What former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford can teach us about Donald Trump

fordSince the only thing going on in domestic politics over the last few days is the Donald Trump story, I’ll bite. I’ll try to say something useful about it.

Here goes:

I am American living in Toronto. I have lived here for decades, and worked in politics for much of that time, including a stint at Toronto City Hall as a political staffer.

That means I got to witness, up close and personal, the phenomenon much of the world came to know as Mayor Rob Ford, a.k.a. the crack-smoking mayor of Toronto.

I could go into detail about how someone so unqualified came to be mayor of one of the truly great cities of the world. Partly it had to do with the weaknesses of other candidates, partly vote splitting, partly the tension between voters outside the downtown core and those within it, but mostly it had to do with the fact that, for a brief moment when it counted, Rob Ford was very popular.

Though he was from a relatively wealthy family and very much aligned with conservative politics in Canada, his popularity cut across ideological lines. Yes, people open to a conservative message supported him, but many not necessarily in that orbit were drawn in. Less affluent voters, supposedly less sophisticated voters and others typically considered to be without power liked Ford’s very unsophisticated and direct way of saying things. They related to the fact that he spoke the way they did and broke things down in a way that made sense to them, even if there was a great of deal of dishonesty in the simplification.

If the pointy heads talked about complex transit policy, he talked about how dirty the subways were and about how streetcars and bike lanes made it difficult for cars to get around downtown. He called it the war on the car.  If other candidates talked about city budget woes, he talked about how city councillors got free coffee and sandwiches at council meetings. He promised to shrink the size of government by reducing taxes and eliminating fees, putting cash in people’s pockets. And he certainly wasn’t afraid to criticize those in greatest need while making it sound to the poorer sorts like he was talking about someone else.

The more the media and other opinion leaders criticized Ford’s coarseness and apparent failings as a potential political leader, the more his core supporters rallied around him.

And that coarseness was legendary.

Going into the election his history of gaffes and indiscretions was well known. He had a drunk driving conviction in Florida in 1999; he referred to Asian people in a 2008 speech as “Orientals who work like dogs …[who are] slowly taking over”; he called a fellow councillor a “waste of skin”; he had been forcibly removed from a Maple Leafs hockey game for verbally abusing a spectator; he expressed opposition to homeless shelters and immigration; and even once said that cyclist killed by cars have only themselves to blame.

Torontonians elected him anyway.

It just didn’t matter. The plain talk about how the city should be run, boiling down complex public policy to the level of manageable annoyances, along with the, I suppose, very human way of expressing himself and living his life resonated with voters.

Of course, his problems ran deep and his mayoralty eventually imploded, but it took a while and horrible international media attention for the final curtain to fall.  Even then, when he was forced to end his campaign because of health issues, his brother Doug Ford, in many ways his mirror image, stepped in and actually received 34% of the vote on election day to the winners 40%. So, after all that, the family brand remained resilient.

I am not suggesting this means Donald Trump can win the Republican nomination, and certainly not the presidency. A mayoralty race is a very different beast, but there are lessons to be learned.

There may be much dishonesty in presenting complex political issues as if they are nothing more than technical problems that can be solved by the right leader, perhaps someone who has succeeded in business. Such a person, with the will to forge ahead, unconcerned about the niceties that apparently hamstring the less capable, could to some be a very compelling candidate.

Yes, the McCain comment was off-script and may do Trump’s campaign harm, but we are living through a time in politics when, and I’ll use the word again, a certain coarseness is not only forgiven but embraced by a large part of the electorate. Candidates who claim to be able to easily explain and solve our most complex problems are treated as saviours, which in itself is not new. What is new is that the boorish behaviour exhibited by some of these “saviours” is perceived as proof that they are tough enough, and unconcerned enough about conventional or polite methods, to get the job done.

The mantra has become “simplify and bluster.”

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