One can almost forgive Canadian Conservatives for thinking that in Rebel Media they'd found an old wardrobe that took them to some sort of politically motivated xenophobic Narnia. After all, The Rebel has for a long time been something of a secret world, one most Canadians never visited.
When the subject of The Rebel came up outside of media or political circles, more often than not people said, "What's The Rebel?" and you'd have to explain that it's the Ezra Levant-helmed far-right website that rose from the ashes of the Sun News Network, which went dark in 2015.
A number of Conservative politicians visited The Rebel and were eagerly hosted by the strange inhabitants there. They came back, feeling as if no time had passed and nothing had changed, least of all them or their party. They managed to return from their Adventures In Rebel without experiencing real-world consequences, beyond perhaps having secured the support of a portion of the fantastical populace they found there.
Basically it's like, "This is Mr. Tumnus, from the waist up, he's a racist." "What is he from waist down?" you might ask.
"Oh, also a racist, but he's got these two legs he uses to walk to polling stations, so I thought you might want to meet him."
Certainly, from time to time, the two worlds collided. In December of 2016, former immigration minister Chris Alexander was filmed smiling, looking enchanted indeed, in front of a crowd assembled at a Rebel Media protest that was chanting "Lock her up!" in reference to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. He was criticized for this, even by his own party. "There are good reasons to oppose a carbon tax. But calling on our democratically elected premier to be 'locked up' is ridiculous and offensive," said Jason Kenney, who was then campaigning for the Tory leadership in Alberta.
It's been about eight years since Mr. Alexander left a generally well-regarded career in diplomacy for elected politics. He ran for the leadership of the Conservative Party and can currently be found on Twitter, fervently embracing his new role as Cautionary Tale to Children, but it would be difficult to pin his failure on his sojourns into The Rebel.
Despite the fact that The Rebel's editorial bread and butter is an endless stream of seething, paranoid invective toward Muslims – with snarky slams at women thrown in – little besides headlining at Rebel events has been remarked upon by Conservative Party faithful.
The Rebel likes to report on stories that it claims the mainstream media refuses to cover on account of its politically correct liberal bias against things that are completely made up, but this did not seem to concern many Conservatives. The site has seldom come across a right-wing conspiracy theory it didn't love. From "no-go zones" in Europe (areas of major cities in which even the police dare not go for fear of roaming "sharia patrols"), to Seth Rich's murder, the Rebel was there and so, quite often, were Conservatives.
In February, the Rebel hosted an event in protest against M-103, a motion that obsessed them to the point where they felt compelled to fundraise over it.
(To be fair, a lot of things compel The Rebel to fundraise. Mr. Levant appears to buy domain names in bulk. There's scarcely a cause too trite or too grave to be dot-com-co-opted by The Rebel. I'm largely at peace with my own mortality, but I wake at night sometimes, gripped by a fear The Rebel will fundraise off my death.)
The now-passed non-binding M-103 called for the government to condemn Islamophobia and for the House of Commons Heritage Committee to study how the government might work toward "eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination, including Islamophobia."
Needless to say, The Rebel insisted ad nauseam that M-103 was the death knell of free speech and a step toward replacing the Canadian legal system with sharia law. Four then-candidates for leader of the Conservative Party of Canada attended their anti-M103 event, where cash was collected by then-Rebel contributor Faith Goldy, for, it was claimed, security costs.
I never got the sense that many Conservatives took The Rebel's content all that seriously. It was as if Ezra Levant was some sort of cheap Saturday-morning cartoon they decided they needed their smaller-brained ones to watch while they tried to get some work done – a trade-off, with little cost.
The written content of most of The Rebel's reporting reads as if it belongs in a particularly sarcastic and xenophobic Grade 2 classroom. The text is simple, sparse and large, the white space vast, each story a little Ladybird Book of hate.
Arguably, it is Canadian conservatives themselves who should be most offended by their party's pandering to the stunt-performing, ceaselessly cash-soliciting Rebel. In June, The Rebel's Laura Loomer – who once tweeted "Good. Here's to 2,000 more" in response to news of over 2,000 refugees dying as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean – leapt on-stage, shouting, during a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which she claimed to find terribly offensive. (The domain name freelaura.com, registered to Ezra Levant, having already been secured to raise money for her defence.)
Yet for the most part (Michael Chong being one notable exception), Conservatives have only recently sought distance from Rebel Media. The alt-right march in Charlottesville, Va., with its open display of Nazi flags, chants of "You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!" and ultimately an attack in which one of the "Unite the Right" marchers allegedly drove a car into a group of counter-protesters – killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and hospitalizing 19 other people – was apparently a tipping point. Tragic and disheartening as these events were, it's reasonable to ask why that's what it took.
