Ezra Levant and I have known each other for years. It wasn’t uncommon for people to compare us, due to similarities in our age, background and political ideology.
Yet, we weren’t the same. We’re both political conservatives and free-speech advocates, but we write, speak and think differently. Moreover, our political brands began to diverge as the years went by.
This old comparison was top of mind when Levant and his political website, The Rebel Media, experienced an ugly week of non-stop negative coverage.
It started just after the terrible attack in Charlottesville, Va. The controversial Unite the Right rally (which was anything but) led to violent protests between extreme right and left factions. One young woman was killed by a rampaging driver, people were injured, and U.S. President Donald Trump’s three conflicting responses were widely condemned by Democrats and Republicans.
Levant quickly tried to separate his enterprise from one of the rally’s dominant factions, the alt-right.
In a staff memo, he noted that when he first heard about this group a year ago, “I thought it simply meant the insurgent right, the politically incorrect right, the grassroots right, the nationalistic right, the right that was a counterweight to the establishment of the GOP.” Since Trump’s election, he believed the alt-right had “changed into something new” and “now effectively means racism, anti-Semitism and tolerance of neo-Nazism.”
This was something The Rebel didn’t agree with and wanted nothing to do with, he said.
Levant’s declaration was sensible. But some staffers and contributors had grown uncomfortable with the website’s editorial and political direction and decided to leave, including Rebel co-founder/journalist Brian Lilley and columnists Barbara Kay and John Robson. Conservative politicians, including federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, also disavowed them.
The dominoes continued to fall. The Rebel’s cruise got cancelled. Gavin McInnes, a controversial U.S. contributor, was hired by another organization and will be leaving. Reporter Faith Goldy, who covered the Charlottesville rally, was fired after it was revealed she appeared on a podcast affiliated with the Daily Stormer, an outfit often associated with the alt-right and white supremacism. There’s also the bizarre story involving Levant and two former U.K. staffers, with allegations of blackmail and hush money being bandied about.
Personalities and office politics aside, the lingering question is whether this whole matter could have been avoided.
I believe so.
The Rebel’s political brand has significantly changed since it was founded in 2015. It started as a conservative website and still has that element, but its tone has also become more coarse and reactionary. Strongly-worded commentary on race, religion and immigration became staples for some staff and contributors. That has an audience but turns off many others.
One reason for this shift could be Levant’s faulty interpretation of the alt-right. While this loose political collective (with origins dating to 2008) has evolved, certain fringe groups have always had a presence. This includes white nationalists, nativists, populists, birthers, conspiracy theorists and anti-monarchists, among others.
That’s why mainstream conservatives regularly avoided any connection with the alt-right label. The Rebel’s fascination with this fringe collective didn’t appeal to us, either.
Why didn’t mainstream conservatives speak out earlier?
Some couldn’t be bothered or didn’t want to rock the boat. Others weren’t paying close attention. Still others quietly stopped appearing on The Rebel or barely appeared there. (I’ve only made one appearance, with former host Tiffany Gabbay last August in a light discussion about the Rio Olympics.)
Nevertheless, there was one similar theme that many mainstream Canadian conservatives seemed to agreed on: The Rebel’s political brand wasn’t their brand. After the Charlottesville attack, this became more clear – and that’s why they’re speaking out.
There’s obviously still time for Levant to get his Rebel house in order. Whether he can accomplish this difficult task remains to be seen.
Troy Media columnist and political commentator Michael Taube was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper.
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