The Pierre Poilievre Media Circus
I incur the wrath of the paranoid populist ringleader
There’s an old Russian saying: Those who have served in the army never laugh at the circus.
Anyone who has been to Pierre Poilievre’s increasingly-absurd roadshow recently probably won’t get much of a kick out of the carnival, either.
Poilievre has now been the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada for more than a year. He rode into the job on a wave of popular support from the anti-vaccine ‘Freedom Convoy,’ and has done everything he can since then to make that crowd proud.
He has pandered to conspiracy theories around the World Economic Forum by vowing to forbid his ministers and staff from attending the annual thought-leader hobknobbing event in Davos. He has made good by the anti-vaxxers by tabling legislation to ban COVID-19 vaccine mandates of any sort. He has winked at the anti-Ukraine camp by bashing a new Ottawa-Kyiv trade deal.
Poilievre has insisted, however, that he is well outside the culture wars and terminally-online discourse that has dominated right-wing political movements elsewhere. He has, instead, focused on a few core messages: Cutting taxes, getting tough on crime, building homes. It is all, as he repeats at least once a minute, “common sense.”
Despite his bread-and-butter pitch, Poilievre and his team are obsessed with maintaining a strong relationship with a small but influential group of far-right media outlets, conspiracy influencers, reactionaries, and online trolls. And they’ve found a very clever way to do it.
On Tuesday I trekked down to one of Poilievre’s press conferences here in Montreal to see this shtick for myself.
This week, on a very special CanCon edition of Bug-eyed and Shameless: The man slated to become the next prime minister of Canada is playing a pretty cynical game.
This is my circus. These are my monkeys. Subscribe to Bug-eyed and Shameless today.
Danielle Smith has a lot of bad ideas.
On her Locals page, Smith told her paying subscribers that the media now falls into two camps: Those which tell the truth, and those which don’t. Identifying which is which isn’t hard.
“If you read an article or hear a speech calling something dangerous, trans-phobic, racist, alt-right, oppressive, conspiracy theory, misinformation or contributes to climate change,” Smith wrote. “You should definitely consult another source.”
As longtime readers of the newsletter will know, Smith was clearly taking her own advice. She shared articles from Holocaust denial blogs, anti-vaccine pseudoscience rags, pro-Russian propaganda outfits, and random Twitter denizens. (Dispatches #23, #24)
When one pseudoanonymous Twitter account, claiming to be an employee at a big tech company, cast a dystopian picture of “BLM/LGBTQ, trans flags hanging in office[s]. Pronouns stated before meetings. Special affiliation groups for everyone but white men,” Smith reacted with horror: “Dudes — if this is what is going on in big city offices everywhere, we have a lot of healing to do as a society.”
Smith was, then, just an out-of-work radio host. Now she’s the premier of Alberta.
Late last month, Smith announced that she would follow the example of numerous Republican-led U.S. states and institute a ban on gender-affirming care for youth.
The draconian measures would forbid all gender-affirming surgeries for those under the age of 17, and outlaw hormone therapy and puberty blockers for those under 16.
The new measures are simultaneously performative and dangerous. For starters, the Canadian Paediatric Society already has guidelines which say surgery should wait until a patient is at least 18 years old. A prescription for hormones, similarly, is generally only given after years of therapy, evaluations, and consultations with both the teenager and the parent, so rarely before 16. The big change, however, is on the restrictions for puberty blockers, a reversible pharmaceutical intervention which is governed by well-researched guidelines. Their use, as the name implies, generally occurs before puberty. Smith’s policies will effectively ban their use altogether.
The Canadian Paediatric Society was categorical that these changes “will lead to significant negative health outcomes, including increased risk of suicide and self-harm.” Others have put together exhaustive explanations for why these policies are dangerous and wrong-headed.
The thing is, I actually don’t think Smith is a hateful person. She shared at a recent press conference that a young person in her family is in the process of transitioning — and I’ve every reason to believe that Smith is kind and supportive towards them. The problem is that Smith is clearly opting to reject expert advice in favor of scaremongering and anecdotal horror stories pushed by her self-selected sources of information. She has, in other words, convinced herself that the doctors, experts, and journalists are part of the same cabal of wrongthink, and that she and her cohort have found the truth by a process of elimination.
That, to me, is really sad. And we — the media — deserve some blame for that. We were too quick to codify skepticism and caution as bigotry and transphobia. We missed an opportunity to try and forge, if not consensus, at least collaboration and understanding.
But Smith bears more blame. She has so gleefully deputized herself an expert on questions around healthcare for vulnerable youth because she watched a few Youtube videos. She has become the I-Did-My-Own-Research Premier.
She’s also been a success. She vaunted to the helm of her party, despite stiff opposition, and won nearly one million votes in a general election. She has attracted the adoration of Tucker Carlson, while her digital army is committed and rhetorically well-armed.
Smith won her election specifically because she was able to bifurcate her appeal: Speaking directly and plainly to those who fear COVID-19 vaccines and think renewable energy is a scam, while claiming to be more focused on jobs, jobs, jobs.
