What the pro-Trump insurrection in Washington means for Canada

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Pro-Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol. Image credit: Brett Davis/Flickr

On the very day on which violent extremists seized the U.S. Capitol Building -- with what appeared to be the acquiescence, or even active assistance, of some of the police on duty there -- our federal government warned us about the rise of far-right extremism here in Canada.

The Canadian department of defence issued a report that connects a sharp rise in extreme-right agitation to the restrictions required to control the spread of COVID-19. People who live in far-right echo chambers do not accept COVID-19 rules as health measures. Rather, they seethe at the limits to their freedom.

Those far-right extremists subscribe to a wide range of conspiracy theories.

Many claim COVID-19 is not real. They say it is a fiction governments use to impose controls on the population. Some also believe vaccinations are a plot by tech billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates to control our brains.

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a think-tank based in the U.K., has extensively studied right-wing extremism. In one recent report it pointed out that far-right terrorism increased by more than 300 per cent over the past five years.

The individuals who committed many of those acts of terror, in the U.S., New Zealand, Norway and Germany, were not members of organized groups. They were connected to loose, extreme-right networks, operating largely online.

Canada is fertile ground for online hate and violence mongering, as the ISD notes in another report, published this past June. The ISD identified 6,660 right-wing extremist channels, pages, groups and accounts in Canada, across seven social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Collectively, those channels, pages, groups and accounts reached over 11 million users, a third of the adult population of Canada. ISD identifies a number of what it calls ideological subgroups among Canada's right-wing extremists. They include: white supremacists, ethnonationalists, anti-Muslim groups, and misogynists who are part of what the ISD dubs the "manosphere."

The most prolific Canadian extremist users of social media, the ISD reports, are anti-Muslim, at a rate of 23 per cent on Facebook. There is also a significant amount of antisemitic chatter, which accounts for 16 per cent of extreme-right conversation on Facebook.

Over the past five years, "far-right extremist groups have grown in number and boldness in Canada, especially on the heels of the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president of the U.S.," according to the ISD.

Their research shows that the number of far-right groups in Canada tripled following Trump's election. The report's authors postulate that the Trump victory led extremists to believe the political climate would be more permissive for their activities:

"Across major Canadian cities, the far-right vigilante groups Soldiers of Odin and Sons of Odin have patrolled streets to 'protect' Canadian citizens from what they perceived as the 'Islamic' threat, seeking to silence and marginalize Muslims through intimidation and a show of force. More recently, they've been joined by the Three Percenters, an Islamophobic armed militia group. According to the leader of the Alberta-based group, these armed and paramilitary trained activists have several mosques under surveillance …"

Equally worrisome are the growing number of unaffiliated, free-floating, potentially violent extremists.

"These are people who may be following multiple groups online, and who post hate-filled … screeds on social media, but who do not necessarily affiliate with any particular group … It is lone actors who have been responsible for the most dramatic incidents of violence in Canada, including the killing of three Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in Moncton, the murders of six Muslim men at prayer in Quebec City, and the deaths of ten people who were run over by a van in Toronto …"

The Big Lie, a favourite extremist tactic

In the U.S., Donald Trump has weaponized the classic strategy of the Big Lie. Comparisons with the most vile leader of the modern era, Adolf Hitler, are risky. Trump is an authoritarian and demagogue. But he does not advocate world domination or genocide. Let's be clear.

Having said that, it is important to remember that in his book Mein Kampf Hitler precisely codified the Big Lie technique, which Trump uses almost daily. Here's how the Nazi dictator put it:

"In the Big Lie there is always a certain force of credibility … [the masses will] more readily fall victims to the Big Lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies, but it would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously."

On Wednesday night, on the floor of the House of Representatives, while police were still clearing away the insurrectionists, Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, an ardent Trumpist, used the Big Lie technique to completely mischaracterize what had just happened.

Gaetz said he had seen evidence from a facial recognition technology company that the rioters were not, in fact, Trump supporters. Rather, they were leftist antifa supporters in disguise. The next day, the Washington Post asked the company about that claim. Their answer: Gaetz's statement was 100 per cent false.

The company, XRVision, said that it had used facial recognition techniques to identify some of the rioters, and found they were associated with skinhead and neo-Nazi groups, or with the antisemitic and homophobic QAnon conspiracy movement. XRVision saw no known antifa activists.

Don't expect Gaetz, or the Fox News commentators who made the same allegation, to retract and apologize. That's not how the practitioners of the Big Lie operate.

