The rapid rise of Trump in the United States caught almost everyone—both on the left and among bourgeois political analysts—off guard. Trump entered the Republican leadership race as a relative outsider, widely considered to be a joke candidate. He won. Poll after poll showed that Trump would not win the election. He won. Trump’s cabinet appointments were expected by many to be a return to normalcy. Sure enough, within the first two weeks of his presidency, Trump has done more to advance fascism in the United States than nearly anyone expected. Time after time Trump has proven commentators wrong and surprised many by essentially doing what he promised to do.
Canada is not immune to the social forces that have allowed fascism to blossom in the United States. While there has been a nascent white-supremacist and extreme-right movement in Canada for decades, the election of Trump represents a shift in the political climate: it is no longer politics as normal. With this in mind, it is worthwhile to briefly sketch potential openings for fascism in Canada and their limitations. We should not make the same mistake in underestimating the possibility of fascism that our comrades to the south made.
Where Did Trump Come From?
Before examining the forces of the embryonic fascist movement in Canada, the social forces which gave rise to Trump should be briefly described. Trump, first and foremost, is a symptom of American capitalism in decay. Coming out of the 2008 economic crisis, the US ruling class was in a much weaker position in the world imperialist system than they had been beforehand. In the face of rising Chinese and Russian imperialism, the US ruling class was no longer the sole superpower. This was compounded with military defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which cost the American state and ruling class a substantial sum of wealth. As a result, the US ruling class was thrown into a period of crisis: there was no longer general agreement as to the political direction that America should take. This first became apparent in the years preceding the 2016 election, where different sections of the American state not only began contradicting each-other (one thinks here of the different declarations, from various sections of the US state, during 2014 as to whether or not the US would invade Syria), but even began actively supporting different factions in proxy wars overseas. This was combined with the increase of drone wars: the US military was only able to destabilize potential enemies, and could not project power in the way they had previously. The American political establishment was weaker than it had been since the Second World War, and the ruling class began to turn against itself.
In turn, the decline of American imperialism in the world imperialist system resulted in a process of political polarization within the US. Some sections of the US ruling class—personified by the Koch brothers—funded and deployed the forces of the ultra-right, principally around the Tea Party, as a means of undermining more “liberal” fractions of the US ruling class. On the opposite side, the bourgeoisie attempted, and largely failed, to co-opt the various movements that arose in response to the heightened contradictions within American society: chiefly Occupy and Black Lives Matter. Within these movements a process of radicalization was underway, with people moving both to the left and right (though with BLM chiefly to the left). Unable to deliver on any promises, Obama’s failures undermined the political legitimacy of liberalism, which also opened political space for radicalization.
As the crisis of American imperialism deepened, some sections of the US ruling class began to seek solutions beyond even what the far-right had previously proposed. These sections of the ruling class were not convinced about the viability, or profitability, of the current model of American imperialism: many called for a return to isolationism, and even entertained multilateralism, specifically against ISIS in Syria. Trump was their avatar, and this movement (the alt-right) was able to court and unify: i) sections of the US white working class which were still suffering from the fallout of the 2008 economic crisis; ii) an embattled petty-bourgeoisie which felt squeezed by capital but also by demands for equality coming from marginalized peoples; iii) sections of the far-right which had been born out of the Tea Party movement; and iv) neo-reactionaries who had been lying in wait for their opportunity to come out into the open. Trump, now victorious, has the privilege of overseeing the continued decline of American imperialism that, despite overtures towards a less aggressive foreign policy and a renewed domestic policy, appears to be even more volatile (and less competent) internationally while also advancing authoritarian and anti-people policies internal to the US. The crisis within the US ruling class has actually reached the point whereby all the factions of the US ruling class actively undermine various American institutions, through directly challenging the legitimacy of elections, the utility of the courts, and other fundamental institutions of bourgeois democracy.
Do these same conditions exist in Canada? Not to the same extent as in the US. Canadian imperialism emerged from the 2008 crisis in a stronger position—both absolutely and relative to US imperialism—than it had been beforehand. There has been no crisis of Canadian imperialism to the same extent that there has been in the US. However, in part due to the regional dynamic of Canadian capitalism, there is a profound lack of unity within the Canadian ruling class: hence the enmity shown by the traditional political elites to the Harper Government. As Canadian capitalism continues to decay, it is unclear how these divisions will manifest: already, though, a volatile situation is being created, as Canadian capitalists sit on massive piles of un-invested capital as they struggle to find profitable investment. Below, I’ve outlined possible openings that the Canadian ruling class could seek to exploit if they decide to pursue more radical solutions, unleashing the forces that gave rise to Trump in the US.
The Conservative Leadership Race
Given the rise of Trump within the Republican Party, the Conservative Party’s leadership race is the obvious place to begin if we’re looking for parallels to the process that played itself out in the United States. The thirteen candidates vying for leadership of the Conservative Party all have anti-people politics to some degree. However, most do not attempt to mobilize the same white-nationalist, anti-globalist, and populist politics that propelled Trump to victory. Nearly every candidate has some connection to the Canadian ruling class, having either served as a cabinet minister or as a successful business person. Most of the candidates employ the same Conservative neo-liberal rhetoric and policy packages that we have come to expect from the Conservative Party.
