After an absence from the the political scene as he underwent his second round of cancer treatment, Rob Ford popped back up on the radar this week with an interview with his official stenographer Joe Warmington of the Toronto Sun, and a Q&A stand-up comedy routine on Twitter Wednesday. Gone are the days of nonstop Rob Ford verbal blunders, mostly because of his illnesses, but also because he’s been relegated to the relative harmlessness of his old Ward 2 council seat where he can focus on returning phone calls and casting belligerent, obstructionist votes in peace.
These days, you want outrageousness in politics, you have to look southward to Donald Trump, who just completed another week of campaigning, which mostly involved telling rabid supporters why he’s awesome and why others stink. Make no mistake though, to compare Donald Trump and Rob Ford, which many have already tried, is a grave disservice… to Rob Ford.
This week, Trump struck controversy gold again by releasing his first campaign ad. He hardly needs them. He’s the undisputed frontrunner, the media can’t stop talking about him, and he has no real clear policy objectives to explain to the American voter. Still, he’s got the money, and with the Iowa Caucuses less than a month away, Trump is gonna do what a political candidate is going to do.
But because this is Trump, he can’t release a TV commercial without controversy, and in this case it was his ad using video of a group dark-skinned people running towards a wall that caused some negative blowback. It’s supposed to be a dramatization of Mexican migrants making a run for the American border, but it was actually footage of an entirely different group of migrants trying to cross the border into Morocco, half a world away. The Trump campaign said it was on purpose, and then they released a second ad that featured clips of Hillary Clinton standing next to Bill Cosby and Anthony Weiner in, ahem, better days.
The gist is that Trump and his surrogates (but mostly Trump) are still getting away with saying whatever the heck they want without any consequence. Disrespecting a war hero, indulging casual misogyny, mocking a reporters physical disability, it’s all par for the course, and on top of it all, the more he talks like that, the more his people like it. In a world of talking points and polished political staging, being off the cuff and politically incorrect is read as “genuine.” On that account, Trump and Ford have something in common.
Ford was never an eloquent man. Mark Towhey’s book Uncontrollable chronicled how the former staffer and his team used repetition and simplicity of message to keep Ford on point, which explains why when he went off the cuff it was typically a disaster of Pompeii proportions. Remember, “I’ve got more than enough to eat at home”? Or, “These Oriental people work like dogs”? Heck, there’s a Wikiquote page where you can check out his greatest hits, but the point is that saying the worst thing at the wrong time hardly makes Trump and Ford peas in a proverbial pod.
For one thing, while both being born into wealth, Ford’s never flaunted it. Of course to compare the wealth of the Trumps to the wealth of the Fords is like comparing a gold brick to a gold coin, but Rob didn’t want for much growing up, and like Trump, he slid right into the family business before seizing upon political ambition. Still, to Ford’s credit, never did he get up on stage and talk about his largess. He drove the same beat up minivan for years, and the Ford “estate” in Etobicoke was hardly akin to a skyscraper with solid gold trimmings. Modesty, in economic appearances, was a Ford trademark. While Trump certainly has appeal with the common man, and woman, Ford, at least, lived like them, which made the connection that much easier to understand.
At same time Ford did bring political experience to the office when he served as Mayor. Sure, he appeared to have little patience for the minutia of meetings, experts and policy binders, but he was a successful politician. He built a brand for being the man you call when you want immediate action: a pot hole in the road, a storm drain that wasn’t draining, or a street light that had burnt out, you called Rob Ford and it was fixed. He was, as Jon Stewart once put it, “Toronto’s super,” he diligently fixed the little things that irked his people on a daily basis. Not wrapping one’s head around transit policy is one thing, but people remember when a politician listens and responds to their issue, even if they’re the only ones being affected.
You can point out that Trump and Ford have a similar appeal. The people who are now joining Trump at rallies shouting about how Obama’s a Muslim may sort of remind you of the LGBT protestors who were roughed up by Ford supporters at Ford Fest in 2014, but don’t mistake Trump’s brand populism for Ford’s. Although demographically similar, most of Ford’s supporters get angry about wasteful spending, high taxes, and elitism, things that have plausible resolution, and depending our your own point of view, have some grounding in reality. Trump supporters are angry about America’s waining status in the world, and existential threats from Mexicans, Muslims and other “outsiders.”
The problems Ford supporters have with government could be solved through practical means: judicious spending, resolve of ideology, forming a coalition of like-minded colleagues on council. It’s worth remembering that Ford administration enjoyed some tremendous successes for the first half of its time in office: contracting out half of the city’s garbage collection, winning concessions in labour negotiations, and completing a service review of Toronto. Now Ford was not the master strategist behind those accomplishments, but he did have the wisdom to recognize good advice when he heard it (at least in those less drunken stupor days of 2011/12). Could Trump? With his tendency to lash out out at those that don’t immediately agree with him, can you see Trump build a coalition of support in Congress with his ‘tude?
Fascinatingly, Trump’s present style is not dissimilar to that of Ford’s when he was in full-blown crack containment: a casual belligerence to the media, a constant string of conflicting and offending statements, and no real actionable policy to speak of. Trump’s idea of a plan is “Make it awesome!” a Wonderland where stuff just happens out of sheer force of will, kind of like a certain subway we can name. Like Trump’s wall, Ford hoped that by saying “Subways!” enough times, it would just happen, and despite his being entertained in the notion by the other levels of government, four years later, there’s still no sign of a Scarborough subway coming soon, or even in the not-too–distant future.
There’s wisdom and warning in the Ford years as Americans flirt with the possibility of President Trump, but to conflate the two is ill-advised. Time and circumstance will prove if Trump has more going policy-wise than just an abundance of outrage and preposterous notions like wall-building and banning Muslims from entering the U.S., but unlike Ford, Trump lacks a background in politics for the skeptical to give him much rope. When Rob Ford ran for mayor there was an actual political machine behind him, but it’s yet to be proven if there’s more to Trump that bad hair, and hot air. You may not like what Ford stood for, but he at least stood for something besides him winning. At this point, can you say the same for Trump?