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In a troubling sign for Trudeau’s Liberals, the Atlantic ‘red wall’ looks less sturdy

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In what could be a troubling sign for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a byelection this week in Nova Scotia, fraught with debate about the carbon tax and the state of the Liberal brand, ended in a once-safe provincial Liberal seat being lost in a landslide to the Progressive Conservatives.

As the federal Liberals grapple with the soaring cost of living and sagging poll numbers, political veterans across the Atlantic provinces say the byelection result could be a sign of things to come across Canada.

“It’s not uncommon for perhaps a swing riding to flip in a byelection, but for what had been a relatively safe seat to flip is something bigger,” says Stephen Moore, who served as director of communications for former Nova Scotia Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil. 

The riding of Preston had been held by the Nova Scotia Liberals for the last 20 years, but the byelection saw their support collapse with the Liberal candidate placing third behind the Progressive Conservative winner and the NDP runner-up.  

The Progressive Conservatives heavily focused on criticizing what they described as the “Liberal carbon tax,” which PC Premier Tim Houston has been vocally opposed to. 

Chad Bowie, a Conservative consultant and political commentator, says federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, a staunch critic of carbon taxes, has reason to be encouraged by the Preston byelection result. 

“We know that the Liberal carbon tax was a key issue in this byelection, and one of the key vote drivers, so of course, I think there could be ramifications. Perhaps even a sign of things to come,” says Bowie. 

There have increasingly been signs that Atlantic Canada, which was a stronghold for the Liberals in the 2015 election and has mostly stayed red since, is wavering. A recent poll by Abacus Data found the Liberals in the unenviable spot of lagging behind in all regions of the country, with the Conservatives leading in Atlantic Canada and the Bloc Québécois leading in Quebec.

There are also signs the Liberals are circling the wagons in ridings and regions that have previously been bulwarks. Both cabinet ministers from Newfoundland and Labrador were retained with increased portfolios. The Nova Scotian MP Sean Fraser was promoted to housing, one of the most visible and thorny cabinet jobs as the country copes with a housing crisis.

And as ire on the east coast about the carbon tax mixes with general frustration about inflation and the cost of living, the Conservatives could see an opportunity to tear down the Liberal “red wall” in the Atlantic provinces.

“I do think that the Tory decision to call the byelection just as the federal carbon tax was coming into place was likely a wise political calculation on their part, but certainly one that would have stung the Liberal brand,” says Moore. 

David Tarrant lauds Twila Gross, the PC challenger in Preston, for a strong campaign but says external factors also helped turn Preston’s voters against the Liberals.

“The biggest additional force is, without question, the carbon tax,” says Tarrant. “This summer for the first time, Nova Scotians felt the full vice of the Trudeau Liberal carbon tax, with immense pressure and pain to peoples’ cost of living, and the rather indifferent response from the federal government and the prime minister has massively damaged the Liberal brand in Nova Scotia.” 

A recent Nanos Research poll found 73 percent of Canadians surveyed in Atlantic Canada believe it is the wrong time to implement a carbon tax. Canada-wide, the poll found just 32 percent of Canadians surveyed believe carbon taxes are an effective way to reduce carbon emissions.  

Unlike the Ontario Liberals, who are operationally independent of the federal Liberals despite strong grassroots ties, the Nova Scotia Liberals are an official branch of the federal party. The NSPCs and the federal Conservative parties are not organizationally linked, even if both parties’ members hold overlapping memberships. 

“I think the big lesson from the byelection is two-fold,” says Bowie. “First, Tim Houston’s brand of progressive, pragmatic conservatism is a winning formula in Nova Scotia, and secondly, Zach Churchill has a Justin Trudeau problem.” 

Tarrant says Preston’s voters did not differentiate between the provincial and federal Liberal parties when it came to their frustrations about the carbon tax. 

“A key issue that the PCs ran on was the carbon tax and gas prices, and the people I talked to said it was getting amazing traction,” says Tarrant. “No other single issue drove this more than the carbon tax.” 

Tarrant says the negative reaction to the federal carbon tax will be felt in all parts of Canada, with the exceptions of B.C. and Quebec which implemented their own provincial carbon taxes years ago. 

