At least Rob Ford couldn’t start a war,
Watching helplessly from Toronto as this strange and savage U.S. election campaign unfolds, it’s near impossible to avoid a sense of déjà vu. Every time Donald Trump opens his mouth, or every time a poll shows him holding or surging after yet another scandalous episode that would have ruined any conventional candidate, you feel it: we’ve seen this movie before.
There are significant differences between Trump and late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, obviously: Trump is far richer and prone to ostentatious displays of cartoonishly poor taste, while a black Cadillac SUV given to him by his brothers is as show-offy as Ford ever got. Ford had a common touch and genuine love for retail face-to-face constituent service that Trump shows no evidence of even pretending to. Ford suffered very sadly and famously from addiction problems of a kind that are apparently not among Trump’s long list of vices. And for all the displays of oblivious racism, sexism and homophobia Ford forced Toronto to endure, he never whipped up open, white nationalist racism quite so proudly and transparently as Trump has.
But oh, the similarities: the wealthy son of a wealthy man who somehow successfully presents himself as the avatar of the downtrodden; the war against the mainstream media and the burn-it-alldown flame-throwing at virtually everyone, left and right, in the established system; the apparently pathological habit of saying untrue things — even small, easily checked, seemingly irrelevant things — and of having those errors and lies fact-checked by the Star’s Daniel Dale. And you have both men, despite their long, obvious records of dishonesty, wielding reputations among supporters as bold truth-tellers, for the apparently simple reason that they frequently say vulgar and offensive things, express out loud the usually verboten id of the electorate.
It has been called “authenticity” in both men, but it is precisely their disregard for factual precision that is being labelled by the word: This is corruption and skulduggery! These Orientals are taking over! She should go to jail! We should ban refugees! Those immigrants are rapists! The constituency for this stuff does not give a crap to check the footnoted sources or parse its literal accuracy, they see truth in the wild howl of resentment, expressed plainly and forcefully.
With both Trump and Ford, there’s the belligerent indifference to the viability of proposals or any policy nuance or the potential consequences of ignorantly thinking out loud. The contempt for expertise. The hostility not just to stuffy protocol, but to the basic institutions and practices that govern and protect the integrity of the democratic system. The pettiness, the seeming inability to resist impulsively lashing out, the insistent black-and-white dividing of society into us and them. The similarity between the two men’s political narratives even extends to unexpected public utterances of a crude feline synonym for female genitalia that forced a rare apology and seemed to be a straw that would break the back of public support.
And here is where people in Toronto could be the voice of experience, having learned that such a thing would never cause public support to crumble.
Certainly, prominent politicians and civic leaders would back away and condemn, but that only causes the diehard regular folks to dig in their heels, convinced all the more that their man is being persecuted by a rigged system. And eventually, the endurance of the grassroots fervour draws the politicos back toward the fold, like flies unable to resist the allure of a dung heap. And soon, the bad craziness seems normal — indeed it has become normal.
What happened in Toronto is that you had this figure who was so simulta- neously compelling and unpredictable — so bizarrely dramatic a character — that you could not stop watching or talking about him, and yet also a man so fundamentally and uniquely unsuited to the job at hand that all other political debate seemed to become of relatively low importance. His tendency to make everything a reflection of himself became a universally shared trait, and suddenly the only issue, in the eyes of supporters and opponents alike, became with-himor-against-him.
Much the same, already, has become the case with Trump. See traditional conservatives such as David Frum and president George H.W. Bush expressing the intention to vote for Hillary Clinton. Because when your opponent is a narcissistic authoritarian who might conceivably irreparably damage the entire institution of constitutional democracy in your country, your differences of opinion on virtually every policy issue seem insignificant by comparison.
It has been called “authenticity” in both men, but it is precisely their disregard for factual precision that is being labelled by the word
And here’s where the parallels end: the stakes. The similarities between Ford and Trump lead to the feeling that maybe a story that played out first as farce might repeat as tragedy. Or maybe not tragedy, maybe apocalyptic horror.
Because while there was genuine personal pain and sadness in Ford’s story, and his politics had serious consequences for many people in Toronto, he was ultimately just the mayor of a city — and a city where the mayor wields little unilateral power, at that.
The president of the United States, however, controls a nuclear arsenal, can spark overseas wars or stock market crashes with a poorly chosen turn of phrase, can trample a lot of domestic liberty before encountering checks on his authority — and this potential president has a lot of supporters who are heavily armed, a lot who are openly racist, a lot who seem to be eager enough to make the phrase “culture war” a literal one.
It’s not that Trump would certainly impose an authoritarian state or spark a world war so much as that it is conceivable that he could — and could be inclined to try.
With Ford, you could hope to rally and wait and organize. And from Toronto, you could prepare to vote for someone — anyone — else. For those of us watching Trump from afar, that is not even an option. If he is elected, we can only stock up on canned goods, start digging a bomb shelter and pray.
Donald Trump and Rob Ford share a belligerent indifference to policy nuance, Edward Keenan writes.