Democracy Is Under Siege Globally. Canada Is Being Tested

Posted on April 8, 2024 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – Analysis
5 Apr 2024.   Michael Harris

How the well-honed playbook for whipping up authoritarian populism is being employed here and around the world.

If the polls hold, Pierre Poilievre will be our prime minister and Donald Trump will be ruling the United States, which — according to the Orange One’s own words — will no longer be a democracy. Trump will act as a dictator on “Day 1,” he’s declared on Fox News. According to the world’s most indicted politician himself, a U.S. Trumpocracy will run along the lines of strongman Viktor Orbán’s increasingly undemocratic Hungary.

Poilievre makes no such claims of course. But if he wins along with Trump, both countries will be part of the worldwide drift towards hard-right agendas tinged with authoritarian contempt for democratic institutions including a free and fair press.

The tactics for steering ships of state sharply starboard are similar around the globe, having changed dramatically in the last 30 years. Today’s political campaigners, particularly on the populist right, rely far more on attack ads and tearing down one’s opponent rather than presenting one’s own plans for the country. Brilliant polling is done to find out what issues people react to emotionally. And the internet is played like an algorithmic Wurlitzer to convert whipped-up fears into devotion to cult-like leaders.

That’s one of the reasons that outside influence on democracies has become such a burning issue around the world these days, including here in Canada.

Although the Conservative Party of Canada initially singled out and hyped Chinese foreign interference in Canadian politics, largely because it made the Liberals look bad, the CPC has been strangely quiet about China since the federal government granted Justice Marie-Josée Hogue a two-month extension for her inquiry into foreign interference in Canadian elections. The inquiry’s initial report is expected to be tabled on May 3.

In a Globe and Mail column, Andrew Coyne suggested what might be behind the uncharacteristic silence from Pierre Poilievre. Coyne wrote that both China and India may have interfered in the 2022 Conservative leadership race. Poilievre crushed his opponents on the first ballot. A record 613,000 new Conservative memberships were sold. A top-secret Canadian Security Intelligence Service assessment from October 2022 indicated that both countries interfered in the leadership race.

Which brings us to the International Democracy Union, or IDU, a global organization run by former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper that is dedicated to electing right-wing governments around the world. Membership extends to the extremely right-wing. Last year Harper met and fawned over Hungary’s Orbán, who pronounced Harper “a great ally.”

If you want to see what sort of global club Canada will join if governed by a Poilievre-led Conservative party, a look at IDU’s membership — including the recently scrubbed — can be informative.

Modi’s India

Sometime between Sept. 22 and Nov. 8, 2023, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was quietly dropped from the IDU website as a member. India joined the IDU in 2016, and there was no explanation for its removal from the organization.

What makes that development even more mysterious is that IDU chairman Stephen Harper and PM Modi were close associates. Interestingly, Harper’s right-wing lobby group also changed its name in the same time period. What was once known as the International Democrat Union is now the International Democracy Union.

Two possible reasons for these developments come to mind. As Coyne pointed out, there are credible allegations that India interfered in the 2022 Conservative leadership race. But even more shocking, there have also been credible allegations that the Indian government was involved in the murder of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar on June 18, 2023 — on Canadian soil.

On Sept. 18, 2023, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the stunning accusation that agents of the Indian government played a part in Nijjar’s fatal shooting. The PM’s statement, which touched off a political firestorm, was supported by American intelligence agencies. On Nov. 29, 2023, an unsealed indictment in the United States on a related matter further supported Trudeau’s allegations. Nijjar’s murder remains under investigation by the RCMP.

When Modi was still in good standing with the Harper-led IDU, his government cracked down on minorities and dissent. His right-wing vigilantes have attacked mosques and churches. In the 2023 World Press Freedom Index, India was 161st out of 180 countries surveyed — a scant three places above Russia. The share of wealth owned by the top one per cent in India has grown to 40.5 per cent on Modi’s watch.

On March 11, 2024, the Modi government announced rules to implement a 2019 citizenship law that excludes Muslims but fast-tracks naturalization for certain immigrants of other faiths. India has over 1.4 billion people, including 200 million Muslims, who will soon go to the polls.