“In every other part of the country, particularly rural, suburban, small town parts, if I’m a federal Liberal caucus member, the number one drag on the LPC right now is the carbon tax,” says Tarrant. “It’s gonna cost them seats… if I’m a provincial Liberal, one of my big strategic dilemmas is how do I separate myself from the national party?”

‘It’s definitely a trend’: How hyper-online political activists are increasingly embracing extremism

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In less than two years, Nate Hochman went from “rising star on the intellectual right” to political pariah after being fired last month from the Ron DeSantis campaign for tweeting out a video he created containing a Nazi symbol.

Hochman, a former staff writer at National Review who had also made appearances on programs such as Tucker Carlson Today, has become a cautionary tale for hyper-online political activists who are steeped in digital culture and its often glib embrace of extremism.

But how did Hochman, who was included in a 2021 article published by The New Republic titled, “The Radical Young Intellectuals Who Want to Take Over the American Right,” whose writing has been featured in Newsweek and the New York Times, and who is also Jewish, end up retweeting far-Right imagery?

Journalist and YouTuber J.J. McCullough thinks that many “hyper-online” people see far-Right extremist communities on the internet and believe they are electorally significant, which is not borne out in reality. 

“I think a lot of these guys get into the mindset where they have to be able to code switch to some degree, and use their (extremist community’s) symbols and learn their vocabulary,” says McCullough. “It’s a false impression that I think is born from a kind of narcissism that views the communities that you are personally most familiar with as being the ones that are the most politically significant.” 

McCullough says that many ambitious and talented young men who are interested in climbing the political ladder have grown up at a time when extremist communities have seen their influence grow on the internet. 

“As a result, they go about their business of helping their bosses win elections and so forth, I think that they have a real pronounced sense that this is a group that has to be appeased, and has to receive some degree of sort of formal attention,” says McCullough. 

Hub contributor and Edmonton-based lawyer Karamveer Lalh says people are social animals and will want to surround themselves with like-minded individuals in both real life and the internet.

“They also will generally want to be in an in-group,” says Lalh. “Accordingly, if a person is naturally contrarian against liberal ideas, but if they do not have strong attachment to internally grounding ‘first-principles,’ then they’re at more risk of radicalization.”

Lalh says that within online platforms like Reddit, users dissatisfied with the site’s mostly progressive mainstream subreddits will create their own dissident subreddits to espouse contrarian views.

Anthony Koch, managing principal at AK Strategies, says the current era, where the post-Cold War consensus is increasingly coming under criticism, is ripe for radicalizing the politically engaged. He compares it to the interwar period between the First World War and the Second World War when radical ideologies like communism and fascism spread across the world. 

“It’s definitely a trend that I’ve noticed, anecdotally and otherwise, with friends of mine on either side of the political spectrum who, even a few years ago, would have been considered firmly within the mainstream,” says Koch. “One too many Reddit posts and all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Whoa, where did you start thinking that?’” 

Koch says that as the interwar period and the Second World War II fades away from living memory, the internet provides a platform for people to relitigate the past. 

In recent years Reddit has shut down several subreddits created by far-Right online communities for repeated user violations, including the QAnon subreddit r/CBTS_stream, and most famously r/The_Donald, which had roughly 800,000 members when it was closed in 2020.

Koch says people who are predisposed to being provocative have always existed, but the internet allows them to coalesce within online platforms.

Lalh says that in Hochman’s specific case, many conservatives who lean further toward the political Right are often frustrated by being labelled as a “Nazi.”

“Obviously being labelled a Nazi is a byword for being ‘evil’ and ‘bad’,” says Lalh. “Considering the same friend/enemy distinction above, if one’s enemies are calling you ‘Nazis’ well that may lead one to question, “Well, how bad can Nazis really be?'”

To prevent this sort of radicalization, Lalh suggests that people should have a firm understanding and commitment to first principles that are more substantive than defining friends and enemies, which requires self-reflection not always available within an echo chamber.

McCullough says that because the Republicans are the sole party of the political Right in the U.S. many far-right elements fall under its umbrella, whereas the Conservatives in Canada benefit from the existence of the People’s Party, led by Maxime Bernier, which he says is a more attractive option for extremists. 

“The Conservatives, I suppose, have a lot to be grateful for, in the sense that Bernier has probably sort of taken some of these people off their hands, so to speak,” says McCullough.