Freedom is everywhere in Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre’s public messaging. In a video on his YouTube channel, Poilievre squints into the camera and, quoting Wilfrid Laurier, intones: “Canada is free and freedom is its nationality.” 

He repeatedly asserts he wants to make Canada the “freest nation on Earth,” never specifying what this means—but we have some hints as he participated in this summer’s “March to Freedom,” organized by the same crew behind the “Freedom Convoy” occupation of Ottawa earlier this year. 

Politicians have won adherents by declaring support for vague concepts like freedom, democracy or justice. However, there is something novel and important about the way the resurgent right is rallying behind the banner of freedom these days. 

Promising to defend the common people and reclaim the nation for its rightful inheritors, right wing populists have positioned themselves as the true defenders of freedom. They frequently describe their struggle as a common sense crusade against a shadowy cabal of special interest groups seeking to impose their agenda and enrich themselves at the cost of the health and soul of the nation. 

Who are the nation’s true heirs and what is the legacy they are redeeming? Who are the usurpers and invaders, and how have they debased this legacy? 

For contemporary right wing populists, the usurpers are remote, technocratic, liberal elites. The invaders include leftists and progressives, Indigenous and racialized people, refugees, and gender nonconforming, queer, and trans folks. 

Working in an often uneasy—but effective—alliance with white nationalist, white supremacist, authoritarian, and proto-fascist movements on the ground, the new right populism poses a credible threat of replacing the established neoliberal order, while preemptively blocking efforts to build collectively liberated alternatives to it.

For those committed to collective liberation, the necessity of understanding the appeal and effectiveness of right populism is pressing.

The National Welfare Rights organization mobilized thousands of members to expand inclusion and economic justice near the end of the welfare state’s “golden age.” The populist right has its roots in reactions to these movements toward equality. Photo: George Mason University Libraries

A new populist right

For many in North America, the surging right is associated with Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign in 2016. But the roots of our current predicament go back to the Allied victory in World War II. 

When fascism was defeated and discredited, the field was cleared for new experiments in authoritarian democracy. 

Today’s right populism began to develop during a brief “golden age” of welfare state capitalism (roughly the two decades after World War II) founded on a detente between organized labour and capital in the global North. Despite its profound contradictions, the welfare state did serve to implement social justice and inclusion initiatives. Opposition to these initiatives was a central component of the new right populist politics that Pierre Poilievre and others now embody.

Right populism is described by political scientists Eatwell and Goodwin as being based on three promises. 

The first promise is to reform democracy so that the “popular will” is acted upon. Its second promise is to defend ordinary people against distant elites and outsiders such as immigrants. Its third promise is to remove corrupt, remote elites and replace them and their self-serving agendas with one faithful to the popular will—to “drain the swamp,” in Trumpian terms.

In the 1990s, neoliberal technocrats triumphantly announced that empowering investors and removing regulations would create a rising tide that would lift all boats. 

Their rhetoric was effective at confusing people. Governments weren’t de-funding public services and infrastructure, they were empowering communities to take over their care. Neoliberals weren’t privatizing for profiteering, they were creating opportunities for investment and innovation and reducing inefficiencies. 

In one version of this neoliberal capitalist fantasy, we were all going to become hyper-individual free agents, wheeling and dealing in an increasingly interconnected world where national boundaries and the power of the state would dwindle over time. 

But history went in the opposite direction. A majority—in both the global North and South—have seen real wages falling as costs increase, while wars and environmental crises escalate. 

There have been left wing responses to these crises, but none have achieved the resonance of right-populist ones. The right’s advantages include heavy financial backing and no particular need to fulfill their promises. Nonetheless, the widespread resonance of its narrative is worth understanding in detail.

“Proud Boys” defended the legacy of Edward Cornwallis—Governor of Nova Scotia and a perpetrator of horrific colonial violence—at an event where Indigenous people were mourning genocidal acts. Photo: CBC

Finding a new language

The right began to assert ownership of “freedom” more than half a century ago.

In the 1960s, the U.S. Republican Party’s “southern strategy” sought to expand the party’s voting base in southern states by appealing to white southerners’ sense of racial superiority and grievance. 

Since bald-faced declarations of racist fervour were becoming increasingly unacceptable, it had to do so obliquely. So Republican strategists emphasized a defense of “states’ rights.” 

Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained the process in his now-infamous 1981 interview. “By 1968 you can’t say [racial slur]—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff.”

Structural white supremacy and racism found a new vernacular that centred white rights, not anti-Black racism. It would prove a powerful tool not just for the Republican Party but new generations of right-wing activists and organizers.

In Canada, a variety of right-wing figures have ploughed similar fields. Mainstream politicians including Preston Manning, Stephen Harper and Maxime Bernier, alongside a gaggle of other less well-heeled right wing agitators, have denounced multiculturalism as “social engineering” and maligned the “special treatment” received by Indigenous Peoples. 

These agitators have sowed racial animosity and deep resentment on the part of “old stock” Canadians against racialized newcomers and others who have challenged established hierarchies. They have smeared attempts to address entrenched inequalities as woke grandstanding by cosmopolitan elites, over-indulged children, and lefty losers. 

One feature of the Canadian far right is its enduring anti-Indigenous politics. This element takes on special significance in the political landscape of settler-colonial Canada. After all, you can’t ground your politics in promises to purify and redeem the nation if you acknowledge that same nation exists thanks to centuries of displacing, dispossessing, and disappearing Indigenous Peoples.

On July 1, 2017, Indigenous activists and their allies gathered in downtown Halifax to mourn the atrocities Canada has committed against Indigenous Peoples. Local members of the Proud Boys—self-proclaimed “Western chauvinists” part of an alt-right street fighting fraternity—disrupted the ceremony in defence of Canadian nationalism. They aimed to uphold the legacy of Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis, infamous for the bounty he issued for the scalps of Mi’kmaq women, children, and men. 

The five Proud Boys—in their signature black polo shirts and flying the Canadian Red Ensign flag—were also all members of the Canadian Armed Forces. The Proud Boys challenged the Indigenous women leading the ceremony and their allies, asserting that Nova Scotia is a British colony, not Indigenous territory, and insisting that Cornwallis’s legacy deserved to be honoured.

Though marginal, these far-right groups are drawing on a broader discourse of aggrieved entitlement cultivated through media and in political spaces. 

In the north, the “Southern strategy” is firmly established. 

Stephen Harper has endorsed Poilievre, though their rhetoric on subjects like the World Economic Forum is nominally at odds. Photo: Government of Canada

Mainstream-fringe symbiosis

The far right’s talking points, obsessions, and aspirations do not directly appeal to the majority. Despite their small size, politicians court them for the intensity of their beliefs. And well-platformed media figures amplify and launder their grievances, growing their pool of potential recruits.

Outlets like Ezra Levant’s Rebel Media remain on the margins of respectability, servicing the hard core of the right. But people like Rex Murphy have used their reputations to launder white rights talking points to a mainstream audience through columns and media appearances.

A 2017 BuzzFeed investigation revealed some of the inner workings of far-right website Breitbart, which successfully built an audience writing news stories about popular grievances and economic turmoil, then used that platform to execute a strategy to channel people into a Trump-aligned, far-right movement ultimately bent on creating a “white ethnostate.”

Among the base and its various respectable public proponents, unreconstructed raging against upstart “others” who should know their place is mostly gone, replaced by a discourse of cultural values and social norms. The often-implicit question is whether all people are equally capable of living in a civilized society.

In 2018, Conservative Party backbencher and future PPC leader Maxime Bernier tweeted, “People who refuse to integrate into our society and want to live apart in their ghetto don’t make our society strong.” 

While right populist policies may serve to further marginalize those excluded from the economic system—as Atwater famously admitted—Bernier, Poilievre, and others are careful to avoid retrograde racism. 

They speak persuasively against decadent, narcissistic, and self-righteous cultural and political elites, mobilizing a deep-seated and widespread resentment of the established order. 

For example, Poilievre has made a target of the World Economic Forum (WEF), the annual gathering of capitalism’s glitterati in Davos, Switzerland, calling it “a hypocritical gathering of billionaires, multinationals and powerful politicians” who “lecture working class people to stop buying gasoline.” 

This is a significant departure from the previous neoliberal consensus—espoused by Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper alike—who have attended and supported the WEF. 

Harper, who endorsed Poilievre and under whom Poilievre cut his teeth in cabinet, called the WEF “an indispensable part of the global conversation among leaders.” 

