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Conservatism is in crisis, and it goes beyond Trump

In this, the age of vitriol, how bad is it for the Republican/Conservative brand? There's Donald Trump and his multitudes of visigoths, there's Brexit's white nationalists across the pond, there's the fast-rising Kellie Leitch in a Canadian Conservative Party that was stung by tolerance questions in the last election.

Outside of party base types, are there many who are enthusiastic with the way conservatives are trending in the anglosphere? Are many anxious to move in that direction? Or are they more like an acquaintance of mine, who said he'd rather run with the bulls in Pamplona?

Barbs aside, it's difficult to recall another time when all three conservative parties in England, Canada and the United States have congregated so far from the political centre. It's like imagining the centre-left in all three countries marching to the drums of British Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn.

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In the United States, the conservative brand has gone from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan, to George W. Bush, to Mr. Trump, who was on display in full floral gory or glory (take your pick) in Monday night's presidential debate. Canada has gone from the moderate Toryism of John Diefenbaker, Robert Stanfield and Brian Mulroney to the vanquishing of Red Tories and the conservatism of Stephen Harper (with Toronto's Rob Ford thrown in for bad measure). In Great Britain, the Conservatives are in the thrall of those who want to put up walls.

The brand is increasingly about identity tests and xenophobic strains. It is home to, if not climate-change deniers, then many who are close to it. It is soft on guns. Its appeal is to aging whites, to the prejudices of the less-educated, to religious fundamentalists. It's a time-warp version of modernism, one many Canadian Conservatives apparently think they can thrive on.

Today's political right likes to put down opponents as "elitists." Elitism is what Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch is using as a wedge issue in her campaign (the stars of the party have taken a pass on running). She was at it last weekend in a fundraising e-mail message about how her presence on the cover of Maclean's magazine had angered elites: "Do you know what has them so upset? It is because I'm proudly holding a Canadian flag! That's right, the self-hating Canadian elites can't stand the idea of a proud conservative standing up for Canada and Canadian values."

Dr. Leitch herself is quite well off, quite well educated and quite willing to impose lofty standards. Sounds quite elitist, actually. She might wish to climb down from that perch. She might recall that on citizenship standards, her colleague Jason Kenney has already raised the bar – and did so rather well – in rewriting the text a few years ago.

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Canada's Conservatives, who followed an open immigration policy under Mr. Harper, are of course nowhere near the excesses of Mr. Trump. But you don't see them going out of their way to criticize what the Republican nominee stands for. And they can't use the excuse that they might have to deal with him as president; should he be elected, it's the Liberals who will have that joy.

In recent years, Canadian Conservatives have been like some of the others with their obsession with appealing to the party base, to the prejudices of the base, for milking it for everything it's worth. In this sense, the crisis in conservatism reaches beyond Mr. Trump. The "base" fixation was rarely what it is now in these countries. The parties normally sought to broaden their pitch, not narrow it.

The debate today, as conservative-leaning David Brooks of The New York Times puts it, is between openness and dynamism versus closedness and stability. In last year's federal election campaign, the Trudeau Liberals projected the former approach. The Harper Tories, playing on issues such as the niqab and closing their campaign with an embrace of Mr. Ford, went the other way.

The danger for Canadian Conservatives is that in witnessing the surprising popularity of the new conservatism of Mr. Trump in the United States, and of white nationalism in Britain, they will refuse to repudiate it and move counterclockwise accordingly.

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About the Author
Public affairs columnist

Lawrence Martin is an Ottawa-based public affairs columnist and the author of ten books, including six national best sellers. More

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