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Charles Adler Wonders What Happened to His Conservatives

The talk star on Poilievre, Trudeau, the problem with ‘both-sides-ism’ and more. A Tyee interview.

Steve Burgess 12 Apr 2024The Tyee

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Read his previous articles.

Charles Adler is a conservative. These days, however, that does not necessarily equate to being a Conservative. The longtime radio and TV talk star, currently a columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press and host of a popular podcast, increasingly has found himself alienated from political parties carrying the banners of the right in Canada and the United States.

Adler spoke with me about politics — past, present and future — from his Winnipeg home.

The Tyee: How would you describe your own political journey over the last five or 10 years?

Charles Adler: I guess the simple way of putting it is, I used to be pretty at home with the Conservative party. And then stuff started happening, in 2014-15. There was the barbaric hotline [the barbaric cultural practices hotline] or wherever the hell the thing was called. And this series of political slogans — Justin Trudeau is not ready, the whole paranoid thing about Muslims. Just a real dumbed-down populist version of conservatism really turned me off and made me feel like an idiot to identify with it.

Some will say, “Your political views have shifted,” and the reply might be, “No, it’s the spectrum that shifted.”

I don’t think people’s values change. So when this is covered in terms of apostasy, I think it’s actually quite ridiculous. If I have certain values before an election campaign begins, I don’t have different values during the campaign, or after.

I find it intellectually dishonest to talk about how people have dramatically changed. Most people’s personalities don’t change much past the age of, you know, six or seven. Personalities are formed in childhood and the idea that people change when they’re 35, 45 or 55, depending on an election campaign, just seems intellectually obtuse.

I’ve never quite understood the idea that one would make up one’s mind about how to vote based on a 30-second ad.

I do change my mind over ads. I mean, I voted for the Manitoba PCs for most of my adult life. And then the ad campaign they ran in the recent campaign — bragging about their decision not to dig up the graves of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, a really stupid campaign — made me vote against them.

And the slogan, something like, if you vote NDP, violent crime will be even worse than it is now. So the government basically saying violent crime is really bad but it’ll be even worse with the other guy because the other guy, of course, is Aboriginal — that was the not-so-hidden hidden message. And that too is stupid. This is stuff I could make up when I was nine years old. I don’t want to vote for a nine-year-old.

So I voted Liberal. Not because I wanted the Liberals to get in — it was just my way of registering my opposition to the PC campaign. So when you say that people don’t change their votes based on campaigns, I respectfully disagree with that.

Do you think people on both sides of the political spectrum are often their own worst enemies?

Sure. Yeah. But I do think that we people who are involved in journalism, I think, sometimes slip into this both-sides-ism. Yes, both sides always make mistakes. Both sides do stupid stuff. Both sides are more faithful to ideology than facts. But sometimes one side is beyond the pale. And I don’t think that should be rewarded. Because the other side doesn’t always try to choose properly.

We’re certainly seeing that in the United States where, you know, one side favours certain health-care programs and the other side favours the destruction of democracy and ending the rule of law. It seems like perhaps it ought to be the responsibility of journalists to point out that one of these sides does not accept the system we’re all supposed to participate in.

Well, one side is accusing women of executing children after they’re born. Donald Trump did that this week. So when someone wants to libel women who need abortions by saying that they choose to execute children after they’re actually born — I mean, there is no other side. It’s just defamatory, it’s libellous, it’s misogynistic.

Do you think Pierre Poilievre will be our next prime minister?

The odds are in his favour. And I say that because the odds generally are for change every decade. People do vote on their feelings — I don't pretend that everyone who votes is, you know, getting out the flow chart. It's been about a decade and people just tend to think, “Enough.” It's Poilievre's to lose. And I think he does have the capacity to lose it, because he is very complacent. He is very smug. He is very, very easy to dislike.

And I think he's very easy to defeat in a political debate. I think there are several people on the Liberal side who could defeat Poilievre, Trudeau included. Who's the fella, the housing minister, Sean Fraser? I've seen Sean Fraser in the House and he absolutely swats Poilievre like a bug.

I think there will be events in the campaign, like the French debate. It doesn't matter that most people don't watch the French debate — they hear about it. And I think if Trudeau performs in French the way he usually does, which is substantially better than he performs in English, I think he's got a good shot at putting Poilievre very much on the defensive and changing the expectations game. I don't think it serves Poilievre well to have high expectations, which people will naturally have, based on the polling.

That is true and certainly sets the bar higher for him.

It wasn't that long ago Andrew Scheer was seen as the favourite. I know that sounds crazy now, but that's the point. You know, Erin O'Toole was the favourite. I think counting out Justin Trudeau is not a great idea, because Justin Trudeau is a superior political athlete, and no amount of memes on social media changes that. Especially campaigning, when he feels it's a real joust, that gives him rocket fuel. And I think Poilievre is a slogan regurgitator, and that's rather unimpressive in a debate.

So I take it you are not among those who would recommend that Trudeau step aside.

No, I'm not. I'm not one of those at all. On the Democrat side, I do recommend that Joe Biden step aside. It's not because of any dislike for him. I just know the rules of television. And the rules of television are pretty simple. People listen with their eyes. And when their eyes are on Joe Biden, their eyes are on someone who appears to be flailing, appears unsteady, appears to be the fella we know as Dad or Granddad. You know, Uncle George, we visit him in the home, and we love Uncle George but we never say Uncle George should be moved to the Oval Office.

Do you think [Naheed] Nenshi will be the NDP leader in Alberta?

Yeah, that's kind of a no-brainer. Nobody knows the others. If you talk to members of the public, whether they love him, dislike him, whatever, I mean, he's the only game in town. That's what happens when a huge brand steps in. I think everyone understands the NDP has to get beyond the NDP. If David Eby, who for my money is by far the smartest political leader in Canada, if David Eby was only focused on NDP activists or the NDP base, he wouldn't be as smart as we know he is.

Let's say it's Nenshi versus [Danielle] Smith next time around. You are forced to bet the rent. Who do you bet on?

I still have to bet on Smith, because most people still vote their party affiliations. I'm not a fan of Danielle Smith. But you know, she's not Genghis Khan. I would root for Nenshi. But I rooted for [Rachel] Notley last election. When I endorsed her on New Year's Eve, I thought she might win. But it was clear to me from their campaign that they weren't going to win because they didn't give people a reason to vote for them. It was just criticism of Danielle Smith, and that's not enough. In the debate Danielle Smith was substantially better. One of the reasons I like the idea of Nenshi is, I don't think Danielle Smith can clobber Nenshi in a debate. I'm not saying she can't beat Nenshi in a debate — I don't think she can clobber him.

Let me ask you a more philosophical question. What do you think is the role of a responsible conservative in today's political climate?

As a small-c conservative, I would say the No. 1 item is the social safety net. Small-c conservatives have to emphasize that it's all about the social safety net. And then it's all about having the kind of fiscal responsibility that guarantees a strong social safety net. That's why I put the “progressive” in front of conservative, because if it's not progressive, it's just reactionary. You know, “We don't like the year 2024.” That, to me, is the base of the CPC [Conservative Party of Canada] but that's where I part company with them.

Because I don't hate the fact that we're living in 2024. I'm not going to sit around reacting to all of the stuff that is irritating or annoying in 2024 that we didn't have 20 years ago. I think that's interesting in a discussion over beers, but I really think it's irrelevant when it comes to democracy. A small-c conservative deals realistically with where we're at in modern times, not wasting time on nostalgia and hatred of all those people who represent the modern world.

So this constant anti-woke crap, I mean, that to me is not small-c conservatism. That's just reactionary blather.  [Tyee]

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