To call Kevin O’Leary “Canada’s Donald Trump” is to grossly overstate how interesting O’Leary is as a candidate.
Apologies to the believers, but O’Leary is an actor. He’s playing the role of the no-nonsense, tough-as-nails businessman, a persona that has gotten him stellar gigs on reality TV shows and financial panels. But just as elite pediatric surgeon, accomplished scholar and seasoned politician Kellie Leitch is pretending to be a populist, O’Leary has simply adopted an easily understood, marketable character (arguably, it’s working far better for him than Leitch’s heavily researched persona is working for her).
If Kevin O’Leary wasn’t famous, he would be among the most boring candidates running for the Conservative leadership. He has a wife and a couple of kids. He likes wine and taking pictures. He wants to create jobs (every good conservative believes the prime minister creates jobs, yes?), opposes carbon taxes, is disinterested in immigration reform, supports physician-assisted suicide, champions the legalization of marijuana, wants to lower taxes, balance the budget and to see Canada recognized as an international peacekeeper. Yawn.
In the bloated state of the Conservative leadership race, there are probably four or five other candidates touting nearly the same — or even the exact same — platform. O’Leary even looks like a mix between fellow candidates Steven Blaney and Maxime Bernier. Yes, the reality TV businessman certainly knows how to craft a juicy sound bite, but if we pause to look at what he’s actually proposing, O’Leary’s platform really isn’t all that interesting.
From the perspective of the O’Leary campaign, however, the best thing critics can do is continue to compare him to Donald Trump. It gives his relatively unremarkable candidacy the colour it needs to continue to eat up attention.
Sure, there are some similarities between Trump and O’Leary: they’re both businessmen, obscenely wealthy political novices, reality TV stars and they both have a knack for saying dumb things that get them in trouble (last month, O’Leary was quoted as saying “there is nothing proud in being a warrior” in reference to the Canadian military). But Donald Trump truly is an unhinged, vendetta-driven, thrice-married former beauty pageant mogul with a weird fixation with conspiracy theories. O’Leary doesn’t even try to play that on TV.
Support from the party
Could Kevin O’Leary win the Conservative leadership? Maybe. His lack of French — highlighted by his strategically timed candidacy announcement the day after the French debate — will hurt him in Quebec. Social conservatives won’t care much for his stances on euthanasia, marijuana, gay marriage and so forth, nor will hawks within the party welcome his pacifist approach to foreign affairs and apathy toward immigration reform. Policy wonks will likewise be unimpressed with his brazen ignorance of constitutional affairs, as evidenced by the idea he floated about selling seats in the Senate.
But O’Leary has name recognition, and for Conservatives staring down a second Trudeau term, it may be that “celebrity” is quickly seen as the only thing that will give the party a fighting chance in 2019.
Whether that happens or not, we’d all do well to remove the cold compresses from our foreheads — at least until O’Leary gets on Twitter and starts ranting about border walls and ideological purity tests for visitors (hiya, Kellie). O’Leary is less a poor man’s Trump than he is a rich man’s version of the handful of other Conservative candidates who have already proposed the same things. He’s simply found a cartoonish way to get people paying attention. Good for him.