There are, however, notable exceptions. Steven Blaney’s campaign slogan is “Canada First”, a hyper-nationalist slogan reminiscent of Trump’s “America First”. Maxime Bernier, the former Minister of Industry and an MP from Québec, pledges to prevent immigration from being used as a tool to change the “cultural character and social fabric” of Canada. Most alarming though is Kellie Leitch, who has proposed screening immigrants for so-called “Canadian values” and is generally positioning herself as being tough-on-crime, socially regressive, and a defender of a “traditional” white Canada. Leitch has even employed populist rhetoric, attacking other candidates as “elites.” It is not surprising that after Trump’s win, Leitch quickly attempted to hitch her campaign to Trump’s trailer by saying that Trump’s victory was “exciting” and “needed in Canada.” While multiple Conservative leadership candidates lay the ground for the normalization of fascism through their use of racist rhetoric, Leitch takes racist dog-whistling to its furthest extent and combines it with an anti-elite populism. Most concerning is her relative popularity: she has polled quite well, only losing ground in recent weeks after Kevin O’Leary announced his candidacy. Alarmingly, Leitch polls better among non-member supporters of the Conservative Party than she does among members, indicating that her populist posture may be working.
It is worth pointing out here that many on the left are, understandably, concerned with Kevin O’Leary’s candidacy. O’Leary is a deplorable human being who has, in the past, suggested numerous proposals which would be detrimental to the lives of millions of working-class Canadians. Furthermore, O’Leary’s fame as a reality show star and position as a businessman has drawn numerous comparisons to Trump. However, O’Leary’s proposed policies are more-or-less standard-fare neoliberalism: O’Leary is in favour of balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility, thinks that ‘greed is good’, and has publicly criticized Trump’s mobilization of white-nationalism. While O’Leary in a position of power in Canada would be a terrible thing, it would likely be no more terrible than the reality of Canada under Harper or Trudeau.
Kellie Leitch’s campaign represents the most dangerous opening for the rise of fascism in Canada. A Conservative Party under her leadership would be a major boon for fascism in Canada, much in the same way that Trump was able to use the Republican Party as a vehicle for fascism in the United States. This has not gone unnoticed by the alt-right, many of whom are encouraging other “deplorables” to help Leitch win. Most alarming is that while O’Leary is the clear front-runner in the campaign, Leitch is not unpopular: a Leitch victory is within the realm of possibility.
Much like in the United States, the Alt-Right is growing in Canada. From Internet forums to alternative media to campus-based groups, neo-reactionaries are crawling out from underneath their rocks and slowly engaging in public activity. It is these forces that provide the respectable cover and brain-trusts for fascism: their online activity was instrumental in promoting Trump, and they can play a similar role here in Canada.
The Alt-Right is in many ways more sophisticated than traditional fascist organizations. They articulate a coherent set of politics—generally pro-white working class, anti-cosmopolitanism, populist, anti-feminist, and in favour of some bourgeois rights—and engage seriously with the question of strategy. Many try and incorporate lessons from the left: the Council of European Canadians, for instance, quite consciously articulates its “metapolitical” strategy in the language of Gramsci. Seeing in Trump the emergence of a mass movement—albeit without a direct corollary in Canada—some sections of the alt-right have begun to encourage their members to be more public and direct in their organizing and propaganda work so as to create a public presence.
Alongside newer forums, like the r/metacanada subreddit, the alt-right also uses more traditional forms of far-right media (or vice-versa). One here thinks of Ezra Levant’s The Rebel Media which has become a favourite source of the Canadian alt-right, playing a role similar to Breitbart. As the alt-right becomes increasingly mainstream, it will present new openings for a fascist movement in Canada.
As of now, the alt-right in Canada remains unorganized and dispersed. There is nothing indicating that this will always be the case.
“Right Wing Extremists”
So-called “right wing extremists” have operated openly in Canada since at least the 1970s. I include here neo-Nazi and skinhead groups, as well as the KKK. We can also include the more ‘respectable’ but equally dangerous Soldiers of Odin. Currently there are more “right wing extremists” in Québec than any other province, but they exist across Canada. While they peaked in number and activity in the early 1990s, there has been a recent resurgence, especially as leading members (Kyle McKee for instance) have gotten out of jail.
In many ways “right wing extremists” are the most immediately dangerous forces for the left, especially those doing anti-fascist work. “Right wing extremists” see virtue in violence, frequently forming fight clubs amongst their members as a way of training themselves for combat. Many have connections to biker gangs. They are willing to viciously attack anti-fascists, as we have seen for instance in attacks on comrades in Calgary. However, there are also limits to the organizing capacity of “right wing extremists” even in the absence of attacks from anti-fascists: the lumpen class basis combined with the hyper-violent culture of these groups leads to a high level of membership turnover, with mostly disaffected young men cycling through in 2-3 years while a core of dedicated members remain. Given the focus on strong leadership figures (modeled after the autocratic rule of Hitler) and hyper-masculinity, “right wing extremist” groups are unstable and frequently succumb to infighting.
