Stephen Harper served as Prime Minister of Canada for nine years. While few would say that Trump and Harper are similar leaders, there are some things that we can learn from the genesis of the former Canadian Prime Minister that tell us about the current American situation, and why Trump’s legacy will last for so long, for better or for worse. Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s Radical Makeover will help us examine how both Canada and the United States are going through times of political and cultural restructuring.
One of the most concerning developments of this presidential cycle has been the perceived proliferation of fake news. I say “perceived” not because fake news isn’t actually proliferating, but because of what that perception does to the public. When we can’t trust what we hear from mainstream sources (like NBC or CNN), it pushes us to become cynical. We start to wonder if anything can be believed. If the media isn’t trustworthy, how do we really know anything about the government at all? From here we retreat back to where we feel safe: sources that corroborate our beliefs.
This isolation creates an even more starkly segmented society. Liberals only trust their sources, while conservatives trust their own. No doubt Donald Trump has used this in his campaign and his presidency. In a January 11 press conference, Donald Trump refused to let CNN’s Jim Acosta ask a question because his organization was “fake news.” Trump and Acosta had another encounter in February that unbelievably, even comically, included Trump telling Acosta to hurry up because others were waiting to ask questions, and his “ratings aren’t as good as some of the other people that are waiting.” I, like many Americans, thought that this subversion of the press was both concerning and unprecedented amongst modern Western leaders. Trump’s bravado makes his actions noticeable; he loves the spotlight, which allows everything he does to be scrutinized. When Trump subverts the reliability of the press, we read about it on Twitter, watch it on YouTube, and laugh about it on Saturday Night Live.
When we hear Trump tell a reporter to hurry up so that those with better ratings can ask their questions, what does that mean? When we see Melissa McCarthy dressed as Sean Spicer running over press members, what is that really commenting on? For Americans, it’s hard to separate out the vitriol against either the Press or Trump and examine this for what it is. Shifting our gaze to Canada, we can see what’s really happening here. Political scientist Norman Finkelstein says that sixty percent of people have no interest in the news. Most people aren’t going to care much about what happens in DC or Ottawa. Adding to this constant struggle to inform a public that just doesn’t much care about knowing is the stunning speed of modern media. The news has become “episodic” and brief, with little content beyond an alarming title meant to grab the attention of those scrolling by (Harris, 2014, 22).
Canadian conservatives have long had a mistrust of the media, which they believe has a bias in favor of the left. Indeed, they are largely correct. In Canada, left-leaning bias is not constrained to the mainstream media, but rather it is institutionalized (Harris, 37-38). Yes, the media is going to rule in favor of the left more often than not, but so are the universities, the professors, the influential thinkers, the historians. Canadian conservatives have felt that they were losing ground because they could not (or at least they felt they could not) get fair representation of their ideas. When the institutions in charge of disseminating information choose to ally themselves with a certain ideology, they lose their ethos with those they narrate against.
Since Canadian conservatives believed that their ideas were being systematically discriminated against, they had to find a way to “institutionalize their own message the way that liberals had so successfully done” (Harris, 38). This was realized through organizations like the Fraser Institute and other conservative think tanks that were able to provide alternative information to that presented by the mainstream media. This need for representation in the media is at once understandable and dangerous. All groups want to feel as though they are being heard, but when news outlets have to tip their hat to one group or the other, truth is sacrificed. We should venerate fair journalists and objective outlets, rather than simply multiplying the number of sources available to fit our preconceptions.
In the federal election of 1997, Harper (on the advice of Norman Finkelstein) ran ads attacking the “gold-plated pensions” of Canadian members of Parliament. Smear campaigns depicted two liberal members of Parliament, Anne McLellan and Judy Bethal with “their heads placed on a pair of pigs guzzling champagne while wallowing in a trough filled with tax dollars” (Harris, 25). At this time, he was the vice-president of a conservative lobbying group called the National Citizens Coalition, or NCC. Soon after, he would become president of the group. In his role, he was able to further advance his platform, while leading a group that was trying to present alternative facts that the mainstream media wouldn’t highlight.
The 2016 election cycle did deep, perhaps irreparable, damage to American confidence in the media. What we should recognize is that subversion of the media by any leader is potentially dangerous. It breeds a deep cynicism (“Can we really trust anyone?”), and it causes polarization. President Trump’s press conference antics insisting that CNN was “fake news” and therefore did not deserve a place at the table could be seen as both a cause and effect of the current public opinion on media. Because trust has flown, truth has become ancillary to ideological narratives, civility is seen as complicity, progress has all but stopped. We need to stop allowing political leaders to direct our view of the media. We need to stop reading just the titles of articles. Conservatives and liberals point across the way and say, “They’re fake news,” and we should know better than that. But we won’t be able to trust the media again until we’ve come to support journalism that seeks the truth, not just reporting that tickles our ears.
Harris, Michael. 2014. Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s Radical Makeover. Toronto: Penguin Books.