Con­ser­va­tives in Cruise Wear

A week at sea with Ezra Le­vant’s Trump-lov­ing, Trudeau-hat­ing Rebel army

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Peter Nor­man

A week at sea with Ezra Le­vant’s Trump-lov­ing, Trudeau-hat­ing Rebel army

On a sun­day morn­ing in late Novem­ber 2016, just more than twelve dozen trav­ellers con­verged on Fort Laud­erdale from all cor­ners of Canada — and one end of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. Some were suc­cess­ful busi­ness own­ers. Oth­ers were farm­ers, truck driv­ers, ra­di­ol­o­gists, com­puter pro­gram­mers, ac­coun­tants, engi­neers, and re­tirees. At least two, im­prob­a­bly, were pub­lic ser­vants: she a hos­pi­tal clerk, he a me­chanic who ser­vices mu­nic­i­pal ve­hi­cles in Grande Prairie, Al­berta. What united them was their de­vo­tion to Canada’s most in­fa­mous right-wing me­dia out­let: the Rebel, brain­child of no­to­ri­ous provo­ca­teur and self-anointed “Rebel Com­man­der” Ezra Le­vant. Th­ese were his most de­voted acolytes, his army, his Rebels.

Over the next seven days, my wife and I would sail the Caribbean on Hol­land Amer­ica’s MS Nieuw Am­s­ter­dam, where I’d em­bed among Le­vant’s ad­mir­ers as they toasted the suc­cess of Don­ald Trump and com­plained about “smirk­ing lib­er­als” like, well, me. The Rebel name tags, with their bright-red lan­yards, made it easy for us to spot one an­other among the 2,000 other pas­sen­gers. Not that we lacked for com­pany: our itin­er­ary in­cluded dinners, cock­tail mix­ers, and meet­ings in one of the ship’s con­fer­ence rooms, where the Com­man­der held court.

Though now well into his for­ties, Le­vant has re­tained the manic en­ergy that fu­elled his long ca­reer in con­ser­va­tive cir­cles, from early days as a po­lit­i­cal stunt co-or­di­na­tor for Pre­ston Manning’s Re­form Party, on through his me­dia ca­reer as the pub­lisher of Western Stan­dard mag­a­zine (now de­funct) and a TV host at Sun News (also now de­funct). Though Le­vant was once as­so­ci­ated with main­stream publications such as the Na­tional Post, his most re­cent in­car­na­tion as Rebel en­tre­pre­neur sug­gests he is done with all that. Typ­i­cal fare at­dia in­cludes cli­mat­e­change pseu­do­science, at­tacks on fem­i­nism, staged an­tics aimed at em­bar­rass­ing com­mu­nity ac­tivists, and, of course, fear­mon­ger­ing about Mus­lim refugees. Af­ter the Jan­uary 29 shoot­ing at a Que­bec City mosque, for ex­am­ple, the Rebel pur­chased the do­main que­becter­, which it has used to ad­vance con­spir­acy the­o­ries that a Mus­lim com­mit­ted the at­tack.

Le­vant de­scribes him­self as an “ac­tivist jour­nal­ist” and makes no claim to ob­jec­tiv­ity. In some of his on-air seg­ments at Sun, he seemed pos­i­tively un­hinged — as in a 2012 rant in which he called the Roma peo­ple “a cul­ture syn­ony­mous with swindlers,” be­fore go­ing on to say, “Gyp­sies are not a race. They’re a shift­less group of ho­bos. They rob peo­ple blind. Their chief econ­omy is theft and beg­ging.” (He later apol­o­gized.) De­fend­ing Le­vant against a li­bel suit, his own le­gal team called him an “out­spo­ken provo­ca­teur and trou­ble­maker.”

Le­vant’s many bizarre state­ments and rad­i­cal pos­tures may sug­gest he is a fringe fig­ure in Canada’s mar­ket­place of ideas. Yet he has an al­most su­per­nat­u­ral abil­ity to bounce back from con­tro­versy in sur­pris­ing ways. It was Le­vant who pop­u­lar­ized the con­cept of “eth­i­cal oil” with his 2011 book of the same name, which won the Na­tional Busi­ness Book Award. When he faces at­tack, Le­vant tends to hit back ruth­lessly against what he calls “the lib­eral me­dia elite.” A Rebel ar­ti­cle about this pub­li­ca­tion, for in­stance, was ti­tled “‘An­i­mal porn’ mag­a­zine The Wal­rus is a multi-mil­lion dol­lar tax-ex­empt CHAR­ITY run by Trudeau’s ghost­writer.” (Full dis­clo­sure: that same an­i­mal-porn en­thu­si­ast, Wal­rus edi­tor-inchief Jonathan Kay, also col­lab­o­rated with Le­vant on his 2009 book, Shake­down.)