Modi’s suppression of dissent and opposition is made easier by his authority to shut down the internet. The result? Hindu right-wing nationalism is on the rise, and democracy is in decline.

Trump’s United States

Like Hindu nationalism in India, white nationalism is a rising factor in U.S. politics, accelerating the shift to the right. Hot-button racial and gender equality issues are viewed as threats to the power and status of the white Christian majority.

As a result, a growing number of Americans are comfortable with authoritarian figures like Donald Trump, who promise to preserve their values. These Trump supporters are encouraged to feel threatened, and righteous violence is condoned in the name of “Christian values.”

Despite his massive legal problems, the Trump cult has not gone away. If anything, the alliance between conservative Christian nationalists and Trump’s MAGA Republican party is more entrenched than ever.

Right-wing U.S. Christian non-profits like the Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF, fund fringe groups across America, which then go after women’s rights to abortion, and the rights of LGBTQ+ minorities. Banning books is another signature activity of these groups. In effect, they are forcing their “dangerous, unpopular agenda on Americans,” as Kyle Herrig of the political funding watchdog group Accountable.US has asserted.

Case in point: the ADF helped fund the high-profile case of 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis. The website design company has never made wedding websites, but the owner claimed her First Amendment rights would be infringed if she had to make a website for same-sex couples. The same U.S. Supreme Court that struck down Roe v. Wade found in the owner’s favour.

The ADF had led the successful legal campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade and is now challenging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s rules that increase access for the abortion pill mifepristone before the Supreme Court.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified the ADF as a “hate group” for professing that LGBTQ+ people should be imprisoned. The ADF may also have been quietly working under the radar for years in Canada to roll back abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.

Trump seems to have no trouble finding operatives to help him undermine America’s institutions, including trying to kill citizens’ essential trust in elections. Case in point, Mike Roman, indicted on racketeering charges in Georgia for his alleged role in trying to reverse the results of the election that Donald Trump lost in 2020.

Roman, by the way, was treasurer of the IDU under Stephen Harper until, while he was under investigation by Georgia’s attorney general, his name was dropped from the organization’s website.

Europe’s far-right vanguard

There are troubling signs of the shift towards autocracy in a raft of other long-established democracies. An editor-in-chief with far-right ties has been appointed to lead the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche. The paper’s 100 journalists went on a 40-day strike because the new editor supports the racist “great replacement” theory.

Conor McGregor, the mixed martial arts superstar, has become a figurehead and spokesperson for the far right in Ireland. He has millions of social media fans, including ten million followers on X. In 2021, McGregor was the world’s highest-paid sports figure.

If you happen to be a migrant, McGregor’s policies are like a well-aimed kick to the unmentionables. He supports people protesting against immigration to Ireland and has repeatedly said, “This is war.” He has also suggested he might run for president in the republic under the populist banner. “It would not be me in power as president, people of Ireland. It would be me and you.”

In Holland, far-right leader Geert Wilders, described as “a disruptive and divisive force on the far right for two decades,” has said he wants to end immigration from Muslim countries, ban the Qur’an, ban mosques and leave the European Union. He has also added the shortage of affordable housing to his anti-immigrant stance.

His Party for Freedom won the national elections last November and is now a political force, as well as the focus of attention. Wilders is currently presenting himself as “professional and constructive,” someone who “can’t wait” to be prime minister. Mainstream parties now have to figure out a way of working with him in a coalition.

And then there is Germany. Shockingly, that country’s populist far-right party, Alternative for Germany, or AfD, won a local district administrator’s election for the first time last June, in the district of Sonneberg in the state of Thuringia. Mostly rural Thuringia is where the first Nazi official was elected in 1930.

In December, AfD had another victory. Tim Lochner ran for mayor in Pirna, an eastern German town of about 40,000 near Dresden. He had the backing of the AfD and secured 38.5 per cent of the vote. The success of the AfD in former communist states is attributed to worries about the economy, the cost of living and the integration of immigrants — a familiar litany of fears and anxieties in many countries drifting to the right.

