We've Been Here Before

Updated on March 12, 2018
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Brian Stier is a political blogger with a focus on on liberal values and progression.

Back in 2010, when the concept of a Donald Trump presidency belonged only to the realm of fantasy, the citizens of Toronto were unfortunate enough to experience the tumult of an unqualified, divisive leader who, riding a wave of populism, surprisingly won the mayoral race that year: the wealthy, pugnacious, larger-than-life, and infamously substance-abusing businessman, Rob Ford.

Ford, also a former city councillor from Etobicoke, was elected by voters who overwhelmingly lived outside of the downtown core, in backlash to outgoing mayor David Miller's left wing agenda and perceived over-spending. Six municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area were amalgamated in 1998, (colloquially dubbed "the megacity"), allowing votes from citizens in former suburbs to be counted in Toronto municipal elections and subsequently ushering their anti-liberal champion into office. His slogan, "stop the gravy train," was an early precursor to recent populist messaging that found its mark appealing to the masses of disgruntled voters led to believe that their concerns were being supplanted by a cabal of self-serving elites.

Predictably, once Ford got into office, the "gravy train" was found to be mostly fiction, (since there was actually very little waste, the fierce cost-cutting he espoused could only be achieved by killing core services), and from there his tenure was characterized by inaction and scandal. Ford was compelled to abandon his bid in the 2014 mayoral race after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, so his brother, city councillor and boisterous supporter Doug stepped in. Doug lost that race to the current Toronto mayor, John Tory, and Rob died from his illness in 2016.

Just this past weekend though, on an outside chance, Doug Ford reemerged into the spotlight, surpassing his late brother in political stature by being elected to the leadership of the Ontario Conservative Party, a conclusion that took all weekend to solidify based on how close the results were. Doug brings even less experience to this role than Rob did to the mayorship, his only political experience being one term on city council during the same period that Rob was mayor. He ran on name recognition and assurances of his business savvy, but he lacks a substantive policy platform, his focus evidently on the same type of culture-war rhetoric that makes news down south but has little basis in reality. He familiarly claims that the current premiere of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne, has filled the swamp and only Doug is hellbent on draining it. He has also said that his hardcore supporters won't be found in the urban centers; they reside in the rural regions of Ontario.

Doug Ford may have the headlines today, but he's late to the populist party. Donald Trump was able to parlay his ceaseless opposition to Barack Obama's presidency into a leadership position for the millions who share his racist tendencies. He came along exactly at the right time. Ford though, comes when populism is fading, in the US and the rest of the world. Election results in France and the Netherlands ended up decisively thwarting their populist candidates in 2017; (Germany too, but the nationalist AfD party unfortunately did gain some seats in Parliament); British PM Teresa May's hastily-called election reversed her majority, fundamentally weakening her Brexit plan when she assumed she had the green light to strengthen it. Republicans in the US too have lost most of the elections that Trump and his ilk have supported since his inauguration.

Doug Ford can try to be a Canadian Donald Trump - he can slick his blond hair, don a solid blue tie, pin a Canadian flag to his lapel and use the same divisive tactics that Trump leveraged to such great effect in the US - if he wants to. Canada, despite an outward aversion to being compared too closely with American culture does tend to reflect the climate in the US, for better or worse, but my opinion is that even if there wasn't over a year of evidence to demonstrate the chaos wrought by the ascension of such an inexperienced candidate to such a high office, the distasteful legacy of Doug's brother Rob may be enough to sink him.

Just in case though, everyone should make sure to vote this year. We've been burned before too.

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