I believe that Smith is, for better or worse, a true believer. I believe, on the other hand, that Pierre Poilievre is an opportunist trying to scale Smith’s winning formula up to a national level in order to satisfy his own ambition.
And, thus far, it’s working.
The thing you have to know about Pierre Poilievre’s carnival is that the absurdity is the point.
Canadians may see a snippet of these press conferences on the news — or, more likely, on social media. More often than not, the clip is of a particularly dramatic moment: The Conservative leader crunching on an apple and browbeating a local reporter; Poilievre peering over a lectern, calling a reporter a “heckler”; or trolling the Canadian Press wire services for issuing corrections.
Most recently, on Monday, Poilievre was asked repeatedly about his position on Smith’s ban on transgender healthcare. He took the opportunity to tee off on a rant, accusing the media of working with the government to spread “disinformation.” (Journalists are also partly responsible, he insisted, for inflation, rising home prices, and crime.)
Over the course of his answer, he bashed reporters for asking about the issue, insisting it was a way to “drive a wedge,” while tacitly suggesting he supported Smith’s policies.
It’s true that this topic may not carry the geopolitical weight of war in Palestine nor the economic pressures of inflation, but it does matter. It matters in an actual sense, because teens are going to be denied healthcare services because of misinformed policy — and Poilievre’s party would like to see him adopt similar measures at a national level. But it matters in a more general sense, because it represents Poilievre’s relationship with those who hope to hold him to account. If he opts to respond to every critical question with trolling, then we risk a more serious declension between the fourth estate and the possible next leader of the country.
Late Monday, I noticed that Poilievre’s next tour stop was right here in Montreal. So, frustrated with his bullshit answer, I headed down to an icy parking lot near the Port of Montreal on Tuesday morning to listen to Poilievre explain his plan to reduce car thefts across the country.
His lengthy remarks were packed tight with ideas, accusations, policies, and recriminations. Some were good — reducing the use of management consultants (Dispatch #36) and reallocating funds to front-line inspections at Canada’s major ports. Other parts were half-baked, like his idea to massively scale-up x-ray scanning of shipping containers at the already-clogged up ports; or his accusation that car thefts were directly funding terrorism. The whole thing was punctuated with the apocalyptic language that has come to define his leadership: “Crime,” “chaos,” “suffering.”
Normally, at press conferences such as these, reporters try and ask a few questions specifically on the topic at hand, before moving on to other unrelated topics or the news of the day.
But Poilievre’s team have recently instituted a policy whereby journalists may only ask one question each, no follow-up, five in total. (His flacks cite “time constraints” at each event.) This practice revives an old tactic from the previous Harper government, which grew tired of the media by the end of its nearly-ten-years in power and clamped down on all the pesky question-asking.
The Conservative media wranglers snatch the microphone out of reporters’ hands as soon as they ask their question, depriving them of any retort to dear leader’s rants.
In responding, Poilievre generally lumps these questions into one of two categories — ones he likes, which he can use to deliver an answer that may go viral; and ones he doesn’t, whereby he can attack the journalist for asking them and achieve even more virality.
I fell into the latter category:
You often say you support medical freedom, that you oppose the state imposing medical choices on Canadians. Yesterday, you were asked about a new policy in Alberta, which restricts health care for transgender youth, in particular. You refused to say where you actually stand on those regulations. You attacked a journalist who asked you that question as peddling disinformation for the Prime Minister. So can you say, now, where you stand on the state restricting healthcare access for transgender youth? And can you confirm whether or not your caucus is allowed to speak freely on this issue?
Poilievre: First and foremost, you are spreading disinformation. And you refuse to even describe the policy proposals that are being debated. You refuse to even list any of them. And and the reason that you the reason you-
[off mic, because the microphone was taken out of my hand]: I will! I’ll explain them right now.
Poilievre: Let's be clear why you don't do it, because you don't want to lose the debate. And so if you think if you keep it vague, and you actually refrain from actually describing the policies that Premier Smith is putting in place, then you think that you can misrepresent them, and misrepresent conservatives. This is exactly what Justin Trudeau has done. You’ll notice that Trudeau has not given a single example of any of the policies that Premier Smith has brought forward that he individually disagrees with, because he doesn't want to be specific about it. And that's because he, and you, want to peddle in disinformation in order to demonize Premier Smith and parents. And Justin Trudeau has spread hatred against parents. He's accused Muslim parents of being hateful because they were standing up for their kids. He's attacked Christian parents. He is suggested that parents cannot be trusted with their kids. And I disagree with them. I think we have to trust parents. No one cares for their kids more than parents. And that's why Justin Trudeau should butt out. He should let parents raise kids and let provinces run schools and hospitals. Thank you.
[still off-mic] But these policies overrule parents, as well.
This isn’t how this is supposed to work.
I’ve been at a lot of press conferences, scrums, and gaggles with politicians in my career — from the White House Rose Garden to a beach in Barcelona. While they can descend into peacocking and performance, they are a pretty extraordinary thing: A chance for anyone at the microphone to ask anything of a person who wields extraordinary power. If both sides respect that process, they are incredibly useful for both sides and for the public at large.
