A photo of Pierre Poilievre during his first caucus address as leader.
Pierre Poilievre during his first caucus address as leader. Credit: CPAC

Populist leaders who inspire their angry followers to storm the national capitol seem to be in vogue these days. But if Canada is in search of such a strongman, it’s not clear that Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre — or PP (as he’s affectionately called) — really fits the bill, as some are now suggesting.

Donald Trump earned his strongman stripes building a crooked real estate empire in rough-and-tumble New York City, while Jair Bolsonaro developed his tough-guy habits as a captain in the Brazilian military (where he learned to express his manhood by declaring he’d rather find his son dead than dating someone with a moustache).

PP, on the other hand, acquired his street-fighting ways in the dark and savage jungle known as … Canada’s Parliament.

But while Poilievre’s handlers may be trying to fine-tune his bio to increase his street cred, it might not matter to those angry men who are, after all, not the sharpest knives in the drawer. Indeed, perhaps the one thing that could be said about them is that they are, well, confused.

An insightful article in The Walrus, co-written by prominent pollster Frank Graves, describes how Poilievre is making gains among disaffected Canadian men — particularly young men — who “complain they have not seen the kind of progress their parents and grandparents did. Pensions and secure retirement are a mirage.”

These men are correct, and their anger at being left behind as the world economy zooms ahead is understandable, even poignant.

Where they get off course and start lapsing into loopy thinking is in their inability to grasp who’s to blame for their predicament. And this is where a populist strongman can make hay. A strongman purports to be on their side, grasping their grievances and feeling their pain.

Typically, the strongman urges them to vent their rage by storming the seat of government or, in the Canadian version supported by Poilievre, parking in front of Parliament and clogging the surrounding streets with enormous trucks, hot tubs and bouncy castles.

Strongmen offer up a clear villain: government, or in Poilievre’s words “this big beast called government.” Government’s evil is apparently perpetrated by all those who exercise its authority, notably public health officials trying to curb a pandemic.

Blaming government is a clever bait-and-switch, since the root grievance of the angry men is their economic insecurity.

And it wasn’t government officials (or pointy-headed public health authorities) who made them economically insecure. The corporate world did that!

If pensions and secure retirement are a mirage today (which they are), it’s because the cutthroat corporate world of recent decades stopped providing pensions to its employees.

The corporate world also pushed governments to adopt a whole range of pro-business policies that destroyed the earlier economic order based on the New Deal, under which economic rewards were distributed much more equitably.

Indeed, that New Deal order had treated the economic security of workers as vital — the very glue that made democracy work; if working people could achieve economic gains and financial security, they would value highly the democracy that delivered all that.

This has been stripped away over the past four decades as the corporate elite has managed to impose the new pro-business order, redirecting income and wealth to the top, slashing social supports and undermining the ability of the common people to achieve economic gains through unionizing.

This leaves today’s uneducated workers with little hope of retiring comfortably or buying a house, as their uneducated parents and grandparents did.

No longer tethered to a democratic system that doesn’t deliver as it used to, they become a volatile, malleable mass, susceptible to the snake oil of a wily strongman.

Poilievre is hoping working people won’t notice that he’s not, in fact, offering them a return to economic security.

But, what the hell, he’s just as angry as they are! And he’s delighted to champion them as they lash out at public health officials, blast the horns of their oversized trucks and frolic in steamy hot tubs in the public square.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...