Maxime Bernier didn’t appear to know who I was as I slipped through the crowd that had formed around him at one of the big events organized by the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee.
He didn’t look or carry himself like “Mad Max,” the fearless one-man army his 2017 Conservative Party leadership team had been building him up as. Rather, at this CJPAC Action Party, he wore the classic nervous smile of a Canadian politician out of his depth and worried about embarrassing himself. His head bobbed as I introduced myself as someone who followed him closely on social media and asked him if I could take a picture. I must have seemed harmless enough.
I sent the selfie to his Digital Director, with whom I’d been Twitter-jousting with for months. We’d sent animated GIFs of RuPaul’s Drag Race to one another, memes from the then-popular online shooter game Overwatch, and my personal favourite: a video of myself, pretending to be a personification of Max’s freedom-obsessed campaign, biting into a carton of 2% Milk and letting the delicious, nutritious, supply management dribble down my chin into a sink. (Later, Andrew Scheer—who beat Bernier to become leader—would adapt this bit for his infamous celebratory drink of milk at the Parliamentary Press Gallery Dinner.) Do not, my friends, become addicted to milk. It will take hold of you and you will resent its absence!
Within seconds of hitting Send, a Bernier-supporting MP from the Barrie area who stood roughly eight-and-a-half-feet tall came barrelling out of nowhere towards me, shouting my name. I froze. I thought he was going to pick me up by my ankles and shake my lunch money out of my pockets, but he just wanted his own selfie with the guy who was, in his opinion, obsessed with the Bernier campaign.
I’ve since deleted Twitter, which is why only my email appears at the bottom of these columns instead. But with his People’s Party climbing to new heights of the high single digits in the polls, I remember what Max was, and is. We like to make him the villain of our own action movie—where the heroic Canadians beat back the American-backed populists—but that isn’t who Max is. Max has blown from separatism to libertarianism to closed-borders nationalism whenever the winds change.
Back then I legitimately thought that to save the CPC from becoming the redoubt of MAGA-hat wearing memelords, I had to play their game, and win, even if it meant pretending I was part of my own big-budget action movie story. If you’ve seen a picture of me, you know how ridiculous that sounds. Still, it’s no more ridiculous than the social-media-dopamine addicts who think they’re going to overthrow Canada’s various cartels with a few freedom-laced viral postings. As soon as Max’s outsider campaign was forced to leave the ephemeral world of the Extremely Online, it evaporated, leaving him and his supporters to complain about being treated… like outsiders.
Oceans of ink have been spilled cataloguing the appeal of populism. How they take legitimate and halfway legitimate grievances, play on the sense of unfairness, on the fear of falling behind. What I want the Jewish community to understand is that the most dangerous thing about populist movements is not the disregard for other’s feelings, or even the vaguely antisemitic tropes they deal in sometimes. It’s that there’s nothing underneath the edginess. The memes are a means to an end—power—and what happens afterward is more of the same.
(Oh, and our friend the giant MP from Barrie? When I caught up with him after Bernier was narrowly beaten at the leadership vote, I treated him to a cold, refreshing glass of his favourite beverage: chocolate milk.)
Josh Lieblein can be reached at [email protected] for your response to Doorstep Postings.
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