Magazine | February 20, 2017, Issue

Mr. Wonderful Goes to Ottawa?

Kevin O’Leary’s Trump show in Canada

Kevin O’Leary’s worship of money makes Donald Trump look like Jesus Christ flipping tables in the temple. He loves it, covets it, never has enough of it.

“I want to go to bed richer than when I woke up,” he told the Hamilton Spectator, summarizing his life philosophy. “It’s that simple.”

O’Leary, who currently leads the polls to be the next leader of Canada’s Conservative party, and thereby has a shot at being the country’s next prime minister, is best known on this continent as the wiseass heel on a duo of dream-making reality shows: Dragon’s Den in Canada, Shark Tank in the States. Jelly-kneed contestants tiptoe to a dais of five imperious millionaires and beg them to invest in ideas that range from wickedly brilliant to so embarrassing they induce physical pain.

It’s the job of Kevin, the cruelest beast in the lineup, to make sure audiences can tell the difference. His put-downs are legendary, sometimes witty (“You have a future — in bad theater!”), sometimes less so (“You’re an a**hole, f*** you!”).

Tagged with a host of sarcastic nicknames (“Uncle Kevin,” “Mr. Wonderful”), he’s parlayed his brand as a cuddly jerk into various spin-offs, including several bestsellers and an exceedingly superficial current-events chat show, which pits the self-styled über-capitalist against a mushy liberal who gapes incredulously at O’Leary’s various off-the-dome proposals — such as making labor unions “illegal.” O’Leary is, in theory, an actual businessman in his spare time, head of something called the O’Leary Financial Group, which offers small-business loans and, uh, wine. But whatever actual competence he possesses as a titan of industry seems a distant afterthought to his ability, as he once put it, to “play one on TV.”

On January 18, Mr. Wonderful announced his candidacy for the Canadian premiership, spouting one of his catch phrases: “I’m in!” He speaks of the Liberal incumbent, Justin Trudeau, with the same unbridled contempt previously reserved for pitchmen of unimpressive children’s toys and exercise equipment, calling the young PM “an incompetent who doesn’t know what he’s doing,” surrounded by “a chessboard of mediocrities.”

“You can’t grow a weed in Canada today, the soil is so poisoned by the policies Trudeau’s put in place,” he told radio host Andrew Lawton, referring to the Liberal government’s propensity for new spending, regulations, and taxes, including a nation-wide carbon tax. “I will eradicate every one of his policies in the first 100 days.”

Yet as a man who must first win the nomination of a “big tent” Conservative party prone to factionalism, O’Leary has shown scant talent for fostering unity. On social issues, he unflinchingly describes himself as “very liberal,” offering unqualified support for abortion, pot, euthanasia, and what he once obliviously referred to as “transvestite rights,” to say nothing of a foreign policy teetering on explicit pacifism.

That said, brazen bluff-calling on the official party orthodoxy obviously worked quite well for another gold-plated reality-TV blowhard. For all the confident posturing from his opponents and the press about how O’Leary’s Trump 2.0 shtick ignores important realities of Canadian “political culture,” Uncle Kevin the investor is making what appears an increasingly safe bet: Western voters are more interested in electing a canny avatar of anger and suppressed national ambition than in electing strict adherents to an ideological dogma.

The global fad of populist nationalism is less about specific policy prescriptions than about loudly repeating a certain sort of folk wisdom the elite considers distasteful or discredited, while mining dormant reserves of national anxiety and pride. The precise expressions and triggers of these emotions vary from nation to nation, meaning that while O’Leary talks little of immigration or borders, he nevertheless remains as much a national populist as Trump, Nigel Farage, or Marine Le Pen.

His patriotic appeal is of a flavor recognizable to any American who has endured a long bus ride beside a chatty Torontonian: braggy, bossy, and infinitely confident that Canada embodies the world’s highest ideals of common sense. The sort of Canadian who asserts that his country is the envy of the planet because of its laws on health care and guns; a nation of people expecting free hotel rooms in Europe and warm hugs in the Middle East.

O’Leary’s take on Islamic radicalism, for instance, is that Canada is safe forever because, really, who could possibly hate a Canadian? “I actually believe the last nationality ISIS wants to put a bullet through is a Canadian,” O’Leary told an interviewer last year, adding that Canadians need to appreciate their glowing global reputation as an “asset value” and avoid any military engagements that could compromise it.

This is, to put it gently, naïve. Canada sacrificed 158 soldiers in the battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the country has been repeatedly targeted by Islamic radicals, including one who did, in fact, put a bullet through a Canadian — Corporal Nathan Cirillo, who was shot and killed in 2014 while guarding Ottawa’s National War Memorial. Not even the farthest-left politician in Ottawa would deny any of this, yet views such as O’Leary’s remain the sort of opinion one hears a certain kind of Canadian express quite loudly and often. The War on Terror, they say, is basically America’s problem; terrorists, if objectionable, are those who react to worse things America did first.