With its an­gry, anti-lib­eral, race-ob­sessed, oc­ca­sion­ally apoc­a­lyp­tic tone, the Rebel re­sem­bles Bre­it­bart, the con­ser­va­tive

Hil­lary-ha­tred was the norm: many Rebels turned glee­ful when dwelling on the hu­mil­i­a­tion that Trump’s vic­tory had caused her.

Amer­i­can web­site once run by Stephen Bannon, who is now Don­ald Trump’s chief strate­gist (a typ­i­cal head­line: “Idaho Dems Exec Direc­tor: DNC Should Train Peo­ple ‘How to Shut Their Mouths If They’re White’”). That’s no co­in­ci­dence: Le­vant said dur­ing the cruise that Bre­it­bart was a ma­jor in­spi­ra­tion for the Rebel. Which is ex­actly why I spent a week of my life rub­bing el­bows with Le­vant’s most ded­i­cated fol­low­ers. Bannon’s acolytes, too, once were mocked and ridiculed as mar­ginal loons — un­til they got their man into the White House. Could Le­vant man­age the same trick here in Canada?

On the MS Nieuw Am­s­ter­dam, Le­vant was clearly the main at­trac­tion for Rebel cruis­ers. But he also brought along a corps of co-stars: con­ser­va­tive pun­dits and ac­tivists (“celebri­ties,” as Le­vant de­scribed them in the pro­mo­tional ma­te­rial) who’d be con­duct­ing panel dis­cus­sions dur­ing the course of the week on top­ics such as “US Elec­tion Re­sults” (the cruise took place about two weeks af­ter Trump’s elec­tion vic­tory), “Po­lit­i­cal Cor­rect­ness and Cen­sor­ship,” “Is­lam and the West,” and “Is So­cial­ism Back? Trudeau, San­ders, and Mil­len­ni­als.”

Four of th­ese guests were young women: fel­low Rebel per­son­al­ity Faith Goldy (who spear­headed Rebel cov­er­age of the Que­bec City mosque shoot­ing); Bre­it­bart re­porter Adelle Nazar­ian; Toronto Sun colum­nist Candice Mal­colm; and Paige Macpher­son, Al­berta direc­tor of the Cana­dian Tax­pay­ers Fed­er­a­tion. Join­ing them were two older pun­dits: right-wing his­to­rian Daniel Pipes and women’s rights ac­tivist Ra­heel Raza. (The lineup also orig­i­nally in­cluded Milo Yiannopou­los — a no­to­ri­ous Bre­it­bart fire­brand who was banned from Twit­ter af­ter be­ing ac­cused of en­cour­ag­ing the vi­cious trolling of African-amer­i­can co­me­dian Les­lie Jones. Vet­eran Ed­mon­ton Sun colum­nist Lorne Gunter was his last-minute re­place­ment.)

My first look at the whole group came dur­ing our day-one cock­tail mixer in the Crow’s Nest, a swank bar with a view of the open ocean. The Rebels were mostly white; the av­er­age age seemed slightly over fifty. But I spot­ted a num­ber of younger cou­ples, a few young men who’d come alone, and one pre­co­cious boy of about ten, who, over the course of the week, en­thused about the Rebel’s stars the way other kids do about pro­fes­sional ath­letes.

Le­vant gave a “short” wel­come speech. I would soon learn that a short Ezra Le­vant speech is like a short Rip Van Win­kle nap. Dur­ing the panel dis­cus­sions, his promise to take “just ten sec­onds” would draw in­creas­ingly louder laugh­ter. As he would do through­out the week, Le­vant showed him­self to be a clever, charis­matic mas­ter of cer­e­monies. This was not his first such cruise: he’d or­ga­nized them be­fore for both Sun News and Western Stan­dard. The man was very much in his el­e­ment — so­cially, at least; his sev­eral ref­er­ences to feel­ing “wob­bly” sug­gested that pre­vi­ous cruises had not for­ti­fied his sea legs.