The AfD has surged in popularity. Its members have been elected to both state and federal governments, and it has over 80 seats in the national parliament. Forming a coalition with a small party like AfD could mean the difference between a party being in opposition or becoming the government. The party uses democratic means to get elected, just as Adolf Hitler did, although some of their ideas are the antithesis of democracy. Parts of the AfD spread hate against minorities.

Although support for the AfD dropped slightly after 10 days of Germany-wide protests in January, the party remains in second place in the polls at 21.5 per cent, eight percentage points ahead of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats.

Millions of people protested in the city squares and streets of Germany after a report that two senior members of the AfD participated in a meeting where “plans for the mass deportation of citizens of foreign origin were discussed.” The AfD has denied this was party policy.

“The AfD is now more extreme than many fellow far-right parties across Europe, such as the Sweden Democrats, the Finns Party and the Dutch Party for Freedom,” concludes Foreign Policy magazine.

German extremists who met to discuss a “remigration plan” to force millions of people to repatriate has a dark historical resonance. It drew parallels to the Jan. 20, 1942, Wannsee Conference held by the Nazis to co-ordinate a plan to deport and murder the entire Jewish population of Europe.

In 2025 the AfD plans to put forward a candidate for chancellor in the German federal election for the first time.

According to the Wall Street Journal on Sept. 6, 2023, “Once inoculated by its Nazi past, Germany harbors growing far-right currents.” The AfD is pro-Russian and anti-immigrant. Such parties surge as voters lose faith in mainstream politics.

The AfD was founded in 2013 and has grown steadily more radical, unlike other right-wing parties that moderate their platforms to broaden their appeal to voters.

Like Trump, the AfD attacks the legitimacy of German courts and the media. The party denies that climate change is caused by humans, and it has ties to the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany, or NPD, a group that advocates for an end to German guilt about the Second World War. Founded in 1964, the NPD included many former supporters of the Nazis.

In 2017, the AfD voted not to expel a leading member of the party who said in a speech that “Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of bird shit in a thousand years of successful German history.”

In 2022, Birgit Malsack-Winkemann, a judge and former lawmaker of the AfD from 2017 to 2021, was arrested in an alleged armed plot to overthrow the German government. The former AfD MP allegedly showed the coup members around the German parliament.

One of the reasons that the AfD remains popular is that it is a form of protest against COVID rules. But Germans have other grievances. Pensions have not kept up with inflation. Another common complaint about the status quo is that migrants are to blame for crime, just as Donald Trump has claimed in his quest for the U.S. presidency. AfD leaders have called for sanctions against Russia to be lifted. The party also sees President Vladimir Putin as a defender of traditional social values.

The Reichsbürger movement, the far-right group suspected in the German plot to take over the government and kill the chancellor, took inspiration from QAnon but was also emboldened by various vaccine conspiracies. Disparate groups angry at the “deep state” were also attracted to the movement.

The plotters believed that they could sign a peace treaty with Donald Trump once they took over the government. Since the pandemic lockdowns, membership in the movement has grown from 2,000 to about 21,000. The 25 members of the cell who were arrested included a judge, a doctor and three police officers. At least 15 had links to the military and access to weapons.

On Sept. 21, 2023, the Guardian published a story informing that almost a third of Europeans vote for populist extreme parties. The trend is that when populists gain power, “the quality of liberal democracy declines.”

Far-right parties have broadened their voter base by connecting up voters with different concerns or grievances. “Lockdowns and vaccines were hobby horses for some, as, increasingly are culture war discussions — gender, history, symbols of national identity…. Others have latched on to the cost-of-living crisis and Russia’s war in Ukraine,” reported the Guardian.

Support for far-right politicians comes from unexpected quarters — “older women, urban voters, the educated middle class.” They know a leader is authoritarian but believe that leader, given power, will at least bring some kind of economic stability. In Europe, even some traditional centre-right parties are co-opting far-right policies, “particularly on immigration.”

German Chancellor Scholz says he wants the government to open a TikTok account, because parties like the AfD have used the platform to connect with younger voters. TikTok has 10 times as many subscribers as YouTube.

