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O’Leary the cynic

Kevin O’Leary wants us to share his cynicism about politics. Let’s not.

In a video Kevin O’Leary uploaded to Facebook last Wednesday in the hours following his announcement that he’ll soon join the candidates for leadership of the Conservative party, he summarizes a question Prime Minister Justin Trudeau received from someone while on the road. As O’Leary tells it, “Zach” told Trudeau that he’d felt lied to.

“Prime Minister, when I voted for you, you told me you’d balance the budget in 2019, that we’d go no more than $10 billion in debt,” O’Leary recounts in his video. “And today you’re telling me that I have to pay back $1.5 trillion? You lied to me.” (Or, as David Akin, who was in the room, quoted Zach (or “Zack”): “What will you do to curb your insane and reckless spending habits?” Sort of the same thing.)

O’Leary’s response?

“Justin Trudeau lied to me too, and I’m going to make him pay for that,” O’Leary says. “You can’t lie to me. You can’t fool me with numbers. I can read a balance sheet. I can read an income statement.”

“What I’m going to do for the next two years is shine the light of transparency on everything he does. I will look at every economic policy and assess whether it’s good for us or not. I’m going to try to stop him from doing any more type of damage until I get there to fix this country,” O’Leary continues. “When I get leadership of this party, I’ll shine that light of transparency on Justin Trudeau for you every day. I’m going to be his worst nightmare.”

The evening prior to O’Leary’s announcement, the rest of the Conservative leadership field engaged in their first French language debate in Quebec City. Kevin O’Leary, being apparently very unskilled at French, didn’t show up — he very obviously waited until immediately after the French debate had passed before announcing his candidacy. Instead, O’Leary watched the debate from afar, and broadcast his running commentary live online — in English, naturally.

One of O’Leary’s criticisms was that the candidates were spending too much time attacking one another, rather than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Which was a strange thing to say, really. The candidates on stage did, effectively, in a broad way, take aim at Justin Trudeau, by offering policy ideas that obviously contrasted with those that are currently being implemented by the Liberal government. What they didn’t do — and perhaps what O’Leary was waiting for — was present Trudeau’s prime ministership as an insult to them personally.

Maybe that will turn out to be their crucial mistake. Maybe Kevin O’Leary will win the race for Conservative leader by doing exactly as he did in his video Wednesday — explaining why he is so personally insulted by Justin Trudeau. And maybe, if he does, we will have to accept that Kevin O’Leary’s personal umbrage at the fact that Justin Trudeau is prime minister is a matter of great importance to a lot of Canadians.

At that point, we might have to also evaluate what our politics are all about, or what we want them to be about.

About five years ago, at the All Party Party — an event organized every year for Parliament Hill staff of, well, all the parties — I told then-NDP communications director Karl Bélanger that he was “90 per cent full of shit.” A least, that’s how he recalled it the next morning, when he emailed me to suggest we go to lunch to discuss my assessment.

“If that’s a perception,” Karl wrote, “I got to fix it.”

“I don’t think it’s a general one,” I replied. “I think I’m just an asshole.”

For the record, the charge I levelled against Karl wasn’t a personal one, but rather one directed at everyone in Ottawa. He just happened to be standing in front of me. At the time, just over two years into my tenure as a Hill journalist, I had become deeply disillusioned by politics and its processes. It all appeared to be so farcical. Question period as absurd theatre. Committees bogged down by unnecessary partisan hackery. Press conferences of words that carried zero meaning.

I don’t remember the exact specifics of my follow-up conversation with Karl, but the overarching point he made when we met (or the one that I retained) was that my perception was skewed — that, as cynical as politics can be at times, it would be a mistake to assume that cynicism was what motivated the majority of people in it. That instead, most people on the Hill got into politics with perhaps slightly naive, but usually more altruistic ideals in mind — ideals, probably, that weren’t very far off the same ones I held. That the institutions we depend on ought to be defended and strengthened, for example. From there, it was (likely) all a matter of opinion and policy.

It took me a while to realize that, despite seemingly boundless examples to the contrary, he was largely correct. That the disagreement I had with most political players on the Hill wasn’t because of their cynicism, but because of mine — about them. Still, it has taken me even longer, and a spell in politics, to allow myself, a born cynic, to start to really believe the same thing. It took a while because, frankly, it is simply the more difficult way to look at things.

But, as it turns out, assuming most people in politics are not driven entirely by cynical motivations is a very effective way of spotting real cynics almost immediately. If you assume everyone around you is a cynic, everyone really starts to look like a cynic. They may even start acting that way as a result. But, if you don’t, the true cynics immediately stand out — whether they’re pushing for a cabinet post, or listening too much to lobbyists, or running for party leadership.

And so we return to Kevin O’Leary, who over the course of the day Wednesday did the rounds of Canadian media, repeating his lines about a time not so long ago when Canada had “blue skies”, and disavowing everything he’s said prior to his entry into the race – that he alone, because of his status as TV personality, should for some reason be granted a kind of magical eraser, and that the rest of us should just grant him that privilege because he’s not a politician.

A lot of comparisons have been made between Kevin O’Leary and Donald Trump. They are both political neophytes. They are both businessmen. They were both on TV. They are both brash.

What’s been talked about less, certainly with regards to O’Leary, is his immediate exploitation of cynicism. O’Leary, like Trump, flatters the electorate in the worst way, by reassuring everyone that all the most negative beliefs we have about politics and politicians are correct. That they are all motivated wholly by self-interest. That they are all just in it to win. That they are all liars.

And, most crucially, they aim to convince us that there is nothing to be done about any of it, other than joining in the cynicism.

“I know this game better than anybody,” Donald Trump said last January at Liberty University. “I’ve been playing this game for a long time, folks. … I’m like the worst thing that ever happened to the establishment. Because I understand the game.”

Maybe he does – for now.

Many Americans voted to play Trump’s game, to effectively endorse the cynical, lazy and uncritical view of politics. It’s ultimately a shallow gambit for the short-term, and it is designed from the start so that only one man can win it.

Canadians don’t have to play it, too. We can, instead, just listen to Karl.


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