The Rebel is a Toronto-based site, and Le­vant him­self typ­i­cally fo­cuses on Cana­dian pol­i­tics. But much of the con­tent on the Rebel is pre­sented in a way that ap­peals to right-wing cul­ture war­riors across the English-speak­ing world: through mon­tages of lurid sto­ries such as “Pak­istani Mi­grant Won’t Be De­ported af­ter Bit­ing Ger­man Woman While Raping Her in At­tempt to In­fect Her with STD” and “Daily Top Five for the Counter-ji­had: See Who Chanted ‘Al­lah hu Ak­bar’ at Women’s March.” Aside from a man who had come all the way from Den­mark, how­ever, the Rebels I met were Cana­dian; On­tario and Al­berta pro­vided es­pe­cially large con­tin­gents.

I spoke with a man who works with the home­less, a woman who an­swers phones for an air­line, an­other woman who works at a war mu­seum, and a self-made high­school dropout who es­tab­lished a prof­itable oil-ma­chin­ery busi­ness and is no stranger to fancy cruise ships (many of us, by con­trast, were novice cruis­ers — one soft-spo­ken gen­tle­man told me, “I’m not used to hav­ing din­ner on so many plates”). In their spare time, some of th­ese Rebels toil as vol­un­teer ac­tivists, helm­ing con­ser­va­tive cit­i­zens’ groups, blog­ging, get­ting into on­line fights. (“I love it when they block me,” one woman said with rel­ish.) Ev­ery­one seemed thrilled to be among “like­minded peo­ple” — a phrase I heard at least a half dozen times. Some seemed serene, po­lite, and ret­i­cent. Oth­ers re­quired lit­tle prompt­ing to air their views, and did so at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals, great length, and con­sid­er­able vol­ume. One pair of trav­el­ling com­pan­ions em­bod­ied both ex­tremes: a gruff, tou­sle-haired Saskatchewan farmer ap­proach­ing re­tire­ment age, prone to an­i­mated mono­logues, and his much younger nephew, a sweet and cour­te­ous com­puter pro­gram­mer from Ed­mon­ton. As for me, I was just try­ing to fit in and obey the rules of eth­i­cal jour­nal­ism — which in­cluded re­spect­ing the pri­vacy of worka­day Rebels who did not know that I would be writ­ing this ar­ti­cle. Ex­cept in the case of the pan­el­lists (who air their views pub­licly in a pro­fes­sional ca­pac­ity), names have been changed and iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion has been kept vague. Di­rect quotes are based on my notes and mem­ory and may vary slightly from what was said. I didn’t buy any­one drinks or lure any­one into say­ing any­thing out­ra­geous. I was in­ter­ested in un­der­stand­ing what Rebels think, and why they think it, not turn­ing them into ob­jects of ridicule. So I would pose, but I would not lie. I would tell only the truth — just not nec­es­sar­ily the whole truth. For ex­am­ple, when a Rebel pointed out that my day job — I edit books — places me in a largely left-wing mi­lieu, I con­ceded that, yes, it does. But as a free­lancer, I added, I have the plea­sure of work­ing from home. I didn’t clar­ify that this plea­sure de­rives from avoid­ing a com­mute, not avoid­ing lib­er­als.

At din­ner on my first night at sea, I sat across from a mid­dle-aged Toron­to­nian with a thick shock of grey­ing hair. “I’ve spent twenty years fight­ing [Mus­lim in­cur­sion],” he told me. His other causes in­clude chal­leng­ing the idea of cli­mate change (which many Rebels re­gard as a hoax de­signed to sab­o­tage the in­dus­tri­al­ized West) and re­sist­ing Justin Trudeau’s left-of-cen­tre agenda.

As waiters dis­creetly set plates in front of us, Larry (as I will call him) pressed on tire­lessly, hit­ting me with a suc­ces­sion of well-re­hearsed ar­gu­ments and num­bers. He often stabbed his fin­ger to­ward me for em­pha­sis or, in a more im­plor­ing ges­ture, held out his hand, palm up, fin­gers slightly curled as if to hold a wa­ter bal­loon.

Larry told us about a re­cent solo street protest that had earned him a photo in atoronto news­pa­per. That pub­lic­ity was a tri­umph, he de­clared — but it came at a cost: “I’d used a sick day to be there, and now my pic­ture’s in the pa­per. Busted!” He was a solo rene­gade, fight­ing the good and often lonely fight. So it pleased him to no end that Le­vant — a “ge­nius,” in Larry’s es­ti­ma­tion — was on his side.

