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Opinion Can Pierre Poilievre’s thrilling bid to become Canada’s leader succeed?

Pierre Poilievre, leader of Canada's Conservative Party, addresses the National Conservative Caucus in Ottawa on Sept. 12. (David Kawai/Bloomberg)

As expected, the feisty and combative Pierre Poilievre was elected head of Canada’s Conservative Party in a landslide on Saturday. He crushed closest rival Jean Charest in a 68 percent to 16 percent vote held among more than 400,000 party members. Assuming the country’s election schedule is obeyed (admittedly a big “if”) Poilievre will face off against Justin Trudeau for Canada’s prime ministership in October 2025.

Though Poilievre is the fourth consecutive Conservative leader to stare down Trudeau, his ascension nevertheless heralds the beginning of a freshly dynamic and competitive era in Canadian politics. Poilievre’s opportune mix of talents and timing fills the stagnant Conservative Party with vigor at a moment in which the seven-year-old Trudeau government is looking creaky.

The new leader possesses multiple strategic advantages over those who came before him, not least of which is a much longer time frame to wage a war of attrition against Trudeau. Unlike his predecessor, who served just over a year before facing a general election, Poilievre will have a full three years to close his deal. It’s a head start that feels almost gratuitous, given Poilievre’s already large national profile. He built a reputation serving three terms on the opposition benches and in the cabinet of former prime minister Stephen Harper before that. Having forged his brand through highly shareable tweets, video clips and Facebook posts, he could be described as Canada’s first “viral” politician.

As his decisive win proves — Poilievre swept all but eight districts in the Conservative Party’s 338-district electoral college — the new Tory boss likewise begins his campaign from a position of high trust with his own base, where his predecessors often faced skepticism and doubt. A recent poll found 57 percent of Conservative voters (distinct from party members) approve of him, with only 20 percent who don’t, and it’s hard to imagine the 23 percent who “don’t know enough about him” not breaking in his favor. It looks bizarre in retrospect that so many in the Canadian media insisted on framing his campaign as a “pitched battle” for the “party’s identity,” in which Poilievre was a deeply “divisive” figure whose ascension might tear the party in two. In reality, Poilievre will lead a party far less split than ever before, in which his blend of populism, libertarianism, “anti-wokeism” and even light antiglobalist conspiracism has been affirmed as the Conservatives’ default disposition.

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Of course, such love from the Conservative base does bring challenges. It ensures Poilievre will start his national campaign as a clear-cut symbol of the modern right, making him an easy-to-grasp, easy-to-loathe figure by anyone already disposed against Conservatives. Center-left pundits have expressed near-bottomless contempt for the man, filling newspaper editorial pages with endless denunciations, with progressives on social media little better. A large part of Poilievre’s style — and here, analogies to former U.S. president Donald Trump may be valid — has always been that he sees no reason to seek the approval of people who already hate him, and will thus do the opposite of trying.

The optimistic response, however, is that Poilievre is uniquely capable of convincing Canadians they are part of his tribe. On the stump, he’s proven a charismatic communicator with a skill for making his theory of the world easily accessible, weaving relatable case studies into the speeches he gives at his famously large rallies. Attacks on “gatekeepers” such as central bankers, federal bureaucrats and corporate cartels are always linked to tangible middle-class pains — chiefly the high costs of consumer goods and housing.

While a politician campaigning to make life more affordable is nothing new, Poilievre has demonstrated he is able to strike a balance between both the white-hot rhetoric of grievance and Trudeau-bashing that excites the committed right, and less partisan concerns relatable to those who don’t care as much about politics. Converting young men seems to be a particular focus. His pitch is not entirely unlike that of Jordan Peterson (on whose podcast Poilievre appeared in May), pushing notions that stereotypically masculine dreams of self-reliance, embodied by homeownership and breadwinner jobs, are being denied by hostile, patronizing elites.

A few weeks ago, I visited a Poilievre rally at a nightclub in downtown Vancouver. Aside from the unconventional setting, the event was notable for featuring a packed house of men under 40, noticeably distinct from the sorts who usually attend such things. Many I spoke to told me “Pierre” was their entry point to this world.

An emotionally charged, youthful mass movement, centered around a single charismatic leader whose appeal is as “vibe”-based as anything, is a phenomenon that’s struck some observers as a juvenile, even demagogic, way to become prime minister. But it’s worth remembering it worked for the current one.

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