They laughed at him, sure, but some also laughed with him.
Steve Bannon, the one-time chief strategist to U.S. President Donald Trump, came to Toronto Friday to debate the future of populism as a political force at the semi-annual Munk Debates. Or, at least, populism as he defines it.
His opponent David Frum, another former presidential staffer turned conservative thinker and avowed never-Trumper, took up the mantle of liberal democracy and international cooperation. Frum called Trump-style populism a scam led by crooks that is about cruelly "subdividing" people.
The room at Roy Thomson Hall was packed with hundreds of people who were told by chanting protesters that they should feel shame for giving an ear to Bannon, a man they called a dangerous racist and Nazi, and that the price of their admission — up to $100 for a ticket — was financing hatred. Several protesters were arrested and at least one Toronto police officer used pepper spray.
In his opening remarks, Bannon praised the "men and women who are exercising their freedom of speech rights to protest." In short order, a woman unfurled a banner from the balcony reading: "No Hate, No Bigotry, No Place for Bannon's White Supremacy."
She was booed, but then applauded for speaking her mind. Bannon clapped, too. Ultimately, though, she was removed by security.
Bannon argued Trump's election was directly linked to the financial crisis of 2008, when elites "bailed themselves out" but left a financial wasteland for the working class. Trump championed "the little guy," he said, and other leaders are following suit across the world.
"The little guy identifies with that, whether it's in Hungary, whether it's in Italy, whether it's in Brazil, whether it's in the United States,'' he said.
Watch the full debate:
But Bannon, who is also a former executive chairman of right-wing Breitbart News, repeatedly dismissed that the movement is about stirring up hostility towards Muslims, immigrants, people of colour, and Jews.
"Trump's economic nationalism doesn't care about your race, your religion, your ethnicity, your colour," he said, spurring incredulous groans.
"Bullshit," someone in the audience yelled.
"OK, OK. I've got a whole night to convert you," he said back.
Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush who coined the infamous "axis of evil" phrase in the lead-up to the Iraq War, said Trump's politics are about the "joy of destruction" and burning down institutions.
The politics of Bannon and Trump "offer you nothing," he told the crowd.
"It does not care about you. It does not respect you.''
Bannon wondered how the "new NAFTA" came together if the Trump program and populists are so bad. The comment drew jeers from the crowd.
"I forgot I'm in Toronto," he said, scoring laughs.
Frum said the new trade pact between the United States, Canada, and Mexico came together because responsible people encouraged Trump to do "as little damage as possible." Countries working together for prosperity and peace — rather than any America First dogma — is what is needed.
"The failures of a good system are no reason to turn to an evil one," he said at one point.
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Bannon scored more laughs later when a comment about Trump's criticism of what other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members spend on defence was met with a "hear, hear" from a woman in the crowd.
"Thanks, mom," he said, as if performing stand-up.
The debate took place just days before U.S. midterm elections that could define Trump's presidency. Trump has, in recent weeks, ramped up rhetoric on immigration and the media, which he calls the "enemy of the people."
Frum said Tuesday's vote will give an indication of how powerful that strategy truly is. Bannon predicted Republicans would keep the Senate and that the race for control of the House of Representatives would be a dogfight.
The best defence of Donald Trump is that the job is just too hard for him.David Frum
Frum appeared to score a direct hit when he pounced on Bannon saying that Trump is "just getting his sea legs" as president.
"The best defence of Donald Trump is that the job is just too hard for him," Frum said to applause.
The debate also took place just days after 11 people were killed in a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue and in the shadow of pipe bombs addressed to Trump critics, including Hillary Clinton and former president Barack Obama.
Several organizations and the federal NDP called on debate organizers to cancel the event after the massacre in Pittsburgh, citing Bannon's "extreme" views.
Debate moderator Rudyard Griffiths noted Bannon has participated in events where opponents have been called evil and is the "avowed architect of the Muslim travel ban in the United States."
Bannon pressed on vitriol, rhetoric
"The travel ban that was upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States? That travel ban?" Bannon shot back.
"Are you really going to say to this audience tonight that all of that vitriol, all of that hot populist rhetoric is not responsible for the spike we've seen... in terms of political violence and even worse, white supremacist terror?" Griffiths asked.
Bannon tried to pivot to talking about Hillary Clinton but, under pressure from the crowd to provide an answer, said "there is no correlation between the rhetoric of our movement and what is going on." He argued the "violence from the Democratic left" is far worse.
Frum said it is clear that the pipe bombs were all sent to "named targets" of the president.
"Obviously, President Trump is in no way accountable for that terrible crime in Pittsburgh, what he is accountable for is what he didn't do decently afterwards," Frum said.
At the beginning of the event, those in the audience were asked to vote with electronic gadgets on whether they agreed on the resolution: "Be it resolved the future of Western politics is populist not liberal."
Before the debate, 28 per cent said they agreed with that view, while 72 per cent were opposed. After, it was announced that 57 per cent now said they supported the resolution and 43 per cent were opposed — numbers that were questioned by audience members like TVO host Steve Paikin, among others. The Munk Debates' website now shows that opinions did not change at all.
The resolution never asked, however, if the future would be better or worse.
With a file from The Canadian Press
CLARIFICATION - Nov. 3, 2018: A previous version of this story stated that 57 per cent of the audience supported the debate resolution and 43 per cent were opposed. The Munk Debates' social media pages later rescinded this and said opinions did not change during the debate. The mistake was attributed to technical errors.