Also at the ta­ble was a young lawyer, a brash and opin­ion­ated Cana­dian now liv­ing in the United States. He was eu­phoric about Trump’s vic­tory, as well as the “lib­eral melt­down” that went with it. But his new home came with frus­tra­tions, too. He told us that the process to be­come an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen had cost him tens of thou­sands of dol­lars; mean­while, “il­le­gals are ap­par­ently wel­come to waltz across the bor­der.” He also com­plained that Flor­ida, where he lives, has overly re­stric­tive gun laws.

As dessert was served, the con­ver­sa­tion zigzagged from one topic to an­other: lib­eral vil­lainy, voter fraud (per­pe­trated by Democrats, of course), the sup­posed ben­e­fits of pump­ing Earth’s at­mos­phere full of car­bon. All the while, Larry be­moaned the hos­tile re­ac­tion his opin­ions en­coun­tered among mem­bers of the press, politi­cians, and ac­quain­tances. To in­di­cate how bur­dened their brains must be with the con­tra­dic­tions of lib­eral ide­ol­ogy, Larry re­peat­edly mimed his own head ex­plod­ing.

My own pol­i­tics lean left of cen­tre, though not so dog­mat­i­cally as to prompt cra­nial ex­plo­sions. My friends and ac­quain­tances tend to be left­ies, too, but even the most con­ser­va­tive of them were united in hor­ror, or at least se­vere alarm, at Trump’s elec­tion. Yet here among the Rebels, Hil­lary-ha­tred was the norm: many Rebels turned most glee­ful when dwelling on the hu­mil­i­a­tion that Trump’s vic­tory had caused her. As a mid­dle-aged woman on the cruise put it to me, she was just happy “that bitch didn’t win.”

Trump’s vic­tory was the fo­cus of the first panel dis­cus­sion, which took place at ten the next morn­ing. As we waited for tardy pan­el­lists (we’d crossed the bor­der be­tween time zones overnight, so many pas­sen­gers were con­fused about the time), Le­vant en­ter­tained the crowd with some­thing of a stand-up rou­tine. His ma­te­rial was hokey, but the jokes landed. Not for the last time, he spun self-dep­re­cat­ing ma­te­rial from the fact that the ship had a gym — the joke be­ing that you wouldn’t likely find him in it. “I’m into fit­ness,” he explained. “I’m into fit­tin’ this pizza in my mouth!”

I’d later learn that this par­tic­u­lar pun is a well-worn standby at the Rebel of­fices. One staffer told me, “I’ll be happy if I never hear the fit­ness joke again.” This was not said un­kindly — Ezra’s em­ploy­ees seem to en­dure the painful jokes as one might tol­er­ate the wise­cracks of an un­cool dad. Some of his staff have been with Le­vant since his days at Sun News, and they ap­pear to be loyal and happy in their work.

The panel it­self in­volved much bad­mouthing of the “Clin­ton mafia.” But when Daniel Pipes men­tioned the ob­vi­ous (to me) point that a Trump pres­i­dency could threaten global se­cu­rity, it did not play well in the room. This was no place to spec­u­late on the neg­a­tives of the in­com­ing pres­i­dent. Not once through­out the en­tire week did I hear any se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion of whether Trump might have sex­u­ally as­saulted women (though I did hear plenty of tales of sex­ual as­saults car­ried out by Mus­lims). Free speech has al­ways been one of Le­vant’s sig­na­ture is­sues, but I never heard any ref­er­ence to Trump’s threats to sue me­dia out­lets for re­port­ing on his scan­dals.

A short while later, we docked in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where I spot­ted one Rebel cou­ple tour­ing the nearly 500-yearold cathe­dral and an­other strolling hand in hand along the an­cient walls that en­cir­cle Old San. A third cou­ple opted for a tour of the rum fac­tory. I heard no Trump tri­umphal­ism there. In the GO P pri­maries, Puerto Ri­cans had voted over­whelm­ingly for Flor­ida sen­a­tor Marco Ru­bio. In the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, they had no vote, be­cause Puerto Rico isn’t a state. Upon learn­ing that my wife and I are from Toronto, a San Juan cab driver had two re­ac­tions. The first: “Very cold.” The sec­ond: “I hear many peo­ple move to Canada.” Then, in case we hadn’t un­der­stood why: “Be­cause Trump.”