Superficially this is a critique of technocracy, rule by experts and the reduction of politics to technical policy questions. But scratch the surface, and there is a repudiation of the principles of representative liberal democracy as a way of organizing society. 

Liberalism’s origin story is the social contract: free-willed, rational individuals giving up some freedom and autonomy in exchange for the security and peace provided by the state. The liberal citizen trades autonomy for civilization. 

Poilievre proposes that we “fire the gatekeepers.” According to him, the gatekeepers are “the consulting class, politicians, bureaucrats, or agencies” who “create roadblocks for progress and charge a hefty fee for anyone who would want to build anything.” 

Unlike some of his traditional conservative forebears, Poilievre doesn’t restrict himself to mismanaged fiscal policy or an inflated bureaucracy. While he cunningly pilloried the Liberal government for the passport debacle of 2022, his examples of “gatekeeping” extend to vaccine mandates and freedom of speech on university campuses and online, topics which have become red meat for right wing culture warriors. 

Poilievre’s efforts to ingratiate himself to different right wing factions and subcultures—from the convoy to cryptocurrency enthusiasts—as their shot at mainstream credibility and political power has been carefully calculated and, so far, effective.

Poilievre’s “Reclaim” video is an appeal to rise up and take “what was always yours.” Photo: Pierre Poilievre/Youtube

A rebellion from below?

Sitting in a rustic cabin, dressed casually in a t-shirt and jeans, Pierre Poilievre gazes into the camera and explains to his YouTube audience what his campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party is all about:

The statist big government, so-called liberals of today, they don’t want to restore the timeless ideas. They want to sweep away our history so that they can invent a new utopia from scratch. […] Well, I’m not here to invent from scratch a utopia. I’m here to allow you to reclaim what has always been yours. […] You just need to reclaim it—reclaim your life. Reclaim your freedom.

Poilievre’s narrative turns on the rhetorical elements that have made the populist right so attractive to so many. Instead of identifying with the rich, powerful, and those who claim to know better, he casts his lot with the common folk seeking freedom and security against elite overreach. 

On the right, hatred of elites blends easily into plain old hatred. You don’t have to follow an idea too far into the base before a resentment of remote elites at the World Economic Forum morphs into anti-semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros.

In the political vernacular of the populist right, words like freedom, democracy, choice, diversity, community, and identity acquire very different meanings than they carry in liberal democracies. 

The populist and radical right often work together effectively, albeit uneasily. No accelerationist militia member or convinced white nationalist sees right populism as the destination, it’s merely a convenient stop along the way. Many of the radical right who hold their noses as they publicly back Poilievre or Bernier favour language that emphasizes respect for diversity, identity, and difference when communicating with “normies.” But in their vernacular, diversity and the dignity of different human groups is best achieved through the creation of ethnostates. 

How such states would be racially purified is almost never laid out in detail. In a similar vein, freedom isn’t understood as the elimination of oppressive institutions and relations allowing diverse groups of people to participate; it’s the right to be free of failed elitist experiments in social engineering like multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion initiatives, gender equality, and a range of other efforts to address entrenched inequalities. 

In Canada, the Diagolon movement is an example of a far right movement that espouses a desire to create a whites-only ethnostate running diagonally from Alaska to Florida. Diagolon emerged from the “Freedom Convoy” occupation of Ottawa and is the brainchild of Jeremy MacKenzie, a Nova Scotian, combat veteran, far-right streamer, and founding member of the People’s Party of Canada.  The well-armed group’s discourse features antisemitism, conspiracy theories, and retrograde race science—though members are careful to note they are not racist.

While the notion of “Diagolon” (a fictional country made of jurisdictions that eschewed mask mandates) is more of a meme than a concrete plan, it’s one of many tributaries feeding the right-populist imagination. 

These are the ideas with which Poilievre, Bernier, and others are engaged in a long-term, long-form dialogue of affirmation and mutual support.

Pro-Palestinian protesters in Halifax, despite remaining in their cars, were handed over $10,000 in fines under lockdown anti-protest legislation that nominally targeted right-wing groups. Photo: Nada Musa via CBC

Pandemic politics: a right-populism case study

Today, one could be forgiven for believing that the most pointed, audacious, and resonant challenges to the status quo are coming from right populists, not the left. 