That O’Leary is a nominal conservative brimming with eclectic liberal opinions reveals less about the man’s ideological complexities than about his talents at regurgitating the popular clichés of Canada’s patriotic middle class. The skill was doubtless honed during his many years outside the country. The old adage that there is nothing more Scottish than a Scot outside Scotland applies threefold to Canadian expats in America. Given their day-to-day anonymity, exaggerated loyalty to the notion of Canada’s progressive superiority becomes a favored means of self-identification.

It goes a long way toward explaining the unlikely appeal of O’Leary’s shallow materialism as well. In Canada (as in America), there has been a several-decades’ drumbeat insisting that the only viable style of center-right politics is campaigning exclusively on fiscal issues while eschewing anything that sniffs of Christian judgmentalism. Biblical moralizing freaks out secular suburbia, this thinking goes. Pocketbook issues — those are what moves voters.

O’Leary is basically a reductio ad absurdum answer to this demand. Supposed “very liberal” views on social policy aside, listen to any interview with the man in which such issues arise, and you’ll hear the bored responses of a miser profoundly indifferent to any line of conversation that cannot be reduced to dollars and cents. A chat with Mr. Wonderful on the merits of doctor-assisted suicide is far less likely to contain a compassionate analysis of human suffering than the words “I don’t care.”

This may not be the worst general-election strategy. After only a year in power, the Trudeau administration doesn’t bother even pretending that its high-spending policies will yield positive economic outcomes, with its own finance department projecting sub–2 percent growth until 2029 and enormous budget deficits until 2055. The prime minister’s constant posturing on trendy social causes — affecting the persona, as one Reason writer put it, of the world’s “woke boyfriend” — becomes uniquely grating in this context because it emphasizes the multitude of more pressing financial crises he’s ignoring.

The question is whether Canada’s Conservatives can be persuaded to make their 2019 candidate a man whose sense of right and wrong revolves exclusively around the almighty loonie (the Canadian dollar). In his 2012 book, Cold Hard Truth, O’Leary offered perhaps the clearest window into his moral universe, claiming that when he expresses his famously harsh judgment of others, he’s “just channeling money” — a substance whose assessment of worth is the only one worth heeding. Even in a Tory party that’s been drifting steadily postmodern, this Mr. Burns approach to morality remains far from unanimous. (An O’Leary quip that “you have to be willing to sacrifice everything to be successful, including your personal life, your family life, maybe more” is unsettlingly close to a 1997 line from The Simpsons’s Burns describing family, religion, and friendship as “the three demons you must slay if you want to succeed in business.”)

Canada’s prime-ministerial candidates are chosen in a vastly more closed and undemocratic fashion than the process that selected Donald Trump. Voters are not self-identified Conservatives but a tiny pool of Canadians who pay $15 a year for formal “party membership,” a subculture that most estimate at less than one half of 1 percent of the national population. Things are further complicated by the party’s insistence on using a voting system that is not only preposterously federalist — every one of the parliament’s 338 districts is given 100 electoral votes, regardless of population (or number of party members) — but mathematically impenetrable, with an “instant runoff” ballot that forces voters to rank candidates in order of preference, then applies a convoluted formula to determine the “consensus” pick.

That consensus will surely be phony. With the departure of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the man who founded the modern Conservative party of Canada and held it together for over a dozen years with his austere paternalism, cliquishness has consumed the Tories. Even before O’Leary, the leadership race already featured numerous competing populists, including former cabinet ministers Kellie Leitch, who is campaigning on European-style immigrant-skepticism, and Maxime Bernier, whose appeal is closer to Paulite libertarianism, as well as backbencher Brad Trost, a doctrinaire social conservative.

Sticking such polarizing figures, plus an additional ten candidates of widely varying degrees of credibility, into a balloting process no one really understands makes futile any effort at soothsaying. Yet one assumes that O’Leary’s solid name recognition, genuine celebrity, and charismatic personality will count for something in such a crowded field.

Donald Trump’s candidacy was based on a specific gamble: that the Republican establishment and America’s larger universe of journalists, consultants, and donors did not know their country’s electorate nearly as well as they thought. His victory was, and remains, an opportunity to reconsider a great many assumptions about what voters really want from their leaders, and why.

Canada is a country in even greater thrall to a narrow elite’s narrative of what works and what doesn’t. As with most politicians of his kind, O’Leary’s audacious rise, success, and even defeat will reveal a bevy of useful truths to those who prefer to avoid learning.

– Mr. McCullough is a political commentator and cartoonist from Vancouver.

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