A day in port on a Caribbean is­land of­fers your typ­i­cal cruise pas­sen­ger a wel­come op­por­tu­nity to stretch their legs, buy sou­venirs, and sam­ple lo­cal cul­ture. But many from our group stayed close to port, opt­ing for Star­bucks Wi-fi over ex­plo­ration far­ther afield. When they weren’t catch­ing up on the lat­est right-wing fare from Facebook and Bre­it­bart, they were bond­ing over their shared pol­i­tics. On a pri­vate beach at Half Moon Cay in the Ba­hamas — the epit­ome of serene trop­i­cal beauty as de­picted in tourism brochures — Larry stood on the board­walk, fully dressed in street clothes, talking at a fel­low Rebel.

For all their rail­ing against “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness,” Rebels can be quite fussy about the lan­guage used to de­scribe their own kind. A com­mon com­plaint is that lib­er­als are too ea­ger to smear them with such la­bels as “racist,” “trans­pho­bic,” and “Is­lam­o­pho­bic.” As Le­vant ar­gued in one of his email blast-outs to cruise par­tic­i­pants, “they keep in­vent­ing new in­sults for peo­ple they don’t like.”

A par­tic­u­larly loathed term is “cli­mat­e­change de­nier,” which Rebels re­sent on two grounds. First, as Lorne Gunter explained dur­ing one of the panel sessions, “de­nier” im­plies that the idea of a man­made warm­ing of earth must be taken as the base­line of truth, and sec­ond, it echoes the loath­some con­cept of Holo­caust de­nial. Rebels gen­er­ally pre­fer the term “cli­mat­e­change skep­tic.”

One diehard Rebel, a forty-nine-yearold web de­vel­oper from Ottawa, talked about this sub­ject — in­deed, all po­lit­i­cal sub­jects — with an air of dis­be­lief, his eyes dis­tant and pained, as if he sim­ply could not grasp how the world could be so stupid as to be taken in by a cor­rupt sci­en­tific

They com­plain that lib­er­als are too ea­ger to smear them with such la­bels as “racist,” “trans­pho­bic,” and “Is­lam­o­pho­bic.”

com­mu­nity. At a din­ner, he re­minded the ta­ble of Obama’s 2015 claim that cli­mate change is the great­est threat fac­ing the world. More than once dur­ing the week, this par­tic­u­lar claim would be held up for ridicule.

For this Rebel, how­ever, the prob­lem was not just Obama’s be­lief in cli­mate change; it was his misiden­ti­fi­ca­tion of what ex­actly is our great­est threat. Al­most as an aside, as some­thing so ob­vi­ous that it hardly bore men­tion­ing, the Ot­tawan clar­i­fied that “the big­gest threat is Is­lamic immigration to the West.” This, more than any other is­sue, fu­els the pho­bic out­look of your typ­i­cal Rebel.

“Ifirst be­came aware of [the global im­pli­ca­tions of] Is­lam in the nineties,” Larry told me. A decade be­fore 9/11 and a year or two be­fore the World Trade Cen­ter bomb­ing of 1993, Larry was already con­cerned by the im­pli­ca­tions of On­tario’s Ar­bi­tra­tion Act, which, be­fore be­ing struck down in 2006, could have al­lowed cer­tain forms of dis­putes to be re­solved by re­li­gious of­fi­cials, whose judg­ments would be en­force­able by pro­vin­cial courts. Fol­low­ing the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks, Larry’s fears went main­stream, as many West­ern­ers be­came con­sumed with the fear that or­di­nary Mus­lims, not just Is­lamist ter­ror­ists, were schem­ing to im­pose sharia on the whole of Western civ­i­liza­tion.

Be­cause this fear is so cen­tral to the Rebel world­view, the Fri­day morn­ing panel dis­cus­sion on “Is­lam in the West” was one of the most ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated events of the Rebel Cruise. Out­side, it was a grey, rainy day, with strong winds and three­me­tre-high waves. Per­fect weather for an apoc­a­lyp­tic dis­cus­sion.