Their rhetoric and organization has been the best-placed to take advantage of a wave of profound mistrust of powerholders and institutions, and the explosive growth of conspiracism. While government COVID-19 responses poured rocket fuel on these dynamics, they were well underway before the pandemic.

The pandemic exposed some of the richest and most powerful states on the planet—Canada among them—to be little more than labour and resource management systems for global capital. 

Paid sick days, improved ventilation in schools and other public institutions, robust testing and contact tracing infrastructure: these and other measures were deemed impossible for the state to provide. This, despite clear evidence that these measures were precisely the ones that would make the biggest differences.

From the pandemic’s beginning, many on the left backed vaccine passports, restrictions on freedom of movement, and a culture of spying and snitching on neighbours, ostensibly to ensure compliance with the best public health advice. When it quickly became clear that COVID-19 was going to find ways to beat vaccine-induced immunity and that the vaccines were not inhibiting transmission of the virus, many leftists continued to support a range of coercive and punitive measures to enforce public health measures.

In Nova Scotia, the Liberal government maintained a legal state of emergency for two years. In spring 2021, the government went to court and secured an injunction that made all public protest illegal for the duration of the state of emergency. The pretext for this was threat to public health and order allegedly posed by a few dozen anti-vax activists who would periodically assemble in Halifax to call for an end to various public health measures. The injunction was granted with hardly a whisper of objection from left groups. 

In a move that should surprise absolutely no one, the first target of this greatly enhanced power was a Palestinian solidarity rally. Participants were issued tickets and fines, despite the fact that attendees were participating in their vehicles, not face-to face, and that organizers had actually gone to Halifax police in advance of the rally to clear it with them. 

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) has since taken the provincial government to court over this violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Nova Scotia Court of Appeals’ judgment was a scathing indictment of the government, the ban, and the court that authorized the request. 

Under the banner of freedom and capitalizing on collapsing trust in authorities and experts, the populist right seized the political initiative. Taking on the role of principled opposition to neoliberal technocratic pandemic mismanagement, the populist right caught the left flat-footed, struggling to support public health measures but without offering a clear and compelling vision of how we might live otherwise. 

University of Toronto classrooms and offices sit atop a Canadian Tire in downtown Toronto. As the public loses faith in institutions, the left must break with the faustian bargain of neoliberal technocracy and return to grassroots organizing. Photo: Payton Chung

Organizing for collective liberation

When the establishment left sets out to respond to a pandemic, address massive and entrenched wealth inequality, take up the challenge of decolonization and reconciliation with Indigenous nations, confront surging racism, or deal with the climate crisis, it remains deeply confused about how to do so. 

The organized and institutionalized left, largely ensconced in highly educated and professionalized enclaves such as universities, NGOs, political parties and trade unions, continues to flirt with technocracy as a way to address the crisis complex confronting us. 

Technocratic solutions are formulated by experts and delivered through hierarchical systems populated by those close to economic and political elites. 

The leftists in the aforementioned enclaves have absorbed more of the culture of these institutions than any of us care to admit. To an alarming extent, we have been seduced by state regulation, surveillance, and punishment. But if nothing else, the pandemic has exposed these beliefs as a deeply uninspiring political strategy. 

There are hard choices to be made about how to counter a right populist machine that has seized the initiative.

Do we reach for the levers of power available through the state and its capacity to regulate social life? 

Or do we return to the left’s long-neglected roots in grassroots organizing and popular mobilization, convincing and empowering people one at a time?

In the face of widespread disillusionment with the empty promises of elites and their techniques of social management, “more of both” is the definition of an inadequate response.

The left has a long history of organizing at the grassroots to empower people to act in their own interests while strengthening a spirit of solidarity across differences. Some labour, Indigenous, and other grassroots organizers have begun to dust off this tradition, but restoring it faces many obstacles.

To create space where people can build their radical imagination and capacity for action and education is certainly more difficult. But it’s also the only response that is likely to be effective.

Still the Faustian bargain of allying with neoliberal technocracy beckons. 

Entering into alliance with existing elites and power holders on a terrain that is still thoroughly neoliberal means relinquishing the left’s radicalism and commitment to collective liberation. It’s a choice that asks progressives to conflate being present in the halls of power with wielding it. 

The second path comes with no guarantees, requires deep commitment, and requires that we connect with people outside of our enclaves. If we want to build a collectively liberated society and counter the false promises of “freedom,” we have to dig in for the long haul.

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