A year from now, moderate conservatives will look back on the horrors of Charlottesville as the moment they were saved from their alt-right egos.
At least, they should.
The brutal scenes, where the swastika flew and a young woman was deliberately felled by a car, finally made explicit what had been tacitly accepted by a cadre of right-wing activists interested in humbling the (left-wing) elites: the inclusion of so-called “white nationalists” into the U.S. conservative coalition.
What the Tea Party started in the flesh, and the so-called “alt-right” turbocharged online, the white supremacists and neo-Nazis ran with and have now finished with their display on the streets of Virginia.
Or, should I say, ought to have finished.
For his part, Donald Trump appears unwilling to cut the cord with a key constituency of his political base.
After taking two days to condemn the race-baiters in Charlottesville, President Trump reverted to form the very next day, when he drew an angry equivalency between the alt-right and what he termed the “alt-left.”
Trump’s obstinance in the face of such disgusting bigotry forces conservative politicians — many of whom owe their election to Trump’s coalition — into a choice.
Call it the Charlottesville Test: Would I be proud to march with my brothers and sisters in the harsh light of day with the world watching?
If the answer is “no”, the barge poles must be deployed. There isn’t enough distance they can put between themselves and their president.
Or, to put it in terms conservatives will better understand: The neo-Nazis are ISIL, Trump is their elite apologist, and you are the Muslim community. It’s time for you to denounce and expel the cancer in your midst, as you would ask moderate Muslims to do in the wake of a similar terrorist attack.
Canadians Conservatives are certainly wasting no time in condemning Charlottesville, such is the power of events to taint all of conservatism. Andrew Scheer, Michelle Rempel, Patrick Brown and others are making clear they have no desire to trade on the hatred Trump and others are all too willing to ignore.
They needn’t be applauded for doing what is right and obvious, but had they not done so the Liberals would have tried to hang Charlottesville’s goat horns on the party and the movement.
The true test, however, comes when the media spotlight fades and electoral needs still have to be met. Will conservative politicians continue to shun the significant demographics behind the alt-right movement?
Courting these segments of the electorate wasn’t, until recently, worth the effort (to say nothing of the opprobrium). But the internet has taken what used to be a silent super-minority in any room, and linked them together into a potent online force.
It’s the force that delivered crucial oxygen and votes to Donald Trump in the early days of the Republican nomination, along with millions of clicks to a slew of new websites trumpeting the “alt-right.”
History will record that Trump met these “deplorables” more than halfway in his run to the presidency. Their hatred of Hillary Clinton (“lock her up”) and the establishment (“drain the swamp”), and Trump’s willingness to embrace it, was what made the “politically incorrect” real-estate mogul their choice. Trump’s embrace is what emboldened racists and supremacists to speak out and hold marches like that in Charlottesville.
In Canada, alt-right me-tooism led to the rise of Rebel Media, whose kingpin Ezra Levant regularly features leading U.S. and U.K. alt-right figures such as Paul Joseph Watson, Gavin McInnes, Jack Posobiec, Lauren Southern and Tommy Robinson.
This obviously doesn’t make all supporters of Donald Trump — or contributors and viewers of the Rebel, Breitbart and Infowars — neo-Nazis; it does make them guilty of poor judgment. In Levant’s case, the poor judgment was deliberate in the search for audience and revenue.
It’s precisely these growing audiences for the Rebel and its counterparts that makes them attractive to conservative politicians. It’s why Conservative candidates gave interviews to Levant’s crew during this spring’s leadership race, and why Trump hoisted Breitbart’s Steve Bannon into his campaign, then into the White House.
But a few bad apples really do spoil the whole bunch, as Levant found out this week when two of his more mainstream apples — Brian Lilley and Barbara Kay — quit rather than continue on in the wake of Charlottesville.
The lesson for Canadian Conservatives is straightforward: avoid click-merchants and work harder to promote true conservative principles.
Anyone can preach to the converted. Only the weak exploit a grievance and make it deeper. These are the marks of political cowardice, not shrewd electoral strategy.
It takes courage to take on those with extreme views in your own coalition and patience to engage with those who don’t share your political views at all.
Conservatives should speak to people, not whistle past them.