Prime Minister Nixon

On Tuesday, we got another glimpse into the soul of what truly is the Harper government.

At issue was the new citizenship guide. “In Canada, men and women are equal under the law,” the guide says. “Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, ‘honour killings,’ female genital mutilation, forced marriage or other genderbased violence.” Substance aside -I think the statement is just fine -the words “culture” and “barbaric” are hot-buttons. And this document was written under the direction of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, a man so thoroughly political he undoubtedly dreams of stump speeches, polls, and calculations.

Conclusion: It was bait.

Kenney was fishing for a dumb bass.

And he landed a beauty. Liberal immigration critic Justin Trudeau told a reporter that although he actually agrees that honour killings are barbaric he is “uncomfortable with the tone.” It’s “pejorative.”

On Monday, the Conservative noise machine issued talking points while Kenney expressed righteous indignation to any reporter who would listen. By Tuesday morning, Trudeau was in the ridiculous position of insisting that he really does think murder is wrong, wrong, wrong.

And that was when Stephen Harper’s government revealed its fundamental character.

Dimitri Soudas, the prime minister’s spokesman, broadcast a statement addressed to Justin Trudeau on Twitter: “@justinpjtrudeau the right thing to do is an apology to victims of honour killings and their families. Honour killings are barbaric.”

Whether Trudeau’s objection was right or wrong, he never said anything to belittle the moral gravity of honour killings. Indeed, he was explicit about that. But still the prime minister’s personal spokesman saw an opening for a vicious attack. So he took it.

How utterly typical.

You don’t love Canada. You don’t support the troops. You sympathize with terrorists. You don’t care about victims of crime.

For the prime minister and his core team, there is no such thing as honest and honourable disagreement. One either supports Stephen Harper or one is the enemy -and enemies must be defeated by any means necessary.

In the 2006 election, the Conservatives issued a press release with the headline “Paul Martin Supports Child Pornography?” It was retracted. But when Stephen Harper was asked about it, he didn’t apologize. He attacked. “I’m not going to, in any way, give the Liberal party any break in its record on child pornography.”

This was the template for what was to come. One of the lowest points in Canadian political history was reached when the prime minister stood in the House of Commons and insinuated that the Liberals were opposing certain anti-terrorism provisions because a Liberal MP’s father-in-law may have been involved with terrorists.

Naturally, this no-limits mentality is not limited to the political arena.

The civil service is rife with enemies. So are the media. And the judiciary. In February, Jason Kenney slammed judges for not following the political direction of his government when they interpret legislation. His audience -mostly lawyers and legal scholars -was shocked. “If the executive believes that the law is not being interpreted as it intended, it has the option of further legislative amendment. It does not, however, have the option of publicly reprimanding the judiciary for not supporting its political agenda,” the Canadian Bar Association responded in an open letter to Kenney. “Your public criticism of judges who follow the law but not the government’s political agenda is an affront to our democracy and freedoms.”

I’m sure that put the CBA on the prime minister’s Enemies List. If it wasn’t already there.

Readers will remember that the original “Enemies List” was compiled by Richard Milhous Nixon, a lifelong politician whose defining qualities were tactical ruthlessness and a burning sense of resentment for “eastern elites.” Sound familiar?

I don’t buy the argument that Stephen Harper is successfully moulding Canada in his own image. But the Conservative party? Oh yes. No previous generation of Conservatives behaved like Harper and Company. Just try to imagine any other Conservative prime minister defending legislation on the floor of the House of Commons by smearing a Liberal MP’s father-in-law.

The change isn’t solely Stephen Harper’s doing, of course. It’s also the product of American influence.

The prime minister and the people around him have all followed American politics their entire lives, they all have close connections with American politicos, and many have actively participated in American politics. In the American system, the idea of political neutrality scarcely exists. Senior civil servants are political appointees. Judges are identified as Republicans and Democrats and the Supreme Court routinely splits along political lines when ruling on politically contentious cases. There is no Governor General or Queen above politics -nothing is above politics. Indeed, the closest thing to neutrality in American politics is “bipartisanship,” which is quite a different creature.

It’s also important that the Harper Conservatives are connected to, and influenced by, the American conservative movement. As Rick Perlstein showed so brilliantly in Nixonland, that movement was shaped in important ways less by the sunny nature of Ronald Reagan than the dark insecurities of Richard Nixon. Conservatives are outsiders. They have to fight dirty because power lies with a ruthless and entrenched elite. It’s civil war. And it never ends: Even in the middle of the Bush years, when Republicans controlled the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court, conservatives sincerely saw themselves as hard-pressed and persecuted insurgents.

Just like the underdogs of the PMO.