By using it, the AfD can appeal directly to voters across a multiplicity of groups, including members of the working class, young men without girlfriends, or unemployed voters. The appeal is usually emotional.

Perhaps it is purely coincidental, or maybe it’s not, that the Harper-led IDU, once located in Oslo, is now headquartered in Munich, Germany.

In any case, Holocaust historian Christoph Kreutzmüller says Germany’s far right is using an old playbook to make a comeback. “As with the Nazis, nationalism and the scapegoating of minorities — including Muslim migrants — are key to its ideology.”

“In times of anxiety, people tend to become more extreme because they are afraid to lose” what they have, Kreutzmüller told Vox. There is a racist revival all over Europe. “They are supporting each other, of course.” People have forgotten what it was really like in Europe during the last war, and the eyewitnesses are dying. People feel they are “neglected and not heard.”

Asked what lessons from German history people should keep in mind about the rise of the AfD, Kreutzmüller replied, “One thing is: Never underestimate them. Never. And do enforce the rule of law. I mean, that’s what we’ve got, for God’s sake. That’s the only thing we’ve got as a society.”

Hands across the water

Why pay so much attention to the AfD? It’s not just because of the effect this party is having on German politics. The German far right is also attempting to have influence in Canada.

German AfD politician Christine Anderson is a member of the European Parliament, although she is dedicated to ending German membership in that institution. She was on a cross-country “Strong and Free” tour of Canada in February 2023 during the trucker convoy. She was given a hero’s welcome by Canada’s far right, including the gift of an iconic, white cowboy hat during her stop in Calgary.

Controversial pastor Artur Pawlowski gave her the Stetson on behalf of the Independence Party of Alberta at a ceremony at the Calgary Petroleum Club, pronouncing, “This woman is a Canadian hero.”

This despite the fact that in 2020, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, BND, placed a faction of AfD under surveillance, announcing that “right-wing extremism and right-wing terrorism are currently the biggest danger for democracy in Germany.”

Anderson has been widely quoted expressing anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant views. And she is a big promoter of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. Like the Poilievre Conservatives, she supported the trucker convoy movement in Canada. In Calgary, the far-right German politician posed with Tamara Lich and other organizers of the convoy protests.

Anderson has called PM Justin Trudeau “a disgrace for any democracy.” She had a three-hour lunch with three Conservative MPs from Ontario. Smiling photos online of that meeting would no doubt help soften Anderson’s image in Germany as well. The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs quickly condemned the meeting between the Conservative MPs and Anderson.

In a video posted online by a Western Standard journalist, Anderson is asked her opinion of Poilievre. She replies that she has spoken to him “a couple of times.” The Opposition leader’s media spokesperson denied that Poilievre had ever spoken to Anderson.

Anderson was dismissive of Poilievre’s claim that his MPs were not aware of her political views.

“I found it kind of peculiar that he would claim they were not aware of my political views,” since the internet was “full of videos” about those views, said Anderson. Indeed, a simple Google search would have told them exactly with whom they were lunching.

In Montreal, Anderson posed for a photo with another conservative politician, Maxime Bernier, the former Harper cabinet member who now leads the People’s Party of Canada. Bernier gushed about Anderson on Facebook: “She was more effective opposing Trudeau’s tyrannical policies from Germany during the pandemic than our lame ‘opposition’ in the House of Commons!”

Anderson also posed with a Diagolon flag. That far-right extremist group seeks to create an independent, anti-immigrant nation out of Alaska, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and some midwestern U.S. states. Patches from the group were seen on weapons seized during the Coutts border blockade in Alberta in February 2022.

In January 2023, Pawlowski spoke with Alberta Premier Danielle Smith about helping him with his legal problems over COVID-related charges. Smith raised the matter with Alberta justice officials. The provincial ethics commissioner subsequently found the premier to have interfered in the justice system in a way that was “a threat to democracy.”

On May 2, 2023, Pawlowski was found guilty on charges linked to the Coutts border blockade and his role in protests against COVID regulations. He was also found guilty of breaching a release order after a prior COVID-related conviction.

