The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Canadian Conservatives feel they’ve found the candidate to beat Trudeau

Conservative member of Parliament Pierre Poilievre in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Dec. 13, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP)

Pierre Poilievre’s ambition to be Canada’s next Conservative prime minister rests heavily on the assumption that he’s the right person in the right place at the right time.

As far as assumptions about Canadian politics go, it’s not an unreasonable one.

At the moment, much attention has been given to the crowds of thousands showing up to “Pierre for Prime Minister” rallies — a level of political engagement among ordinary Canadians without much precedent. Only Justin Trudeau himself, in his early-2010s incarnation as a fresh-faced critic of then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, feels parallel: a charismatic politician from the out-party enjoying a “rock star” reception from his frustrated base and, with it, the sort of broad trust necessary to begin assembling a formidable campaign for the country’s top job.

David Moscrop: Pierre Poilievre’s infuriating campaign to be Canada’s Conservative leader

Though Poilievre, a former cabinet minister under Harper, still has to win the leadership of the Conservative Party — with members not voting until September — I’ve yet to meet a serious observer of conservative politics in Canada who does not expect him to triumph easily on the first ballot. His two supposedly highest-profile rivals, Jean Charest and Patrick Brown, enjoy virtually no credibility among conservative pundits or intellectuals and stir no excitement among activists. Their imagined paths to power require persuasive skills they simply don’t have.

“In the existing Conservative membership, Pierre is more popular,” admitted Brown recently, before outlining a strategy both brazenly cynical and embarrassingly optimistic, in which he somehow completely swaps out the existing base of the party before voting day.

Poilievre’s emergence as a unifying figure among Conservatives is a predictable response to a string of failed leaders. Since 2015, the Tories have thrice attempted to deny Trudeau power with often highly condescending messages to the electorate, affecting exaggerated concern that he is “just not ready” or is “not as advertised.” Poilievre, a vastly more cutthroat and combative character, would be the first Conservative leader whose candidacy against Trudeau would be fueled by a fairly unapologetic hatred of a man Poilievre has likened to a “corrupt tinpot dictator.”

On one level, this is a much less “safe” strategy than simply treating Trudeau as a source of disappointment or pity. Conservatives have long been instructed not to frighten the country’s nervous suburbanites with rhetoric that’s too angry or sharp-edged, and a Tory leader with a talent for insults running hard against Trudeau seems likely to further coarsen Canada’s already dark and polarized political culture. Yet it’s also true that, by the time Trudeau is scheduled to seek a fourth term in October 2025, he’ll have been in power a full decade. If there’s an appropriate time to go all-in on a message of sheer irritated exhaustion toward a prime minister whose maudlin personality, pious scolding and penchant for hypocrisy have long tested Canadians’ patience (and never impressed more than 40 percent of the electorate), 2025 will surely be it.

Simultaneously, Poilievre’s rise represents a gamble on a more nakedly ideological pitch than conventional wisdom has long deemed wise.

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Harper’s three-term tenure was said to demonstrate the good sense of treating politics as a mostly cautious, transactional enterprise, in which modest policy reforms that appealed to the material interests of the middle class, such as new write-offs in the tax code or cutting the national sales tax, could be exchanged for votes. Yet his two immediate successors as Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole, found little success with similarly pragmatic campaigns in 2019 and 2021. Poilievre’s campaign is accordingly oriented around grander themes: tearing down arbitrary “gatekeepers” and making Canada “the freest country on earth.” Into these rhetorical buckets have been poured a broad spectrum of promises, including making Canada the world’s “crypto capital,” simplifying zoning laws, recognizing immigrant job certifications and rescinding “all” remaining covid-19 restrictions.

Because Poilievre’s philosophical pretenses are so sweeping and unsubtle, they will inevitably invite attempts to find blind spots. Poilievre has always been more of a culture warrior than a libertarian, and doubtless the left will highlight instances in which the freedoms of various groups Conservatives do not traditionally care for go conspicuously unaddressed. But the simplicity of his agenda nevertheless makes its relevance easy to intuitively grasp (including by young voters). Whether it is outrage or optimism, Poilievre makes his fans feel something, and communicates his goals clearly — admittedly basic skills of effective politicians that have nevertheless been conspicuously absent in Canadian politics as of late.

In Canada, it’s often treated as a fact of life that political parties will be unimpressive and unambitious, and that Canadians, when they vote at all, will do so more out of rote partisan loyalty than any conviction they’re actually affecting the course of their country. To Conservatives filling his rallies, casting a ballot for Poilievre is a vote to snap out of this cycle, and thus the most exciting vote they’ve cast in years.