At the front ta­ble were Le­vant, Ra­heel Raza, Faith Goldy (a Catholic), and Adelle Nazar­ian (an Amer­i­can-ira­nian Jew). Chair­ing the panel was Pipes, the Har­vard-ed­u­cated his­to­rian, whose air of ma­tu­rity distin­guished him from the other pun­dits on the cruise. While many self­pro­claimed Is­lamic ex­perts who ap­pear at “alt-right” events are au­to­di­dacts who know lit­tle of ac­tual Is­lamic his­tory, Pipes can read Ara­bic, and was well known as a promi­nent (if hawk­ish) ex­pert on the Mid­dle East well be­fore 9/11.

He’s also highly con­tro­ver­sial — his cam­pus speak­ing en­gage­ments re­li­ably spark protests and charges of Is­lam­o­pho­bia. In the Rebel con­text, how­ever, he was the voice of rea­son and tol­er­ance. Through­out the morn­ing, the tall, bearded sixty-sev­enyear-old ab­stained from the heated rhetoric of the more youth­ful pan­el­lists. This did not sit well with the crowd. You don’t go on the Rebel Cruise to have your be­liefs damp­ened; you go to have them stoked.

As for Raza, she iden­ti­fies as Mus­lim, but also ad­vo­cates for fem­i­nism and other lib­eral ideas that are ta­boo in much of the Mus­lim world. At din­ner, Larry and a fel­low diner had as­serted that Raza was “not re­ally amus­lim”; Larry told me that he planned to con­front her about this dur­ing Fri­day’s Q&A and warned that he might “get a lit­tle rude.”

In his open­ing state­ments, Pipes said that while Is­lam re­mains a ro­bust faith, Is­lamism (which is to say, Is­lamic mil­i­tancy) is ac­tu­ally on the de­cline, that ter­ror­ism has peaked, and that many or­di­nary Mus­lims have be­come dis­gusted with the ran­dom vi­o­lence com­mit­ted in the name of their re­li­gion. He also noted that Is­lam has made significant con­tri­bu­tions to our own Western cul­ture. Other pan­el­lists dis­agreed — re­spect­fully — that Is­lamism is wan­ing. Dur­ing the Q&A, the dis­agree­ment be­came more heated.

A rugged, shorn-headed, fifty­ish truck driver from south­ern On­tario (we’ll call him Rob) stood up and loudly opined that Is­lam had been “rot­ten” since its in­cep­tion four­teen cen­turies ago, and called the prophet Muham­mad “a drug-ad­dicted rapist.” Pipes, in his role as panel chair­man, re­peat­edly leaned into the mic to ask, “What’s your ques­tion?” Fi­nally, one emerged: “How can you say Is­lam has any­thing to of­fer the West?”

Pipes be­gan by say­ing that Is­lam “has tri­umphs and fail­ures in its his­tory...”

This pro­voked an in­ter­rup­tion from Rob: “Name one tri­umph.”

Pipes tried to re­sume but was again in­ter­rupted, and he be­came vis­i­bly frus­trated. Fi­nally, he de­clared that he would not de­lay the pro­ceed­ings by pro­vid­ing such ba­sic in­for­ma­tion (even many laypeo­ple know that the Mus­lim world has been re­spon­si­ble for nu­mer­ous in­no­va­tions in science and that many clas­sics from an­cient Greece sur­vive only be­cause Mus­lim schol­ars pre­served them dur­ing the Dark Ages; even a few Rebels I met al­luded to this fact). “I’m a me­dieval scholar,” Pipes told Rob. “I can go toe to toe with you on this.”

The Q&A moved on, and Rob was left vis­i­bly un­sat­is­fied. (Later, Rob would tell me, he cor­nered Pipes at break­fast and tried to press the is­sue, but Pipes did not want to en­gage — “He tur­tled on me.” Late on Satur­day night, at the end of the cruise, my wife and I ran into Rob’s plus one in a cor­ri­dor. Pos­si­bly jok­ing, she told us that Rob had re­tired early, ex­hausted af­ter “chas­ing Daniel Pipes up and down the ship.”)

As the ses­sion headed into its fi­nal quar­ter hour, Larry kept half ris­ing from his chair, hold­ing his hand aloft. I started to sus­pect he was be­ing de­lib­er­ately ig­nored by the Rebel staffer car­ry­ing a mi­cro­phone from ques­tioner to ques­tioner. When Pipes an­nounced that there was time for only one or two more ques­tions, Larry be­came even more ag­i­tated, bounc­ing up and down in place. Still the mic was de­nied him. Fi­nally, as peo­ple were get­ting up to leave (even Rebels grow weary of dis­cussing the per­ils of Is­lam, ap­par­ently), he gave up on the mic al­to­gether and blurted out that he had a ques­tion.