A tough question is supposed to be a chance to actually address the reporter directly: Offering a rebuttal and a counterpoint. Really good politicians can change a reporter’s focus or analysis on the spot, fundamentally reframing — or, at least, neutralizing — their story through a well-reasoned and factual answer. Reporters often go overboard in asking critical and piercing questions, specifically to elicit a more charged and pointed response.
Unfortunately, these great equalizers have become less and less useful over the years, for a variety of reasons. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds lots of press conferences but rarely actually says anything, regardless of the question. Donald Trump basically stopped doing them altogether.
What Poilievre is doing is far more cynical.
As I watched the Conservative leader deliver his acidic and nonsensical answer, I knew immediately that his answer was being clipped. He wasn’t answering me at all, he was speaking to the crowd on Twitter, Youtube, Rumble, and so on. And, sure enough: It was uploaded to Twitter in minutes by Rebel News. The tweet glowingly quoted Poilievre and pointed readers to a section of their website entitled “trans madness.” The site warns that “not only are our governments, the mainstream media, and even the police doing nothing about it — they're actually pushing for even more of this Trans Madness!” The tweet appears just below a sponsored post warning that “the WHO and WEF have formally endorsed the planning process for ‘Disease X,’” the feared sequel to COVID-19.
This is no accident. Poilievre uses these press conferences to perform for outlets like The Rebel, True North1, and random Twitter Blue-subscribing supporters. And those supporters happily oblige.
Now, however, Poilievre gleefully takes questions from, and does sit-down interviews with, True North and The Rebel. When one of The Rebel’s on-air trolls, David Menzies, got arrested after hounding Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Poilievre leapt to his defence. (This, despite the fact that Poilievre’s own deputy once had to call the cops on Menzies in a similar incident.)
These press conferences have become content generation exercises for his supportive media partners. By my count, The Rebel has uploaded more than 40 videos of Poilievre just since the beginning of the year — often pointing towards some microsite echoing his policy positions, such as “stop the carbon tax,” “no green reset,” or “stop the shots.”
Poilievre isn’t the first to turn these sorts of press conferences into a combat sport. But he may be the first to understand the power of making them a participatory exercise.
The Conservative Party is now practically begging The Rebel, True North, Greg Gutfeld, Elon Musk, Jordan B. Peterson, and the whole gang of anti-woke, conspiracy-minded online influencers to pick up on his performative displays and help him go viral.
It won’t be lectures on car thefts and port security that rack up the retweets, of course. He’ll rely on the mainstream press and broadcast news to run those comments. To get the critical clip of him hopping all over Justin Trudeau’s disinformation-peddlers or standing up for all of those downtrodden parents, he’ll need someone to poke him first.
This media circus is designed to reach those more fanatical fans while forcing more and more Canadians who stumble across these clips into a choice: Do I side with the journalists asking tough questions, or the guy with the microphone running circles around them?
The comparisons between Poilievre and Trump are often lazy and half-cooked. They are fundamentally different politicians with very different temperaments, policies, and styles. They seem similar, however, because they both recognize the power of their most ardent supporters, and they recognize the power of building dedicated movements. And sometimes they use the same tactics to get there.
What do we do about this?
Well, I don’t know.
I’ve got some general criticisms of my industry: At a time of dwindling resources, we need to move away from covering politics-as-sport and towards more thoughtful conversations on problems and policy solutions. But it would be foolish to think that if mainstream journalists did better, Poilievre would ease up. The Conservative leader has identified a boon to his chances of becoming prime minister, and he’s going to keep using it as long as it’s successful.
I’ve got criticisms of Poilievre: But I’m not going to tell you to tell Canadians to rise up and oppose the guy. Because, unlike some of his preferred media outlets, I don’t believe journalists should engage in partisan politics. And, the fact is, he’s identified some real problems in the country and he’s proposing some actual solutions. All I can really do is kick the tires on some of those proposal solutions and let you know if they make sense or not. (His housing policy is good-ish, but doesn’t go far enough, e.g.)
But, really, this is a more philosophical problem. We now have a positive feedback loop which rewards weaponizing institutions — as mundane as the press conference and as serious as our electoral system — and discourages actual conversation. I think more and more regular people are disconnecting from this toxic trend, just as politicians are beginning to use it more aggressively.
So, for the time being, the circus will continue travelling.
That’s it for this special dispatch.
If any of my non-Canadian readers made it this far: Good job. I hope this wasn’t too bewildering. I had planned an actual primer on Poilievre, which may still come at a future date.
If you enjoyed this dispatch and are not a paying subscriber, please consider upgrading. I would have normally sold a piece like this, but decided you all might enjoy it, longer-form, here.
As always, I’m keen to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Until next time!
Bug-eyed and Shameless readers will know I’ve interviewed True North host Andrew Lawton for the newsletter before. (Dispatch #12) While we don’t agree on plenty of things, I still think Andrew is a good-faith actor — although I think the idea that True North is some kind of effective counter-weight to the mainstream press is absurd.