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Russell Wangersky: Politicians must address anti-democratic chants

Current Conservative leadership hopefuls Chris Alexander and Kellie Leitch make a joint announcement in this photo from October 2015 posted on Alexander's Twitter account.
Current Conservative leadership hopefuls Chris Alexander and Kellie Leitch make a joint announcement in this photo from October 2015 posted on Alexander's Twitter account.

“Lock her up.” It was a repulsive and frightening part of the U.S. election, and it’s now surfaced on this side of the border.

Russell Wangersky

When that particular chant started on Saturday, Tory leadership candidate Chris Alexander was on the front steps of the Alberta legislature, speaking at an anti-carbon tax rally.

Protestors started chanting the slogan, used with such vehemence against Hillary Clinton south of the border, in reference to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

Alexander’s reaction? He didn’t join in, but instead sported an awkward smile and a finger-pointing wave, as if keeping time. In so doing, he became an example of how we all have to learn to do things better.

That sort of chant may be public shorthand for “I am frustrated and angry with the way things are and what my government is doing.” That is what Alexander suggested on Sunday, saying, “Alberta’s hurting. Unemployment there is at nine per cent; that's the highest in 22 years.”

But does hurt justify threats?

Lots of people are hurting. Let’s not channel that hurt into demands for extrajudicial revenge.

Well after the fact, Alexander said he didn’t approve of the chanting.

“You don’t pick it up in the video, but I started to say the words in time with them, ‘Vote her out,’ and then the next point I made was about the ballot box,” he said. “I expressed my disapproval by talking about something completely different: voting. I think that was pretty clear.”

Not nearly clear enough.

What Alexander didn’t do was to tell the crowd that it was an unacceptable attack. He didn’t make the point, clearly and immediately, that in this country, we have a justice system that jails people when they are convicted of a crime, not when we disagree with their politics. That politicians and crowds at rallies don’t decide to just jail people they disagree with.

Jail without trial is the stuff of dictators, not democracies.

No one should ignore how dangerous the politics of hate actually are: also this weekend, a man was arrested after firing an assault weapon inside a Washington pizzeria, a pizzeria that false conspiracy theories had claimed was connected to Clinton. Trump wasn’t directly involved in that theory — but, like Alexander, he did nothing to douse it, or any of the other conspiracy theories that garnered him votes.

Whipping up hate for political ends can have drastic and tragic results.

There are things that have to be nipped in the bud — things that politicians, regardless of their stripe, have a duty to condemn immediately.

Donald Trump did the exact opposite — he used hate as a tool, and in the process, built an environment for racial and other attacks. Even the Bible knows that kind of danger: “For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”

You can, perhaps, give Alexander the benefit of the doubt to some degree: he didn’t start the chant, probably didn’t expect to have to deal with it, and was caught flat-footed, unable to come up with a better reaction than being the awkward deer-in-the-headlights he appeared to be. But having seen this particular type of attack surface publicly, politicians should be putting together a game plan for the near-certainty that it will pop up again.

When it does, they should have an answer.

And the answer shouldn’t look like they’re willing to go along with hate, misogyny or rage-based politics — not for a moment. When we make those attacks possible, we license them for use against anyone.

We have to stay awake. Neither our politicians nor we can afford to simply let things ride. To the south of us, the whirlwind is still forming.

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at — Twitter: @Wangersky.

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