Right wing populism in Canada is not to be underestimated

With Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O’Leary mimicking some of Donald Trump’s campaign tactics, nothing should be taken for granted.

The 2016 U.S. presidential election made it clear that the world has arrived at a new era in political campaigning.

New media has given candidates a free and effective means through which to influence public opinion in real time, making unlikely contenders plausible leaders.

With multi-millionaire businessperson and reality television personality Kevin O’Leary now vying for the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) leadership and already mirroring U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign in certain ways, candidates and parties in Canada need to be strategic in how they approach the next federal election.

Like Trump, O’Leary is probably a better television personality than a businessperson. But, also like Trump, his rise to power should not be underestimated.

Like many, I spent much of last year telling people Trump was absolutely not winning the American election. I would tell them the only time Trump ever led in the polls was during the Republican National Convention. After that, he imploded, and the Democrats surged and maintained their lead.

As election day approached, pundits confidently proclaimed Hillary Clinton would take the White House. They agreed she had adequate support in key states to win the Electoral College.

Then came election night’s upset, a surprise due in part to secret Trump supporters who wouldn’t admit to pollsters that they would vote for him. In retrospect, Trump’s victory shouldn’t have been so much a surprise — he did a much better job of getting his message through to American voters.

O’Leary, like Trump, has long been outspoken with his conservative views on economics and personal responsibility, particularly through his various television ventures. Like Trump, he has no experience in government. And, perhaps most critically, O’Leary does not speak French, a fact that leads many to believe he could never be prime minister of Canada.

Until the American presidential election last November, I would have said O’Leary could never garner enough support to win the CPC leadership, much less the Prime Minister’s Office. Now, however, I believe this man is not to be underestimated, even in a country where so many of us pride ourselves on our liberalism.

All about branding

Political parties are no longer guaranteed eight or 10 years in power before they fall. Elections of the future will be decided by candidates’ ability to create a brand for both themselves and their opponent. The candidates or parties who know how to get their messages through most effectively will win.

Branding involves creating certain associations with your business, or increasingly with yourself as a businessperson. As a businessperson, Trump is best known for his Trump brand and is frequently associated with New York, big business, real estate, success, money, and a hotel empire. Even if this is not a full or realistic portrayal of him, this is Trump’s brand.

Trump made his brand part of his campaign. He convinced people he would be a successful president because he had been a successful businessperson—even though he had many business failures under his belt: casinos, airlines, a universities, and steaks, and so on.

Many voters ignored his failures, though, because his personal brand of success was so well established.

Trump then created new brand for himself, as a presidential candidate. The Make America Great Again campaign slogan, which resonated with millions of voters, was trademarked the day after Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in 2012. Trump knew the importance of having a campaign brand more than two and a half years before he launched his campaign.

He sent his message home on the most American of things, a red baseball cap — one of the biggest expenditures for his campaign. Many traditionalists laughed at this but his supporters wore the hats proudly. Trump used a prop that all levels of American society could relate to. He spoke plainly to working class voters. He sounded more like voters themselves than a polished politician.

Hillary Clinton's email scandal proved detrimental to her campaign. Photo: Mike Mozart / Flickr.
Hillary Clinton’s email scandal proved detrimental to her campaign. Photo: Mike Mozart / Flickr.

Trump effectively branded the more experienced Clinton as “Crooked Hillary,” even though his own business and charity dealings were far shadier. The media helped him by consistently focusing attention on Clinton’s email scandal. After all, it was one of two scandals they had on the Democratic candidate — the other being her meetings with Clinton Foundation donors.

Trump, on the other hand, had many scandals, none of which resonated in public discourse quite as long as Clinton’s.

A Gallup word cloud evaluating what Americans saw, read and heard about Trump and Clinton during the election campaign demonstrated the word most associated with Clinton at one point was “email”, while for Trump it was “speech” and “president”.

We’ve arrived at an age in which it is more advantageous for candidates to be involved with many scandals than just one or two, it seems.

The idea that politicians are always embroiled in scandal fits with what the public already thinks about politics. They think all politicians are immoral, so what’s another scandal so long as voters don’t remember it? If an individual brand association like “Crooked Hillary” becomes established, however, then the candidate in question has a problem. 