Pawlowski did a speaking tour of the United States. After he was imprisoned in March 2022 for breaching his bail conditions, a large sign appeared in Times Square urging authorities to free the pastor.

On Sept. 18, 2023, Pawlowski was sentenced to 60 days in jail for his role in the protests against COVID health measures that blocked Alberta’s main border with the United States for over two weeks. He was given 60 days’ credit for the time already served and released.

The judge said probation would serve no purpose because the pastor did not believe he had done anything wrong. How Trumpian. The prosecutor said the case was not about freedom of religion or speech, as the pastor’s right-wing supporters claimed. “This is a straightforward criminal case,” the prosecutor said.

The Take Back Alberta, or TBA, movement stands for many of the same things as Pawlowski. This populist group took down one conservative Alberta premier for not leaning far enough to the right and may well set its sights on another. TBA leader David Parker worked for Jason Kenney, helping him to form the United Conservative Party in 2017. He then organized against Kenney for imposing COVID rules on Albertans. Kenney famously said about the TBA, “The lunatics are trying to take over the asylum.”

Parker, the home-schooled son of a preacher, says he has read the Bible over a dozen times and memorized the book of Romans. Once a Conservative, he is now a self-described “decentralist.”

In an interview with writer and former Alberta cabinet minister Donna Kennedy-Glans, he said: “I was a Stephen Harper storm trooper. I was a capital ‘C’ ideologue Conservative. But I’m not any more…. The best way to describe my political philosophy is I’m a decentralist. I believe in localism. I believe we need to take power away from institutions.”

Parker, who slags Justin Trudeau as “the prince of woke,” worked for Harper and Harper team members Rona Ambrose and Shelly Glover. Parker was national director of field operations for Erin O’Toole’s leadership race.

TBA was a registered, third-party advertiser in the last Alberta provincial election. When he led the National Citizens Coalition, Stephen Harper went all the way to the Supreme Court in an attempt to legalize unlimited funding during federal elections for third-party groups like the TBA. Unlike backers of the Citizens United case that won in the U.S. Supreme Court, allowing political “dark money” to enter the system, Harper lost.

Parker claims an estimated 30,000 followers. COVID was the catalyst for building that base. He was supportive of the trucker convoy, was staunchly against vaccine mandates and made hay when evangelical preachers were arrested for conducting services against public health measures in place at the time.

Parker warns that society is crumbling. He echoes the mantra of Trump — Poilievre, too — that everything is broken. The TBA movement takes credit for selling UCP memberships and getting Danielle Smith elected.

But its influence didn’t end with Smith’s election. TBA representatives control half of Smith’s UCP board, support that could disappear if she does not meet the movement’s expectations. Parker calls these supporters “freedom fighters.”

Parker, who drives his F-150 pickup truck all over Alberta, has delivered over 240 speeches to rooms large and small. The plan is to exert influence from the bottom up in municipal elections, on school boards and in constituency associations. For Parker, it is a crusade. The only way forward is a revolution — using democracy as a tool.

When Canadians next vote

Now let us train our eyes on the looming federal election in Canada. A combination of right-wing forces, some external, may already be lining up to disrupt and influence the contest. Voters may be subject to personalized propaganda, fake news, micro-targeting and trolling. Hackers already had powerful tools to disrupt democracy, but the revolution in artificial intelligence makes it almost easy.

The new reality is that any individual with a computer and a grudge can impact public opinion. That’s what happened when Theo Fleury posted the false claim that “Justin Trudeau is on the Epstein island list.”

A doctored CNN graphic depicted Trudeau as one of six passengers that Epstein’s former pilot met. CNN has confirmed the image was manipulated. But before it was discredited, over 300,000 people viewed the concocted post connecting Trudeau to the disgraced and now deceased sex trafficker.

This kind of fabricated information is far from harmless, even when it is debunked. It was fake news that brought real weapons, including an AR-15 rifle, to a Washington pizzeria that the gunman believed was the site of a child abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton.

