Opinion

Conservatives need to be ultra-mindful of the company they keep, especially online

In its zeal to prosecute Trudeau and his Liberal government for its perceived mishandling of illegal border crossings, the Conservatives ignored the rules that govern conservatives when launching attacks on emotive issues like immigration and asylum.

The bar might be higher for conservatives, but they still need to clear it

The Conservative party pulled an attack ad from its Twitter feed that depicted a black man carrying a suitcase walking over a tweet from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The image from that deleted tweet is seen here in an undated screen capture. (Canadian Press)

Perfect.

That's undoubtedly what someone thought at Conservative Party HQ when pitched on a tweet depicting a black man pulling a suitcase toward a gap in a chain link fence. The man in the image, meant to portray a migrant, is seen crossing a body of water using Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's famous "Welcome to Canada" tweet as a bridge.

Clever, someone thought. And to drive the message home, the image included a quote from a column in the Financial Post: "Trudeau's holier-than-thou tweet causes migrant crisis — now he needs to fix what he started."

Boom, that someone thought. Justin Trudeau, first virtue-signaller amongst equals, meet your petard. Your perfect petard.

Green light given, the tweet was then posted for its rendezvous with virality. Well, achievement unlocked. Kind of. The tweet took off, but it went screaming into the top corner of its own goal with such force the Conservative Party quickly took it down.

Because the tweet wasn't perfect. Far from it. In its zeal to prosecute Trudeau and his Liberal government for its perceived mishandling of illegal border crossings, the Conservatives ignored the rules that govern conservatives when launching attacks on emotive issues like immigration and asylum.

First, you need to be perfect. As conservatives, your motive for attacking the government will likely be scrutinized to a higher degree than the actions of the government you're criticizing. Make one mistake characterizing the issue, and that mischaracterization becomes the issue. You're not Trudeau, able to skip through an entire campaign on trumped-up claims about the state of Canada's middle class; you need to be bulletproof because there is an army of fact-checkers and pundits ready to pound you. So for God's sake, get it right.

In this case, it matters that Trudeau's "welcome" tweet was sent in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump's "Muslim ban," and not in the wake of Trump's subsequent decision to deport Haitians admitted following their country's devastating 2010 earthquake (matching, incidentally, a decision Canada had previously taken).

It's the former that prompted an increase in inquiries to Canadian immigration officials from refugees in the countries listed in Trump's ban, and the latter that forced Quebec and other provinces into a scramble last summer. In other words, the least the geniuses at CPC HQ could have done was include a Muslim-looking guy in their attack tweet.

That last bit is obviously a joke. And it's beside the point, because the issue isn't of which nationalities of people are crossing illegally, it's the effects those crossings are having on the integrity of Canada's system, which is indisputably under strain. If the illegal route becomes more desirable than the legal one, and if asylum-shopping from the United States becomes the thing, then Canada has a real problem, no matter the absolute number of crossers now. And even then, it's not the migrants who are to blame. They're only seeking a better life.

Lead with motive

The Conservatives eventually pulled their bad tweet using the above logic. But of course, it was too late by then, and was interpreted as more evidence of a mean-spirited and "racist" Conservative Party.

This all demonstrates why it's important for conservatives to always lead with motive, i.e. literally spell out their reasons for acting, in order to avoid having a motive (e.g. "Conservatives are racist") ascribed to them by their opponents.

In this case, the motive should have been that legal immigration is absolutely essential to Canada's future prosperity, that's why — even in the midst of the worst global recession in generations — then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper kept Canada's doors open. What's more, Conservatives know that popular support for immigration depends on the integrity and fairness of the immigration system — both real and perceived. 

If your Trudeau-targeted attack tweet can't capture this reasoning while making the attack, then perhaps the attack shouldn't be made — at least, not on Twitter.

As conservatives, your base isn't as close to the sensitivities or worldview of the press as that of your opponents. You're not Justin Trudeau. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Because Twitter is a cesspool of torque and recrimination. At best, it's a tool to rally the converted. And while your message there might be meant for the base that agrees with you, it is also seen by those who don't, so it must stand up to scrutiny from both camps, unless you want to become a story in all of the ways you don't want.

Why? Because, as conservatives, your base isn't as close to the sensitivities or worldview of the press as that of your opponents. You're not Justin Trudeau, able to smear — practically without challenge — an entire side of the political spectrum as fearmongers for questioning the government's approach to the border.

And when someone from your side of the political spectrum calls an opponent grotesquely lewd terms, as happened recently to my former PMO colleague Rachel Curran, it isn't the solitary act of a sad troll, as some Liberals will insist, it's an occasion to bemoan the rise of the alt-right, supposedly acting on the dog whistles from their handlers in Ottawa.

Yes, there are frothing trolls on both sides, but sadly those on the right tend to be louder (and more repellant to the tastemakers). That's why conservatives need to be ultra-mindful of the company they keep, especially online. If an online mob of anonymous racists starts agreeing with you on a sensitive issue like border control, you must be sure to check they're agreeing with you for the right reasons. And if they're not, be both forceful in your condemnation of them and in the restating of your reasons for demanding action.

The last bit counts treble in the age of Trump. Trumpism might be seen by some on the Canadian right as a route to power, but it's a highly corrosive approach for Canadian soil. It also happens to be the best route back to power for Trudeau, which is why Liberals take every opportunity to mention that Hamish Marshall — formerly of an early, less rabid incarnation of the Rebel — is CPC leader Andrew Scheer's 2019 campaign manager. Forget the talk of #positivepolitics, the next Liberal campaign is going to be a lot shadier than the sunny ways that brought them to power.

So, remember conservatives: you're always going to be pissing into a stiff breeze. Be perfect with your facts, clear in your motive for attacking the government and mindful that the broader environment is not in your favour, especially with Trump and his debasers in office.

The bar might be higher for you, but you still have to clear it.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Andrew MacDougall

Andrew MacDougall is a Canadian-British national based in London who writes about politics and current affairs. He was previously director of communications for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

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