The Canadian Trump

How Rob Ford built a votership out of people who don’t vote for anyone. Except for Rob Ford. 

It’s uncanny! Toronto Mayor Rob Ford at a rally in the city, April 17, 2014, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Dec. 21, 2015

Photo illustration by Slate. Rob Ford by Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images. Donald Trump by Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Excerpted from The Only Average Guy: Inside the Uncommon World of Rob Ford by John Filion. Out now from Random House Canada.

Anger came easily to Rob Ford. So did the resentment, the mistrust, the gnawing in the gut that you weren’t getting something you deserved. Those same feelings festered across the city, especially around its outer edges, where the poor and the marginalized struggled to make ends meet, where crime was higher, health rates lower, transit services poorer, jobs harder to find. In 2010, these people looked at Rob Ford, a new candidate for mayor, and thought they saw somebody just like them.

Toronto’s population is the fourth largest in North America, its budget larger than those of several Canadian provinces combined. The mayor of Toronto is directly elected by more people than any other politician in Canada. A leader hoping to hold so powerful a position would normally possess some minimal combination of eloquence, charisma, charm, intelligence, strategic ability, analytical thinking, higher education, or leadership skills. For reasons that defy conventional political understanding, Rob Ford turned his lack of such traits into a campaign asset. He possessed that perfect absence of aspirational qualities—perfect for the anti-politician campaigning to throw the bums out, a leader hellbent on dismantling the government he would lead.

As a member of Toronto City Council for 10 years, Rob Ford didn’t simply speak to the city’s simmering discontent. He raged and roared at it, his thick neck turning a bright red that spread quickly to his sweat-soaked forehead, as he bellowed and squeaked, so puffed up you feared he might explode right there in front of you.

This man’s affinity for anger and alienation was all too real. Elect him and his vindication would be yours, his triumph your triumph. What better way to tweak the noses of the intellectuals and big money earners, the uncaring bureaucrats and self-serving politicians, than to put Rob Ford in charge? Imagine how aghast they’d all be if this oversized outcast became Mayor Rob Ford!

 “Ford appealed to people as a regular guy,” explained Mitch Wexler, who tracked Ford’s support in the 2010 campaign. “The people who were fed up with the elites, and the ‘smart’ people downtown saw a lot of themselves and their daily struggle in Rob Ford.” Surprisingly, the extreme right-wing candidate was strongest in areas that traditionally voted for centrist or left-wing politicians. This matched his high support among blue-collar workers and immigrants.

Ford voters also included another surprising category: people who don’t vote. Except for Rob Ford. “There are a lot of people in every election, when you go to the door, they say, ‘All politicians are liars.’ That’s the common phrase,” Wexler said. “The people who thought that way, by and large, were supporters of Rob Ford.” They turned out in such large numbers that the total vote was 25 percent higher than four years earlier.

Among the disenchanted, attacks on Ford by other politicians only made him more of a hero. “I think everyone who opposed him in the end were the ones who made him: the left and the Toronto Star,” said Doug Holyday, Ford’s deputy mayor for most of his term. “They created an image for him that they couldn’t unravel.” Under any normal circumstances, creating the profile to run for mayor requires years of promoting righteous causes, presenting new ideas, and forming relationships. Ford merely stood his ground and let his attackers do the rest. “The media made him,” continued Holyday. “They just created this guy, who never could have done it by putting forth ideas or championing things.”

To complex questions, Ford offered the most simplistic of solutions—the type you tend to arrive at when you know little about an issue. When his opponents attacked him for it, the average guy—whose opinions weren’t based on facts either—sided with Ford.  

When the media attacked him, it was even better. “We called it ‘the wind in our sails,’ ” said Ford campaign manager Nick Kouvalis, who figures the effect was already happening even before Ford ran for mayor. In a 2008 speech at council, in a city where more than half the population was born outside Canada, Ford had this to say about Asians: “Those Oriental people work like dogs … They sleep beside their machines … I’m telling you, the Oriental people, they’re slowly taking over.” He also blamed AIDS on homosexuality and cycling deaths on cyclists.

Toronto mayoralty campaigns are gruelling 10-month marathons in which the winner is often the one who makes the fewest mistakes. Most contenders couldn’t survive even one major slip-up. Toward the midpoint of the campaign, there were several moments when even Ford appeared to teeter on the edge of self-destruction. One incident involved Ford offering to try to score OxyContin for a campaign supporter, another a 10-year-old conviction for drunk driving. But after the media and his opponents attacked him for such behaviour, Ford’s numbers went up.

For Kouvalis, the defining “wind in our sails” came during a televised all-candidates’ debate. The moderator cued up a shot of Sri Lankan refugees on a boat headed for Canada and asked whether Canada should accept them. “NOPE!” said Rob Ford. “Right now, we can’t even deal with the 2.5 million people we have in the city. I think it is more important to take care of people who are here now before we start bringing in more people.”