“If it’s quick,” said Pipes.

“It won’t be quick,” was the an­swer. Pipes shook his head, a ris­ing bur­ble of small talk drowned out Larry, and that was that — he had lost the chance to out Raza as a fake Mus­lim.

It was only later that day, dur­ing a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ses­sion, that Larry fi­nally had his mo­ment and asked the speak­ers to as­sess the (ab­sent) woman’s de­vo­tion to her pro­fessed re­li­gion. It was Le­vant who re­sponded this time. To his credit, he re­fused to an­swer on Raza’s be­half: “Who am I to tell her she’s not a Mus­lim?”

How much are th­ese Rebels go­ing to in­flu­ence the course of Cana­dian pol­i­tics in the Trump era? Un­til re­cently, one might have said: not at all.

How does an or­di­nary Cana­dian be­come a Rebel? Dur­ing my week at sea, I be­gan to clas­sify Rebels ac­cord­ing to the is­sues that made them an­gri­est — the ones that had orig­i­nally brought them into Le­vant’s or­bit. Fear of Is­lam and a dis­trust of main­stream cli­mate-change science were the most preva­lent. Rebels might start out as tem­per­ate con­ser­va­tives, cen­trists, or even left­ists (Faith Goldy said that her con­ser­vatism had emerged from the ashes of a youth­ful hard-left zeal). But at some point, a gate­way is­sue draws them in.

Maybe a sud­den spike in a tax bill is what en­rages them, or they lose their job. It could be a work­place in­ci­dent in which they’re ac­cused of ex­hibit­ing some stig­ma­tized trait — racism, sex­ism, trans­pho­bia — that they don’t be­lieve they pos­sess. Or, watch­ing the news, they are over­come by the hor­ror of an ISIS ter­ror­ist at­tack.

Find­ing scant sup­port for his views in the main­stream me­dia, the nascent Rebel turns to Google, where his search for truth might lead to one of the many click­bait videos posted on Le­vant’s web site. (The Rebel has racked up more than six mil­lion Youtube views per month since its launch in early 2015. No one writes a head­line like Le­vant.) Driven by a con­vert’s zeal, the newly minted Rebel be­comes not only a steady con­sumer of Rebel con­tent but also a pub­lisher — spam­ming his friends with the stuff on Twit­ter and Facebook.

One Rebel I met, a mid­dle-aged oil­patch worker from north­ern Al­berta, de­scribed his daily me­dia con­sump­tion as fol­lows: First he goes to Bre­it­bart for news, then the Rebel for “anal­y­sis,” then his lo­cal Sun news­pa­per “for en­ter­tain­ment.” Time per­mit­ting, he’ll move on to the Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star or the CBC — but only if he isn’t already “an­gry enough.” (That last bit was said partly in jest, but the rest was in earnest.) I met mem­bers of two fam­i­lies for whom Rebel con­sump­tion is a daily bond­ing rit­ual: One re­tired cou­ple keeps the lap­top open on the break­fast ta­ble ev­ery morn­ing, with Rebel videos turned up loud. One mother watches Rebel videos ev­ery night with her teenaged daugh­ters.

The site gen­er­ally does not pub­lish “fake news” or such non­sense as 9/11 Trutherism. Al­most ev­ery­thing you see on the Rebel contains at least some germ of truth; even videos with out­ra­geous ti­tles such as “Lib­er­als are ISIS” present their ar­gu­ments by ex­trap­o­lat­ing from ac­tual news. But I did meet Rebels so alien­ated from lib­eral Cana­dian so­ci­ety that they had ap­par­ently de­scended into full-blown con­spir­acism. One of th­ese was the Al­ber­tan hos­pi­tal clerk — a mid­dle-aged woman with a grim de­meanour. Re­fer­ring to the fire that rav­aged Fort Mc­mur­ray last May, she said, “A spark at one end of the city, and a spark at the other end, at the same time? Pretty big co­in­ci­dence...that doesn’t sound like a wild­fire to me. But they say it’s a wild­fire, and that’s what they keep re­peat­ing.”

