist crowds is mutually beneficial. He gets a friendly audience, while this audience has the implied stamp of approval from the man who may well be the next prime minister. The conspiratorial types who keep showing are just an unfortunate by-product, it seems. When I asked a Conservative adviser about them, he shrugged his shoulders. "We can't control who shows up to these events," he told me, seemingly by rote. Yet it is difficult to understate the danger of Scheer's gambit. By appearing at events like United We Roll, Scheer gives legitimacy to voices that would otherwise (and deservedly) exist only on the fringes of Canada's political discourse — and which have become notably loud and brazen over the last several years. It used to be that Trudeau's critics pilloried the prime minister for his conspicuous liberalism. Now some are calling for his head. "You are working for your globalist partners. I wonder how much they are paying you to betray Canada," a woman said to Trudeau during Regina town hall last January. "What do we do with traitors in Canada, Mr. Trudeau? We used to hang them, hang them for treason." Scheer is in a difficult spot. Populist fury against the current government is widespread and politically active. Yet emboldened in part by the example of scorched-earth nationalism espoused by the current American president, it has also become decidedly more visceral and conspiracy-oriented as we march closer to the October election.