“Men’s Rights” Groups
So-called “men’s rights” associations (MRAs), such as the Canadian Association For Equality (CAFE), are virulently misogynistic organizations. In response to demands for an end to patriarchy on behalf of those people facing gender-based oppression, MRAs have risen as a means of (usually white, middle-class) men defending their privileged position in society. MRAs operate on the assumption that men are persecuted as a result of their gender, that feminism is to blame for this persecution and therefore must be combatted. This takes the form of mass organizing (see CAFE’s programs in Toronto), online harassment (such as GamerGate) and doxxing, and even physical attacks on feminists such as in Kingston in 2015.
In many ways MRAs pre-dated the alt-right, and provided a recruitment pool for them. As a result there is a large overlap in membership between MRA and alt-right groups: Janice Fiamengo, a known MRA and member of CAFE at the University of Ottawa, also writes for the Council of European Canadians, for instance. There are however distinctions between MRAs and the alt-right: MRAs are more organized, have a more singular political goal, and have established mass work.
The Doomsday Scenario
Having briefly identified some of the forces in Canada that constitute the nebulous embryo of consolidated fascism, we now turn to the “doomsday scenario”: the scenario that would mark the rise of a consolidated and powerful fascism in Canada.
The alt-right would consolidate around Kellie Leitch. Through a combination of on-the-ground support and Internet promotion they would propel Kellie Leitch to victory in the Conservative leadership race. In the process they would consolidate their own spaces and organization(s), enjoying a spike in popularity akin to the “Trump bump”. Kellie Leitch would act as the public face of the alt-right and would forge an alliance between traditional conservatives and neo-reactionaries, with alt-right politics in command.
Such a political alliance would translate also into extra-parliamentary politics. There would be alt-right and neo-reactionary think tanks (similar to Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute) and community organizations. The alt-right would become the political force capable of unifying various “right wing extremists” into a single para-military organization, or multiple organizations unified in a broad fascist movement. This would give the alt-right street muscle, and allow them to physically attack their opponents. There would likely be multiple levels of organization with varying degrees of respectability, all with overlapping memberships, and existing in alliance with one another. They would be aided by various white nationalists and right wing extremists who have infiltrated repressive state apparatuses such as the police and military. This level of coordination exists in Finland, where the parliamentary True Finns exist alongside Suomen Sisu (Finnish Pride, or “SS”) and other neo-Nazi groups, and where there is considerable membership overlap between groups despite different public faces and organizational roles.
Such a configuration of fascist forces—a fascist leading a mainstream political party, combined with extra-parliamentary organizations and para-military muscle—would mark the emergence of fascism as a strong political force in Canada. While it does not guarantee that fascism would be successful, it would mark a qualitative shift towards a fascist Canada.
Despite Canada moving towards the above scenario, there are limits—both subjective and objective—to the emergence of fascism in Canada. First, Canada’s status as a country with two dominant nations (Canadian and Québécois) hampers the ability for the far-right to organize in Canada. It is difficult to consolidate ultra-nationalists from two nations in the same organization: for Canadian nationalists, Québec is indisputably part of Canada whereas for Québécois nationalists it is seen as separate. This is especially important given that far-right Québécois nationalists constitute a large section of the fascist movement in Canada.
Second, while official multi-culturalism is itself a racist ideology which essentializes national “others” and provides openings for reactionary petty-bourgeois leaderships of various national communities in Canada, it has become part of the fabric of Canadian ideology. What this means is that white-nationalism, or other forms of white-supremacist ultra-nationalisms, have a much more difficult time taking root in Canada than they do in other countries.
Third, it may actually be the case that the Canadian ruling class does not desire fascism at this point, and so there will not be any class fractions willing to back Leitch in the Conservative Party leadership race. Furthermore, it may be the case that even if there is a section of the ruling class which backs Leitch, the membership of the Conservative Party as a whole will be more committed to the traditional “respectable” conservative politics than the politics Leitch promotes. The failure of Leitch to gain control of the Conservative Party would be a setback for fascism in Canada, but it would not be the defeat of fascism: it could force fascists to organize themselves outside of mainstream political parties.
Finally, the biggest limit to the rise of fascism in Canada will be mass action on the part of the masses. Fascism cannot govern if the people decide to be ungovernable. It cannot consolidate if its meetings are broken up and if it is given no platform. From this, it stands to reason that the growth of the revolutionary movement (party and mass organizations), and a broad-based anti-fascist movement, are the best defences against the threat of fascism in Canada. Fascism is not inevitable: it can be stopped. But that’s up to us.
2 See also the review of CTRL-ALT-DLT included in this issue – the Editors.