Image Courtesy of flickr.com
Andrea Douglas, Queen’s University
Edited by Brendan Sheppard
There are astonishing similarities between Rob Ford and Donald Trump. As controversial political firebrands, these two men saw similar rises to their respective offices. Ford, in a bombastic manner that predated Trump’s own political career, lied constantly. He railed against liberals, elites and the media. Both men continually deflected their political failures and mounting scandals by blaming others, even doing so when their own culpability was appallingly evident.
Ford’s political career preceded that of Trump. He was previously thought of as “a cranky suburban councillor known for his rants about cyclists, streetcars, potholes and wasteful spending, he had none of the gravitas you might expect in a serious candidate for mayor. But people didn’t want gravitas. They wanted change.” Ford’s most fervent supporters were Torontonian small-business owners who were wary of taxes, traffic, political elites, urbanism and modernizing cities. One of his most famous slogans was to stop the city’s “gravy train” of runaway spending, which is eerily similar to Trump’s “drain the swamp” of Washington’s corruption.
Trump even used Ford’s famous phrase, “Stop the Gravy Train”, while at a rally in West Virginia in May 2016. After Ford’s passing in March of that year, the Ford family, via Twitter, expressed their support for Donald Trump’s candidacy for presidency by tweeting, “Go Trump Go!”. They claimed that Trump’s use of the phrase was a “real tribute and honour to Rob.” Ford, like Trump, branded himself as an anti-establishment outsider that would shake up the political system.
From the outset of their campaigns, Trump and Ford embraced the role of political agitator. They became highly recognizable public figures while campaigning. Because they stuck to simple messages, they also found support in audiences receptive to their divisive rhetoric. Ford’s infamous messaging was built along economic and social divisions in Toronto, rather than the racial divisions often played upon by Trump. In exploiting these socio-economic divisions, Ford created a culture war. He popularized the idea of a “war on the car”, in a similar way that Trump did so with the “war on coal”. For Ford, playing on socio-economic tensions was easy to do because he envisioned Toronto’s suburbs as the hardworking neighbourhoods of the everyman, whereas the wealthier downtown core of the city was his version of Trump’s coastal elite.
Therefore, Ford, like Trump, played the role of advocate for the working man: someone who has a “long commute behind the wheel on potholed roads” while “the coddled, bike-riding latte sippers who lived downtown” lived an easier life. Ford played this part despite having inherited a fortune and successful business from his father. Trump too inherited millions and yet he still plays the role of defender of the working man.
So what is the appeal of populists like Trump and Ford? According to Ford’s former chief of staff Mark Towhey, “Donald Trump isn’t a packaged politician…people are sick and tired of that.” According to Towhey, Trump’s appeal is the same as Ford’s. Trump was willing to speak his mind and did so in a way that people could understand. Trump has famously claimed that news sourced from journalists and news media that are unbiased in their reporting of his failures, are fake news. Meanwhile, Ford called the Toronto Star, a publication that was much less sympathetic to his controversial administration than the Toronto Sun, “pathological liars” for rightly making claims that he had drug and alcohol issues.
In addition to their shared bombastic styles of garnering attention, Ford and Trump also managed to survive a series of what should have been career-ending scandals. David Soberman, professor of marketing at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, said that the men’s unconventional style of politic was advantageous for them both, because they didn’t “fit the mould of an ‘average politician’” and therefore, “their campaign missteps had much less of an impact.” Soberman has gone so far as to say that “their popularity is unaffected by things that would tend to drive down the popularity of most politicians.”
This interesting phenomenon is evident in the way Ford won his bid for mayor, despite leaks during his campaign that he had been arrested for drunk driving and pot possession while in Florida in 1999. Additionally, it was revealed he had also drunkenly accosted a couple at a hockey game, an incident he vehemently denied. Throughout his mayoral term, evidence, often in the form of videos, leaked of Ford “drunkenly wandering a Greektown street festival, physically charging reporters in his driveway and smoking crack in his troubled sister Kathy’s basement.”
Despite the severity of their scandals and gaffes, the past mistakes both men made never drowned out their simplistic messages. Trump only had to repeat his core campaign message of “Make America Great Again” and Ford only had to evoke his “Respect for Taxpayers” slogan, to maintain popularity amongst their political bases. Their mantras were durable, and resonated strongly with those who believed they had been wronged in life. The grievance politics that both men played upon allowed them to build solid bases of support. For Ford, “many of his followers lived in Toronto’s troubled inner suburbs. Like the rural and working-class white Americans who helped boost Mr. Trump to victory, they felt left behind and shut out.”
Trump famously tapped into a disgruntled group of voters, the often referred to ‘silent majority’. One of the biggest grievances amongst Trump voters was that during the eight years of the Obama administration, they felt they had not been heard. Ford too, tapped into a similar group of voters. According to Towhey, “Ford was a politician who gave voice to a very large swath of the city that found the politics as usual wasn’t working for them. They weren’t getting what they wanted from their city.” Ford focused on the small injustices voters felt they were experiencing, which were relatable to the public in ways that problems with city-building just weren’t. Towhey claims that Trump inspired a similar situation in the United States, provoking “millions of Americans for whom electing a Democrat or a Republican over the last 20 years hasn’t made any difference” to simply vote “against the establishment.”
Both Ford and Trump also had the advantage of what Soberman calls, the “familiarity effect”, which can be a powerful positive force in politics. Ford had a brand in Toronto politics for being a “pugnacious city councillor”, and Trump was famously a “brash billionaire”. Soberman claims that “once people are aware of a brand, even if it doesn’t have a positive or negative effect on you, simply knowing about it makes you more likely to have a positive feeling towards it.”
The bombastic, populist, confrontational style of politics perfected by Rob Ford is easily reflected in how Donald Trump has shaped his political persona. Ford lied through his teeth to deny scandals of which there was ample evidence to prove them true, and Trump continues to spin wild tales about harmful falsehoods of election fraud and the deep state. The two men are manifestations of the right-wing, populist, authoritarian wave currently sweeping through Western democracies, diminishing their durability and strength. As journalist Marcus Gee observes, there are two major lessons that can be learned from these two men: “First, it is dangerous to underestimate the voters and their discontents. […] Second, it is dangerous to hand power to a loose cannon on the hope that power will moderate him.”
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