She didn’t pro­vide a source for her sus­pi­cions, but I would later learn that so­cial­me­dia ru­mours and fab­ri­cated news re­ports had sug­gested that ISIS or eco-ac­tivists — or even Premier Rachel Not­ley, a con­sis­tent tar­get of Rebel me­dia at­tacks — had started the fire. (One ar­ti­cle was doc­tored to look like a screen grab from a CBC page. The coun­ter­feit­ing was so shoddy that the name of the al­leged re­porter had been mis­spelled.)

How much are th­ese Rebels go­ing to in­flu­ence the course of Cana­dian pol­i­tics in the Trump era? Un­til re­cently, one might have said: not at all. But the sheer speed of the Rebel’s ex­pan­sion — Le­vant now has al­most thirty staffers un­der him, as many as a small news­pa­per, and a mas­sive donor list — sug­gests there is a mar­ket for his mes­sage. Not for noth­ing are so-called pop­ulists such as Kel­lie Leitch ap­pear­ing at Rebel-or­ga­nized ral­lies. At the grass­roots level, Le­vant’s army of Twit­ter fol­low­ers can make life difficult for any­one who angers them. Even politi­cians who de­spise Le­vant have good rea­son not to cross him.

Over time, Le­vant’s pro­fes­sional life has be­come a tan­gle of on­line feuds, burned bridges, and law­suits. It’s un­der­stand­able that tar­gets of his vit­riol treat him with con­tempt. But in the Rebel con­text, in the com­pany of his faith­ful fol­low­ers (and hav­ing no rea­son to sus­pect that I was not one of them), Le­vant was pleas­ant com­pany. He fur­rowed his brow and spoke hes­i­tantly when putting for­ward an idea he wasn’t yet sure about, or when shar­ing a provoca­tive idea he’d chanced on in his read­ing. He ad­mit­ted when he was delv­ing into an area he hadn’t stud­ied. He showed a sen­si­tive side. Telling the story be­hind a folk song about pop­u­lar re­sis­tance to com­mu­nism in War­saw, he be­came a bit misty-eyed. Per­haps it’s all an act. If so, it’s a con­vinc­ing one.

There is much de­bate in me­dia cir­cles about whether Le­vant is a true be­liever in his cause — or sim­ply an ide­o­log­i­cal huck­ster punch­ing a meal ticket. I came away con­vinced that he’s gen­uine. I think he be­lieves he’s do­ing the right thing. Even when his ap­proach is bru­tally in­sen­si­tive or worse, I think he feels jus­ti­fied by the sup­posed right­eous­ness of his cause.

Panel­list Lorne Gunter men­tioned a wit­ti­cism widely at­tributed to Robert Frost: “A lib­eral is a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quar­rel.” We all had a good laugh at this. But I was prob­a­bly the only one in the room laugh­ing with self-recog­ni­tion. What­ever else may be said of them, Rebels have the courage of their con­vic­tions. Like Trump’s core fol­low­ers, they think they know just what’s gone wrong with the world — and who’s re­spon­si­ble. It must be com­fort­ing to live with this kind of moral cer­tainty, even if it finds out­ward ex­pres­sion in anger and ag­i­ta­tion.

On satur­day night, at the fi­nal cock­tail mixer, I was ap­proached by the Rebel’s cam­era­man, who was cir­cu­lat­ing among the guests and record­ing spon­ta­neous re­caps of our week at sea.

For a week, I’d been pos­ing as a Rebel with­out telling a sin­gle lie. Now, with the lens star­ing me down and an­other Rebel look­ing on, I felt it would draw un­wanted at­ten­tion if I did not have any­thing to say. So I spoke.

Here is what I remember say­ing: “This is the Rebel Cruise, a cruise un­like any other.” I looked to the side as if to lo­cate Ezra Le­vant in the room. “Ezra is do­ing stuff in Canada no one does.” What else could I say? Just one more sen­tence and I could wrap this up. I hes­i­tated.

I thought of long dinners dur­ing which I’d been re­galed with re­lent­less waves of com­men­tary while I held my tongue and lis­tened. I re­called one Rebel, a young man in a “Make Amer­ica Great Again” cap, posit­ing that Canada lags be­hind the US po­lit­i­cally by a decade, that our own Trump mo­ment is just around the cor­ner. I thought of the serene Ba­hamian beach, of Larry rail­ing at who­ever would lis­ten.

The cam­era was still rolling. Some­thing had to be said. I took a breath and spoke: “It was a hell of a time.”

Fi­nally, in a way, I was telling the whole truth.

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