Trump was able to establish himself as the anti-elite candidate and the one who would clean up Washington — quite a feat for a media and business mogul who has spent his life on Wall Street. Both Democrats and the media should be chastised for not calling him out on the immense hypocrisy and contradiction.

He smartly built on Bernie Sanders’ branding of Clinton as the establishment candidate. They used Clinton’s eight speeches to big banks—out of the nearly 100 speeches she had given—to establish her as elitist and tied up in Wall Street. Neither the media, nor the Democratic Party, called Trump out over his own deep ties to Wall Street.

In Canada, the CPC has an ongoing effort to create a negative brand for Trudeau. For being a former prime minister’s son, Trudeau has been called “privileged”, and the Tories have styled an attack on Trudeau similar to the American “pay for play” wording used on Clinton. Trudeau’s own cash for access fundraising activities—which, last month, the prime minister pledged to ban via legislative changes—somehow overshadowed the CPC’s own history of high-priced fundraisers aimed at rich supporters. If the media ignores this and the Liberals do not challenge it with their own counter-narrative, then Trudeau could find himself branded as Canada’s own establishment leader.

If a party does not counter a negative branding of their leader, voters could carry those harmful connotations with them to the ballot box. A negative brand for a party leader can depress turnout for the whole party.

Trump drew on his knowledge of television and being a showman to drive his brand home. He used media’s thirst for sensationalism to garner wide media coverage of his rallies. His message got through on television day after day, and his widely televised rallies helped his campaign build momentum, while Clinton relied more heavily on debate preparation and policy knowledge.

Many are watching closely to see if O’Leary attempts a similar approach in the Canadian context. It is clearly a winning formula for someone who does not have a great deal of knowledge of public policy.

Much has also been made of Trump’s effective use of social media to circumvent the mainstream media any time the press wouldn’t help him get his message out. He was an entertaining showman in all the various forms of media and clearly understood the importance of social media in the current political environment. Masters of communications technology can always use it to break through in an election environment. Franklin Roosevelt did it with radio. John F. Kennedy did it with television. Barrack Obama did it with the Internet.

We cannot assume that O’Leary’s falsehoods and sensational language will not resonate with enough Canadian voters.

We can already see signs that O’Leary is heading down a similar path as Trump. He has relied on falsehoods, and he has used sensational language to get coverage and draw attention, calling Trudeau “incompetent” and a “surfer dude”. This is a return to Harper and the CPC’s “Not ready!” messaging on Trudeau in the 2015 federal election campaign.

O’Leary has also claimed “Trudeau is the wrong guy to deal with Trump,” and that he himself is the right person because it takes a conservative businessman to deal with a conservative businessman.

Furthermore, we must never forget that 31.9 percent of the population voted for Harper in the 2015 federal election. By all accounts the CPC is a good fundraiser and has increased its voter identification capacity since the last election.

We cannot assume that O’Leary’s falsehoods and sensational language will not resonate with enough Canadian voters. The CPC recently caught up to the Liberals in the polls and in one recent poll O’Leary was leading among leadership candidates. If the Conservatives see him as someone who can win back government for them, he could well win the leadership race.

The good news, however, is that Trudeau is also not to be underestimated, as the CPC and New Democratic Party found out in the last federal election. While his critics like to write him off as “just a teacher,” they’re missing critical points.

Trudeau’s experience as a teacher and community activist enabled him to develop important skills in communicating and dealing with people. Having a degree in literature means he understands the importance of narrative. Trudeau was a master of the Internet, voter identification, and social media as he came from third place in the polls to win the last federal election in Canada.

The NDP failed to take advantage of their surge in popularity in that election and allowed the Liberals to outdo them in their appeal to voters on the left. They have been mired in leadership problems ever since.

Trudeau on the other hand, like Trump, is a master at getting his message out. He, too, clearly understands branding.

And that may be all that stands between Canadian citizens and the expansion of right wing conservatism in Canada.

Lori Lee Oates, Ph.D. has degrees in global history, political science, and sociology. She is also an Accredited Business Communicator. Lori is a self-employed communications consultant in St. John’s and lectures in the M.Phil. (Humanities) program at Memorial University.

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