THE ONLY AVERAGE GUY: INSIDE THE UNCOMMON WORLD OF ROB FORD
By John Filion
Part of the immediate fallout from the election of Donald Trump as president was a tsunami of books looking to explain what happened. They all took this same question as their starting point, so much so that I even began flagging it in my notes as “the question” or just “Q.” When Hillary Clinton came to write her own account it was a natural title, with the absence of a question mark indicating that she was now able to provide an answer.
She didn’t, but the general outlines of an answer have now been pretty thoroughly sketched. Before Trump’s election, however, the same question had been asked of a very similar figure. In John Filion’s memoir of the Ford phenomenon (Filion had been a member of Toronto City Council at the time) it comes up again and again. When discussing Ford with lawyer Clayton Rub Filion gets various insights into Ford’s character, but when it comes to “the question” Ruby has to throw up his hands: “Who the hell knows how that happened?” Chris Caple, who became active in the anti-Ford movement is even more exasperated:
“The guy just staggers me. He still staggers me. If there was a Rob Ford out there working in a car wash, okay, fine, whatever. But for a person like that to ascent to a high level of political power – it’s mind-blowing. How the hell did that happen? How did that happen? There are countless lessons to be learned here. I’m going to be grappling with them for years, because I’m horribly fascinated.”
Yes, the horrible fascination. We’ve come to know that well too.
Filion trots out the usual explanations for Ford, ones that sound very familiar after all of the Trump analyses, but something remains inexplicable.
Political observers trying to make sense of Ford’s 2010 victory often point to three factors: lingering discontent over the forced 1998 amalgamation of Toronto and its former suburbs; the stench hanging over from the summer garbage strike of 2009; a pendulum swing to the ultra-right Ford from the left-leaning previous mayor David Miller. Add to this the inept campaign of each of his rivals and an anti-gay bias that Ford passively exploited, particularly among some of Toronto’s older ethnic residents. Ford’s main rival, George Smitherman, was not only openly gay, he and his partner had adopted a child near the start of the campaign.
Still, all these factors combined can’t fully explain how a man like Rob Ford became mayor of a city like Toronto, or why the Ford brand still attracted one out of three voters in the 2014 election – after his catastrophic mayoralty.
As I say, very familiar. Down to the remarkably resilient attraction of the brand even after the demonstration of Ford’s manifest incompetence. Then, after Rob Ford’s death his brother Doug would take over the family brand and become Ontario’s premier in 2018. And again we would ask what happened.
“This was a mayor like none before him – perhaps anywhere, at any time, in any major city.” Three years later Conrad Black’s Trump bio would be subtitled “A President Like No Other.” It seems they were both unique in the same way.
Were they that similar? Evidence suggests certain commonalities. Both ran as right-wing populists. Both were the sons of successful businessmen they couldn’t measure up to. Both were buffoons with limited attention spans. Take the following account from one bureaucrat who had to deal with Ford: “I started realizing, ‘Okay, I have to really dumb this thing down. No big words. Very, very simple.’ . . . I had to be able to summarize the problem and the solution within one sentence. If I don’t do that, he can’t pay attention long enough. He gets frustrated, and that frustration builds so he doesn’t want to do what you are asking him to do.” The same could, and has, been said about meeting with Trump.
All of which leaves us with the question of what the attraction was. What happened? What conscious or unconscious needs or anxieties were such figures tapping into?
In so far as I’ve been able to come up with an answer it has to do with a deepening anger against government. This is what unites support from both corporate elites mainly looking to get rid of public oversight and regulation and the common man who feels betrayed by out-of-touch pols who have done nothing to help him. What these people want is not just to shrink but to destroy the government — something they are quite open about, as Thomas Frank accounts in great detail in his essential book The Wrecking Crew. And here’s Steve Bannon explaining his political philosophy five years after The Wrecking Crew: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
This spirit of anti-government nihilism, whether opportunistic or despairing, has made every modern politician run as an anti-politician, an outsider, someone against the establishment or politics-as-usual. For some reason Hillary Clinton couldn’t see this. Characters such as the Ford brothers, or Trump, didn’t have to understand it because they felt it in their bones. They shared this hatred of government. Here’s Filion’s account of Doug Ford overcoming his father’s resistance to getting involved in provincial politics:
“He’s so anti-politician,” Doug said, explaining his father’s reluctance. “Oh yeah. He’s like me. I can’t stand politicians.”
I suggested to Doug that it was unusual that the Fords wanted to run the city, the province – the country even – when they are fundamentally against government and mistrustful of politicians.
“It’s crazy,” he agreed. “We’re anti-politician. But that’s just the way it is. It’s weird. I can’t figure it out. It just is.”
The thing about such anti-politician politicians is that it doesn’t matter how bad they are at their job. They have been elected to tear things down, blow things up, “destroy all of today’s establishment.” If they are incompetent, destructive clowns that isn’t a problem. In fact, it’s a good thing (and it helps even more if they can put on an entertaining show). The disbelief felt by observers at how someone like Trump sustains high poll numbers among his base stems from their inability to understand this.
It’s horribly fascinating stuff.
Review first published online August 20, 2018. See here for my initial review of this book. For more on Ford (Rob) see my review of Robyn Doolittle’s Crazy Town. Reading that review now it seems to belong to a much more innocent time.