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Chris Alexander became the latest Harper factotum to hit the wall last week. As immigration minister he had to hoist the burden for the Syrian refugee debacle. He’d been a shiny diplomat before entering politics and many, including Syrian-Canadians, felt hopeful when he became minister. Then he went into the Harper sausage machine and emerged just another snarly A-hole. He rubbished journalists (not only the CBC’s Rosie Barton) and snottily insisted Canadian citizenship is a privilege granted by Tories, not a right. But as the pressure mounted he crumpled. He wasn’t the first to fade.

The parade of Tory attack dogs has been long and luminous. It’s how John Baird and Jason Kenney got their Ottawa start, fangs ever-bared. You thought it came naturally to them but as they moved up, they grew less vicious and slid out of the role while others arrived: Joe Oliver, implying environmentalists are terrorists, yet never quite at ease in the part; Julian Fantino, snubbing wounded vets, more comfortably. Dean Del Mastro. Peter Kent, formerly a smooth TV journalist who went straight for the jugular as a minister (he provoked an early, endearing Justin Trudeau obscenity in the House) yet was dumped anyway: did Harper simply not trust the type? Kent was still at it this week, falsely slagging a Syrian “terrorist,” then half-heartedly apologizing.

Paul Calandra is an interesting case. He seemed a born potty-mouth. You could picture him during recess in the schoolyard. Then one question period he overreached, yammering irrelevantly about Thomas Mulcair supporting genocide against Israel as if he couldn’t shut it off. Next day he was back tearfully apologizing and hasn’t been the same meanie since. He still shows up on TV but without the old bile. Maintaining high rabidity levels isn’t that easy for most people. (There are exceptions: Pierre Poilievre.) These guys were recruited to play a role and you don’t say No to the boss. But what role and why?

(I’m not suggesting, by the way, that other parties are unblemished. The Liberals in the 1980s had their “rat pack,” who were aggressive and hostile but not essentially nasty. It’s meanness that marks the Harper brand.)

I don’t think they’re simply an externalization of Stephen Harper’s id, though that’s a tempting way to go. I think we got a clue when we saw Angrycon early in the campaign. He’s the Tory dude who blasted reporters as “lying pieces of s—” who all cheat on their taxes worse than Duffy. (In one of the great moments in campaign annals, a mortified Hannah Thibedeau of CBC bleated, “Why would you say I cheat on my taxes?”)

We finally had an actual visual of the Harper base. A face for the base. These are the 25 per cent of voters (not of Canadians) who are the solid core of the Harper vote: resentful, mostly white and mostly male — I generalize ruthlessly. With them in line, Harper can reach for another 10-15 per cent by appealing narrowly to Ukrainians, Jews, etc. The vast 60-70 per cent majority who’ll never vote for him are irrelevant due to our idiotic voting system. But the base needs reassurance in the form of rhetorical red meat. That’s what the attack dogs provide.

Harper himself is in an awkward position. We saw it as the refugee issue exploded. National Post columnists and Globe and Mail editorialists agonize over why he won’t take the lead in showing compassion, like Merkel in Germany. But this risks enraging the base; they fear terrorists, who are self-evidently Muslims, slipping in.

So Harper, who is heard by a national audience, speaks in code to them; in effect employing two languages at once. He says he won’t relent in putting Canadians’ security first, code for: we won’t let those refugees in because they’re jihadists. If reporters asked him why Germany can absorb 800,000 quickly without security angst, you can picture angry cons screaming, like Basil Fawlty: “Germany! Don’t you know who we fought in two world wars?” Then Harper adds that he’ll prioritize “minorities” and “the most vulnerable,” more code for: Christian Arabs, at least they’re not Muslims. Base mollified.

I don’t think this is just Harper’s personal impulse; it’s electoral reality. You can please the Globe and Mail and lose your core vote. What profits it then?

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Alex Guibord/flickr

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Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.