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Colin Horgan: The new CPC leader speaks in the language of societal decline
As much as his critics want to believe it, Poilievre doesn’t sound like a far-right Telegram channel. He sounds like something else.
By: Colin Horgan
In February, Canada’s Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre issued an internal report on “the connection between violent extremism and the ongoing convoy protest” in Ottawa — a blockade of the city’s downtown core. The protest was, according to ITAC, fertile ground for ideologically motivated extremism movements (IMVE) “to recruit and network.” It also noted that key IMVE individuals were using social media to disseminate their message and recruit followers, including Canadian “accelerationist influencer Jeremy MacKenzie.”
In August, MacKenzie went to a rally in support of Pierre Poilievre’s (now successfully completed) bid for Conservative party leadership and shook his hand. Someone took a photo and, naturally, that photo ended up online. “It is impossible to do a background check on every single person who attends my events,” Poilievre said when asked to denounce the handshake and the association, generally. “I didn’t and don’t know or recognize this particular individual.” But MacKenzie — and many others online — recognize something about Poilievre. What is it?
Poilievre has a unique relationship with the internet. Other politicians have leveraged their online audience to build political momentum, but Poilievre is different. Reactionary Poilievre haters might suggest the difference is that he speaks the language of online trolls, but on this point their criticism will always fail. “As I always have, I denounce racism and anyone who spreads it,” Poilievre said responding to his handshake with MacKenzie. And he’s right. He doesn’t say racist things. He doesn’t say extremist things. As much as his critics want to believe it, Poilievre doesn’t sound like a far-right Telegram channel.
But he does sound like something — something different than what we’re used to hearing. Something online. What the new Conservative leader does is speak in a kind of meta-text. An internet language of decline.
In a recent online video, Poilievre spoke with a young man named Phelong, an international student from Vietnam, about one of Poilievre’s favourite topics: gatekeepers. People like Phelong, Poilievre said, “want to get ahead based on merit, not political connections.” Phelong, clutching a mug with the words “Leftist tears” on it, nodded along. Poilievre hates gatekeepers. And he sees them everywhere. “Gatekeepers and corporate oligarchs are apoplectic that I’m going to scrap their crony capitalism,” read the tweet attached to the video.
According to Poilievre, gatekeepers are responsible for: passport service delays; keeping the arctic gateway closed; preventing truckers from delivering food; preventing farmers from producing food; preventing people from buying a house; preventing jets from landing at Billy Bishop Airport; preventing energy production; preventing Canadians from earning inflation-proof paycheques; blocking Canadians trained abroad from getting jobs in Canada; blocking opportunity for success; blocking pipelines; blocking energy exports to our allies; slowing immigration; trampling journalistic independence at the CBC; making paycheques smaller; running the central bank; and controlling what you see and say online.
As much as it seems like the message Poilievre is delivering is about so-called gatekeepers, it’s not. It’s actually about societal decline, or even collapse. This is the meta-message Poilievre projects if you listen closely enough. And it aligns with the general tone of online discourse currently, and of the past few years. The positivity of the early days of social media — flash-mobs, dance sequences, marriage proposals — has been long buried by the algorithmic favour for negativity engagement, a much more powerful force, that engenders a more global negative chaos mentality created by how it presents information (confused, disorganized, and immediate) and via its default sentiment framing for maximum reaction (pessimistic, cynical and bleak). As anyone online will tell you, everything is terrible now, which is always.
“GO Train cancellations, and a potential strike. ER departments closing due to nursing and staffing shortages. Airport baggage handling delays and flight cancellations. [Toronto Police Service] not enforcing traffic laws. Violence on the [Toronto transit]. Toronto city councillors quitting due to workload. All of this, and no reassuring plan to fix it,” a user posted to subreddit r/ontario in early August. “I know we have a good quality of life here, but it seems like we are a teacher strike away from being on our own.”
This is demonstrative of a large percentage of internet discussion, and probably conversations elsewhere, too. Unintentionally in most cases (most people are genuinely worried about the strain on public services), it echoes the basic precepts of the — at times militant — accelerationist perspective to which MacKenzie and others generally adhere: that the current system of liberal democracy is inherently corrupt and corrupted, verging on collapse, and that, in the extreme, its downfall can and should be hastened by acts of violence.
Are we in decline? Only time can answer that. Post-COVID, the system does seem unsteady. Poilievre's success to this point indicates that a non-insignificant number if Canadians — certainly Conservatives — are, consciously or otherwise, either turned to or fully buying into this meta narrative of decline or collapse. Which means plenty of are people vulnerable to deeper, darker rabbit holes, vulnerable to the most extreme version of this narrative.
“There’s no brakes on this woke train,” MacKenzie said during a May livestream, “Let’s just go, let’s get it over with … I want $3 gasoline. I want it. I want empty grocery stores. Do it. Take it all … You think things are scary now — ‘Oh there will be more violence, there will be people yelling.’ People yelling will be the least of your problems if these things continue. And they will.”
Earlier this year, MacKenzie was critical of Poilievre, accusing him of piggy-backing on a movement to put himself in power. After the photo of the two of them shaking hands went public, MacKenzie’s tone had changed. “I am a critic of all public officials including Mr. Poilievre; however, the depths at which the establishment slime has sunk to tarnish this man is shocking and has left me with a more cautiously hopeful supposition [sic] of him,” he wrote on his Substack page. “The same monsters seem to hate both of us with an equally disturbing enthusiasm! Noted.”
The rest of us should note it, too. Poilievre is not an outright extremist; his message is more atmospheric, more vibe than vitriol. But what he emits is still poison. What he telegraphs is the vision of a social order at a tipping point, with the suggestion that it can be easily pushed over. If his critics deride everything else he says, they should not ignore this aspect of it.
To miss the meta-narrative Poilievre has constructed, particularly when it’s unlikely that he’ll deviate from it as leader, is to miss its true long-term implications: that we would be likely at greater risk of social destabilization under his national leadership than we are now, even if it seems like those who’d cause disruption might be pleased by his victory. His message is a hastening of our collective systemic demise and he will be its accelerant, whether he realizes that or not. You think Fuck Trudeau bumper stickers and flags are bad? You think people yelling at politicians is bad? These will be the least of our problems.
Colin Horgan is a communications professional and former journalist and speechwriter.
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