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Donald Trump is Toronto’s Rob Ford on Steroids

Photo by Shaun Merritt | CC BY 2.0

It’s not just the US which has had its “Howard Beale moment”.  Well before Donald Trump became president, there was a similar populist uprising which took place north of the 49th parallel in Toronto, Canada’s largest city.  Despite generally being perceived as a liberal city, the 2010 Toronto mayoral election (during which Rob Ford was elected), exposed political fault lines in the city akin to those reflected in America’s 2016 election results.  Serving as a largely unknown local councilor, Rob Ford was shockingly elected mayor with a healthy 47 per cent of the vote, most of it coming from the less affluent suburbs (comparable to America’s “flyover country”), against two more traditional – and liberal – candidates (provincial MPP, George Smitherman and Toronto city councilor Joe Patalone, both of whom retained support amongst the city’s well-heeled downtown establishment, comparable politically to America’s bi-coastal blue states).   Despite his multifold scandals, larger-than-life character flaws, and the fact that he was a perpetual global laughing stock during his time wearing the gold chains of his office, Rob Ford largely retained the support of his base throughout his tenure as mayor of Toronto.  Indeed, had cancer not intervened, it is highly possible that he would have won another term. The reasons for that in themselves may well have implications for those hope that the Donald Trump presidency is a brief aberration from political norms, a national nightmare soon to be eradicated (whether via impeachment, criminal indictment or via more traditional means, such as the ballot box).

Not so fast.  Above all else, the “know-nothings” who voted for Rob Ford had their reasons.  In the words of Ken Dryden (an author, former Liberal MP and a Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender), Ford’s supporters were mad:  “Mad at their jobs, mad at the money they don’t make. Mad at others for getting the chances they don’t. Mad at seemingly getting the short end of every stick. Mad at the mess around them: crime, litter, traffic. In stores, on phones, mad at being treated as if they don’t matter. Mad that others get away with everything they don’t, mad at not being able to stop them. Mad that life isn’t what they thought it would be. Even those who have done well – mad that others’ stick is longer.”

Ford promised to cut taxes, to stop the political gravy train by shrinking the size of the municipal government, and pledged to improve public transport (including preventing the city’s public transport workers from going on strike).  He kept many of his pledges, but delivering on his campaign platform hardly begins to touch the significance of his tenure in office or the ongoing devotion of his base, known as “Ford Nation”.

To say that Rob Ford had “personal baggage” is an understatement, somewhat akin to saying that Adolf Hitler had “issues” with Jews.  His 2010 campaign was almost derailed when a hitherto undisclosed drunk driving and pot possession from 10 years’ earlier came to light.  That was merely a foretaste of what was to come after his victory:  the following year, the Toronto police received a 911 call from the mayor’s estranged wife, after which Ford was charged with assault and threatening to kill her (although an indictment was never issued on the grounds of the wife’s inconsistent testimony).  The subsequent year, the mayor had his “grab’em by the pussy moment”, when he was secretly recorded smoking crack.  In May 2013 the story became public, with police and prosecutors, having viewed the video clip. The tape was not 100% conclusive (which is why the Crown attorney didn’t pursue prosecution).  Ford at first denied the allegations but later made a public admission that he had indeed smoked crack with an acknowledged drug dealer.  Although subsequently stripped of many of his powers, Ford initially contested decided to defend his incumbency in 2014, but after being hospitalized, he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in September of that year.  He withdrew from the mayoral race and registered instead to run for his old city council seat.  He was succeeded as mayor on December 1, 2014 by John Tory, but did regain his former ward seat decisively.

There are many who feel that but for the cancer diagnosis, Ford may well have won re-election (his brother, Doug, who ran as a proxy, finished with 34% of the vote). His supporters hung with him through thick and thin, even after stripped of his most of powers in a session during which Ford gained further notoriety when he tackled a 63-year-old female city councilor.  Nor did this #MeToo moment cool the ardor of his anti-establishment supporters, who loved the fact that Ford made his personal number public and showed up with a road crew if a constituent rang him to let him know about a pothole in the neighborhood.