When Donald Trump proclaims loudly, and without hesitation or nuance, that the entire election was rigged, and that he won by a landslide, he is using a classic Big Lie tactic to impress and motivate his supporters -- and to get them to send him money.

Trump doesn't attempt to rile up his base with arcane talk about how the election in some states might not have been administered strictly according to all rules and precedents, as do his Ivy-league-educated sycophants, Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley.

Trump knows he would never get tens of thousands of frenzied supporters to storm the building where Congress meets by urging them to chant: "Pennsylvania did not follow precise constitutional rules in the manner in which it instituted mail-in ballots …"

The hopped-up extremists who converged on Washington on Wednesday were there to chant "Stop the steal" or "USA" or "We won," or, as Trump himself exhorted them, "Take back our country!" No legalistic milquetoast for them.

In inciting a riot, Trump was trying to use violent and extreme language to influence a political process. It did not work this time. Trump might have overplayed his hand, on this occasion. Don't count him out for the future.

In Canada we are not immune to threats of political violence

In Canada, we have, more than once, seen how the explicit or implicit threat of violence can have an impact on political events.

In 2008, a few weeks after Stephen Harper had been re-elected with an increased plurality of seats, but short of a majority, the Conservative prime minister tried to corner the weakened opposition parties.

He presented a mini budget that fraudulently claimed there would be a surplus in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. And, to add insult to injury, he added a clause that would unilaterally abolish the per-vote subsidy for political parties the Chrétien government had instituted five years earlier.

Harper said he would consider the mini budget to be a matter of confidence, daring the opposition to vote against it. He seemed cocksure that since he had just won the election a chastened opposition would buckle.

Instead, the three opposition parties decided to call Harper's bluff. They pledged to vote down the mini budget. But rather than trigger another election mere months after the previous one, the combined opposition forces offered a coalition government, which, they promised, could easily command the support of the majority of members of Parliament.

Harper and his party were shocked, but they fought back.

The Conservative leader rhetorically demonized the idea of a coalition government, even if it would represent the majority of MPs and voters. And, egged on by Harper, Conservative activists mounted angry street demonstrations, decrying the effort of the losers to steal the election from the winners.

When none of that worked, and he saw that the opposition parties planned to stick to their guns, Harper tried a manoeuvre without precedent. He announced that he would ask Governor General Michaëlle Jean to prorogue -- suspend -- Parliament for a couple of months, thus avoiding the confidence vote.

Prorogation is, as a rule, a routine matter. However, no prime minister had ever suggested proroguing mere days after Parliament had met for the first time following an election.

The governor general was in a difficult position. The ace in the hole for Harper was the implied threat that his angry supporters might be willing to do more than merely peacefully protest if they believed their election victory had been stolen.

Harper got his way, and the rest is history.

Populist right-wing rhetoric spurs Alberta anger

Brian Topp, who was, from 2015 to 2016, chief of staff to Alberta NDP premier Rachel Notley, posted a similar anecdote on Facebook, as he watched the violent events in Washington.

Topp related what happened when an angry mob went to Edmonton to protest NDP legislation designed to assure the health and safety of farms as workplaces.

The Conservative opposition decided to portray a bill that would give farm workers access to the Workers Compensation Board as a threat to the farming way of life, a plot to destroy the family farm.

Topp describes the right-wing campaign against the government's plans this way:

"It was all the same angry populist right-wing rhetoric -- much of it echoing the writings and social media posts of over-caffeinated opposition caucus staffers and their colleagues in dark money-funded, right-wing, third-party groups, with a little help from their Toronto PR firm …"

Topp summarizes the demonstrators' rhetoric, which will be familiar to anyone who has been watching the pro-Trump agitation in the U.S.: "The province needed to be taken back from evil; the province needed to be stood up for; it was time take a stand and fight; time to stand our ground; time to lock and load …"

Worse than the heated and angry words were the out-and-out threats of violence. They consisted, Topp reports, of "a tsunami of obsessive, angry, violently misogynistic, and highly detailed death threats aimed at leaders of the government and their families, sometimes individually named."

Brian Topp concludes:

"The sheriff's department told us they'd never seen anything like it."

When politicians heedlessly abandon civility and respect for the truth, and for each other -- in Canada, in the U.S., or elsewhere -- the results can be dangerous. Donald Trump doesn't care, and is likely to pose a major challenge to the U.S. body politic for some time to come.

Is there a chance we can hope for better from our political leaders here in Canada?

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image credit: Brett Davis/Flickr

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