Nothing about The Rebel changed on that day. The alleged killer wasn't employed by them; there isn't even any evidence he was a fan of their work. Is The Rebel part of a climate of paranoia, rage and disinformation that may have contributed to this crime? A good case could be made, but if political climate and lousy, ideologically driven journalism is the problem, why did the massacre at a Quebec City mosque and The Rebel's subsequent reporting – in which they spread conspiracy theories about a secret Muslim shooter whom no one else dared report on, long after it had become clear there had been no second shooter of any kind – not cause the migration we saw this week?
Ms. Goldy's video, White Genocide in Canada?, warning that white Canadians are being "replaced," came out on The Rebel in May, virtually unremarked-upon. Star Rebel contributor Gavin McInnes's hateful anti-semitic rants of this past March were largely given a pass as "satire." (Literal pro-tip: They're not.) Yet shortly after winning the leadership race, Andrew Scheer granted an interview to The Rebel. His campaign manager, Hamish Marshall, served on the Rebel's board until stepping down just last week.
Former Conservative cabinet minister Joe Oliver is still listed as a contributor on The Rebel's website (the most charitable interpretation of this I can come up with is that they gave him magic Turkish Delight), but Mr. Scheer says he will no longer grant interviews to the site unless the "editorial direction of the Rebel Media changes," although he has yet to clarify what exactly needs changing all of a sudden. Citation needed, Mr. Scheer.
What seems to have changed was this: A white supremacist allegedly killed a young white woman, and there were no photos of her looking angry to contrast with a smiling, snappily dressed, much paler killer. For the moment, pandering to racists, even through a couple heavy layers of protective irony, isn't publicly acceptable any more.
Broadcasting conspiracy theories dreamed up by white supremacists and advocating solutions supported by them could be laughed off as "edgy," as long as white supremacists themselves could be laughed off as goofy guys, creating deus vult memes in their parents' basements, who just happen – perhaps ironically – to support ethnic cleansing.
Last week it became apparent that people who love to plaster the Internet with swastikas are in fact willing to gather together out in the open and wave those swastikas in the street. We saw that people who like to spread images depicting Jews as subhumans who are behind a conspiracy to destroy the white race were also happy to shout these views out by torchlight. When it became clear that people who say they're willing to fight a war, so, to kill, in the cause of white supremacy are sometimes completely capable of attempting mass murder, associating with them became trickier to downplay as "controversial."
Suddenly we are in the midst of the Great Rebel Reset. Much of the site's star talent has quit, been fired or some mysterious combination thereof. In a special edition of his show this Tuesday, one that was mostly mea and precious little culpa, Mr. Levant admitted he'd made a few very non-specific mistakes and pleaded for the The Rebel's life. He will be hiring a new business manager, he said, to take some of the pressure off himself.
This way, we were told, he'll once again have the time to ensure that only content he approves – like, I suppose, the Gavin McInnes classic Ten Things I Hate About Jews, which Mr. Levant has said he personally chose the title of – will make it onto the site.
With more help and your support, Mr. Levant – Canada's less stoic Tammy Faye Bakker – pledges The Rebel will rise again. Needless to say, there's a new domain name and a petition in all this, and the point seems to be that when not so overextended by his own success, Mr. Levant will have the energy to more vigorously insist his popular personalities not appear as gushing guests on unabashedly white-supremacist podcasts. That's what Faith Goldy, Miss Deus Vult herself, did right after the murder in Charlottesville. She enthused all over the Daily Stormer, a site that takes more than its name from Der Stürmer, a pro-Nazi Party's tabloid newspaper, and for doing this – against his wishes, Mr. Levant claims – she was let go.
Mr. Levant threw up a pie chart to refute recent allegations of financial dodginess at the site. "Do I really seem like the kind of guy who would lie on a pie chart?" he all but asked, having interviewed two of his own employees about his awesomeness. Pie charts are a sacred promise, best served without any supporting documentation, it seems.
Many agree – at Mr. Levant's suggestion – that The Rebel got a bit lost but will now get back on track, back to their roots. Long-time observers of Mr. Levant may well ask what that means for the Roma. In 2012 he ranted, "These are gypsies, a culture synonymous with swindlers … And they come here to gyp us again and rob us blind as they have done in Europe for centuries … one of the central characteristics of that culture is that their chief economy is theft and begging."
The Rebel is hardly Ezra's first racist rodeo. This was not a drift, now addressed with a correction. It was the course set long ago.
A myth has been spun that Canada has no conservative news outlets, so therefore The Rebel's demise, should it happen, would be a grave loss. There are others who think that while The Rebel is nonsense, older conservatives have earned the comfort of the nonsense, the healing balm of perpetual enragement it offers – compensation, in some sense, for the culture war they have lost.
In fact, while the chronicles of the Conservative Party of Canada and Ezra Levant are long and troubling, there are principled and articulate conservative voices in this country. There are many conservative pundits and politicians who have enough faith in their vision of conservatism that they don't think you need to be lied to or tricked into signing off on it, as if they were selling you a dud car you must buy now because "creeping sharia" is just around the corner.