Being ridiculed as rednecks, idiots, unsophisticated know-nothings, if anything left “Ford Nation” more entrenched in their support for the mayor as each subsequent scandal came to light. It was a revenge of the marginalized against the well-heeled elites and more “respectable” elements of Toronto’s political class, both who failed to appreciate that they (much like Hillary Clinton) were seen by many voters as part of the same corrupt system.   Failing to see an electorate exasperated repeatedly by broken promises, the media likewise did not recognize the frustration of the voters in the outer suburbs, who gravitated to Rob Ford who “spoke their language” at a time when they felt undervalued and disrespected against more conventional politicians, who repeatedly failed to respond to their grievances.

Like Trump voters, they reached “breaking point” and took great pleasure in seeing Toronto’s elites squirm in embarrassment with every new scandalous revelation.  They too may well have been somewhat chagrined by aspects of Ford’s bizarre behavior and his troubling addictions, but retained even greater hatred for his opponents.  The latter proved to be the stronger political motivating as far as their votes went. By the same token, the journalists who openly disdained Ford, also appreciated that his daily antics boosted their TV ratings and newspaper circulation (much as Trump has proved to be a ratings and subscription bonanza for the likes of CNN or the NY Times).  The negative coverage Ford attracted was likewise dismissed by his base as reflecting a liberal media conspiracy against the mayor and his suburban followers (“fake news” in the parlance of the post-Trump world).

By now all of this story will sound remarkably familiar to Americans, who have experienced a “Rob Ford on steroids” moment almost instantly from the time that Trump was elected in November, 2016.  Despite being buffeted by an array of scandals, discord and Administration resignations, the more abuse heaped on Trump and his “basket of deplorables” suffer, the more the latter dig in to support the President, even as he continues to erode the traditional norms of his office.  His 2016 election victory has indeed introduced a degree of unpredictability and volatility into the process of governing that did not exist before. But what is decried by the elites and the media is irrelevant to Trump’s supporters, much as it was for “Ford Nation”. Their support for him constitutes a way of breaking up a system that no longer works for them. If the president’s sledgehammer approach creates “collateral damage”, then so be it, as far as they are concerned.  It’s a predictable response to those who increasingly see themselves as having nothing to lose.  They are (in the words of journalist Chris Arnade), volatility voters:

As any trader will tell you, if you are stuck lower, you want volatility, uncertainty. No matter how it comes. Put another way. Your downside is flat, your upside isn’t. Break the system.

The elites loathe volatility. Because, the upside is limited, but the downside isn’t. In option language, they are in the money.

To put it in very non-geeky language: A two-tiered system has one set of people who want to keep the system, and another that doesn’t. Each one is voting for their own best interests.

Why this outbreak of political nihilism?  All of this social and cultural ferment has been occurring against a global backdrop in which the dominant force in the development of the world economy remains hyper-globalization, which created losers and policy-makers never responded with anything other than ritual election pledges on retraining or re-education, pledges promptly ignored as the new incumbents got settled in the ways of DC.  As I’ve observed before, “Revolutionary technological advances enabled an unprecedented outsourcing by American companies seeking to maximize profits by employment of low-cost foreign labor. The scale of the outsourcing was made possible because of advances in technology (robotics), global trade treaties and capital-account liberalization. For all of the vaunted gains in profitability, it is unclear that globalization has been the huge win-win, as its apologists argue. Internationally, the richest five percent of people receive one-third of total global income, as much as the poorest 80 percent”.

The wise and the reasonable “experts” take their best shots at Trump, endlessly cataloguing what he has said; the contradictions, hypocrisies, beliefs unsupported by evidence or science. They go blue in the face winning every argument against “fake news” by any objective measure, but, like Rob Ford before him, the President refuses to go “quietly into the night”. He plays to the people in the back rows of the peanut gallery. Even if his policies do little to move them closer to the front row, Trump’s supporters hang with him. That base of support never seems to drop much below the 35-40% range.  Imagine if the economy continues to grow, if Mueller’s investigation does not uncover “the smoking gun” that will lead to impeachment, or that the Democrats simply fail to convey a convincing case as to why they should run the government?  What happens to Trump then?

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Marshall Auerback is a market analyst and a research associate at the Levy Institute for Economics at Bard College (www.levy.org).  His Twitter hashtag is @Mauerback

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