His opponents were delighted. One declared it “a turning point in the election” that would “awaken Torontonians to what he’s all about.” Another held a press conference to declare, “I am offended. I am appalled. And I believe this man is unfit to be mayor.” Five days later, Ford’s support rose to 44 percent.

Not only did controversy solidify Ford’s core vote, it kept him as the center of attention. “There was no oxygen available for any of the other campaigns,” observed Mitch Wexler. “None of the other candidates could get in a word edgewise. They couldn’t present their campaigns. There was simply no room.”  

* * *

There were 20 of them, unable at first to recognize themselves in one another. All were male, each identified through a random telephone survey that pulled together only those who shared the belief that Rob Ford was a great mayor.

Most were middle-aged, overweight, lower-income, blue-collar. At least half would be smokers. They wore T-shirts and running shoes. They believed the elites had been given so much that little was left for them. That sense of unfairness put a chip on their shoulders. Nick Kouvalis was already familiar with how they thought and what their reactions might be. But he needed to test it.

He formed them into two focus groups of 10. The objective was to find out what might convince them to vote for somebody other than Rob Ford. It was 2014 and, by now, Kouvalis was working for Ford’s mayoralty rival, John Tory. With his partner, Richard Ciano, acting as moderator, Kouvalis observed from behind one-way glass, closely watching their emotional reactions. Emotion, he knew, drove their political decisions. 

“It’s all about their upbringing,” he said of the rock-solid Ford supporters. “It’s all about their fathers treating them like shit. That determines their behaviour going forward. They’re not self-aware, so once they’ve made a decision, they have a hard time admitting they’re wrong. That’s Ford Nation,” he said. “I can’t prove it, but I know it intuitively.”

How does he understand these people so well? I asked, remembering that Kouvalis knew every button to push to attract Ford supporters in 2010.

“Ford Nation inherently has been treated like shit. That’s how they feel. They didn’t get their fair share in life. They were rejected. They were deprived of love or of something. Fundamental core stuff: love, security, food.”

Ciano began each session by asking what the group thought of the mayor. “They’re not self-aware enough to know that they’re in a room with Ford Nation,” said Kouvalis. “So one guy says, ‘I kind of like the mayor.’ And the next guy thinks, ‘He said it, so I can say it too.’ So now all of a sudden they’re locking arms, they’re like the first platoon on the front line. Defending everything. They’re feeding off of each other. It was awesome.”

Ciano led them through Ford’s mistakes, his buffoonish behaviour. Not much reaction. When he got to Rob Ford being under police investigation, they got defensive, then angry, then hostile. “Once they get defensive and once they feed on each other, that mob thinking sets in,” said Kouvalis.

Ciano confronted them with evidence that Rob Ford lied about his drug use.

“That’s bullshit!” Ford Nation responded. These folks had so completely identified with Rob Ford that they couldn’t cut him loose. They’d made him their hero and had congratulated themselves on making such a smart choice. If Ford had screwed up, Kouvalis explained, so had they. “They don’t want to admit it because that means they fucked up in their life. They had an opportunity, and they blew it. They don’t want to admit that to themselves.

The second focus group was like the first. Of the 20 participants, not one would move away from Ford. “Not the young black guy who was working on Bay Street, not the guy who was a janitor in Etobicoke. There was nothing John Tory could do to get these guys. No one was getting these guys. They were immovable.” Had Ford not been stricken by the crack scandal, followed by a very serious battle with cancer, he might have been re-elected in 2014.

Now, Rob Ford’s American counterpart, Donald Trump, is mounting a populist surge. Ford and Trump have obvious similarities: Although enabled by family wealth, each appealed to the common folk; both instinctively understood how to extend a welcoming hand toward the dark side of human nature; both treat facts as secondary to opinion, their thoughts crystalized as truth the moment they exit their mouths.

What happened in Toronto—as liberal a city as any in North America, in a country where the new prime minister waited at the airport to distribute clothes and teddy bears to arriving Syrian refugees—could just as easily happen in the United States. In 2010, we elected a tough-talking, anti-establishment, slogan-spouting, anti-refugee, law-and-order mayor—who, if that wasn’t enough, was also a crack-smoking alcoholic who preferred football to city business.    

His supporters, Ford Nation, tend to be blue collar, without university education, mostly male. They have little use for government or for a political establishment they believe doesn’t care about them. Whatever’s broken in their lives, they think somebody else caused it; their prejudices help identify who that might be. They’re angry and alienated and will vote for someone who seems that way too. Once their brains host an opinion, no fact is likely to change it. The people at Trump rallies look and sound very similar to the ones I’ve met at Ford political gatherings.

Excerpted from The Only Average Guy: Inside the Uncommon World of Rob Ford by John Filion. Copyright © 2015 John Filion. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.