Trump supporters are already targeting Black voters with fake AI images to show he is popular in that community, disinformation that could have an effect on the November election. A photo of Trump posing with young Black voters on a front porch had a caption claiming he stopped his motorcade to meet these people. It was all fake. But the post had over 1.3 million views on X by the time it was outed.

If there is any doubt that authoritarian populist leaders around the world share tactics in support of each other, recent events in the United States should remove it. Donald Trump has cosied up to autocratic rulers in the past, but on March 8, he outdid himself. He welcomed Viktor Orbán to Mar-a-Lago. Trump gushed that “there’s nobody that’s better, smarter or a better leader.”

The reality check? Orbán has silenced the free press in Hungary and taken control of judicial appointments. Both men see immigration as a threat, and Trump has promised mass deportations of people he has described as “vermin” who will “poison the blood” of America.

Orbán also spoke at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, which is overseeing Trump’s infamous Project 2025 plan to reshape the U.S. government in his own image.

Another right-wing think tank, the Foundation for Government Accountability, a non-profit foundation quietly funded by billionaires, has directed Republican leaders on major policy regulations to benefit the billionaire class under the guise of “anti-woke” legislation.

Although claiming to champion working-class voters, the changes the foundation wants would deregulate child labour and slash food stamps. Children as young as 13 have already been found to be working night shifts cleaning meat and poultry plants in the United States.

The Finkelstein formula

Many current right-wing world leaders, including Benjamin Netanyahu and Orbán, won power by following the so-called Finkelstein formula. Arthur Finkelstein was the American pollster who revitalized the Republican party in the United States, by perfecting a new, and toxic, approach to politics — negative campaigning.

Finkelstein also worked in Canada for the National Citizens Coalition. The lobbying group hired him in 1982 to teach them the art of commando politics, and he helped Stephen Harper get elected as a Reform MP in 1993, as I wrote in my book Party of One.

Finkelstein preached that you didn’t need a vision to win in politics, just good polling that revealed what people were against. Once that was established, the goal became tying the unpopular thing — immigration, carbon tax, inflation — to a flesh and blood political “enemy.”

After that, the process was very simple, one that Finkelstein called “rejectionist voting.” The idea was to avoid talking about your own positions and policies, the better to demonize your opponent. The objective was not to sell yourself but rather to destroy your opponent.

That requires mounting relentless, personalized attacks, whether they are factual or not, working on the theory that it is easier to demotivate voters than to motivate them. According to the Finkelstein approach, every successful political campaign needs an enemy to vanquish. As Finkelstein’s longtime assistant George Birnbaum said, it was “the best way to rouse the troops. Arthur always said that the fight wasn’t against the Nazis but against Hitler, not against al-Qaida but Osama bin Laden.”

Finkelstein, the father of right-wing populism, the undisputed champion of the attack ad, would have approved of Poilievre’s campaign for the prime ministership. After all, Poilievre has risen in the polls not by coming up with solutions to the country’s problems, but by giving those problems a human face — Justin Trudeau — and repeating simplistic slogans in Parliament and on the hustings: “Axe the tax.” “Not worth the price.” “Everything is broken.”

Finkelstein, who helped Trump get elected in 2016 by demonizing Clinton, has had a profound effect on Stephen Harper and the IDU as it helps right-wing governments get elected worldwide.

Poilievre, Harper’s political protege, no doubt is watching and borrowing what he finds useful. As noted at the top of this piece, Poilievre is not Trump, who brazenly vows to suspend the Constitution, gut the Department of Justice, dump the Federal Bureau of Investigation and use the institutions of government to punish political opponents.

But Poilievre benefits from milder, more Canadian versions of Trumpian techniques as he rallies his broadening base. The freedom convoy truckers did not try to storm Parliament, but they had a plan for Trudeau to step down and appoint their own government.

There is no question that Finkelstein’s philosophy has been influential around the world in promoting the political fortunes of the right. A hard-boiled strategist might defend such methods by saying all is fair in love and war and politics.

But is public life itself better off because of Finkelstein’s shrewd if cynical insights? This is what he himself said at the end of his life: “I wanted to change the world. I did that. I made it worse.”

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributor, is a highly awarded journalist and documentary maker. His investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

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