Canadians are frequently stereotyped as reasonable, free of drama, pleasant, courteous — a mild people. A recent New Yorker cartoon showed a group of animals labeled as “Canadian lemmings,” halted at the edge of a cliff, saying: “No, after you!” The Toronto Star ran a column by Vinay Menon last weekend quoting the MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews saying that Canada always struck him to be “like you’re visiting a really nice mall.”
The Star column is an acute reflection of the embarrassment, and even irritation, that I’ve found many Canadians express when you poke them in the ribs and say — “Well, what about your mayor of Toronto?”
Rob Ford, the top elected official in Canada’s largest city, has from relative obscurity hauled himself to the top of the league of extraordinary political volcanoes with eruptions of obscenity, sexual innuendo, crack cocaine use, heavy drinking, violent temper tantrums and calling the news media “a bunch of maggots” for reporting on his activities. In record time, Ford has streaked past the previous world champion of anti-statesmanship, Silvio Berlusconi.
TV news and talk shows are uniting in an orgy of scandalized delight. The comedy shows are mocking news, the news shows are presenting the facts as mockery and the talk shows are bouncing joyfully off both. In the foyer of my hotel people stopped to watch Ford’s circus while not slowing down for the historic signing of the Iranian nuclear accords. In the U.S., Comedy Central’s The Daily Show has made Ford a constant feature, Saturday Night Live parodied him more than once in a single episode, and in China Next Media has been producing animated videos that feature him.
Over the weekend, taking the political temperature of Toronto, I went around with volunteers canvassing one of the four Canadian federal by-elections that were scheduled for Monday. Several citizens in a poor district shouted at the volunteers, “I don’t want no crack cocaine today. Thanks!” A supervisor at a homeless shelter was shouting at an emaciated woman smoking crack who was huddled in a doorway as snow whirled on the freezing street, and threatened to call the police. His colleague told me, “They say, what am I doing that the mayor ain’t?” I suggested that maybe the mayor would be around looking for a room one day. “Well,” she said, “a lot of people have said that to me. And I say we’d need to put two or three beds together to hold him!”
Mayor Ford embodies and expresses so much that politics seek to suppress: the urge to shock and insult, the use of power for personal aggrandizement and self-congratulation, the temptation to get high on whatever turns you on, and the satisfaction of lashing out at critics. Ford is “A man in full,” to steal the title of Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel. Ford is one who lets rip his urges and appetites and resentments. In response to accusations of impropriety, he says he is doing what the rest of these lily-white politicians would do if they had the guts. He has said that a number of his colleagues also take drugs, but “I am not a rat,” and he will not name them.
Mayor Ford, from a conservative political family, says he is a defender of the “average guy.” He presents himself as an average Canadian who understands his constituents. The Globe and Mail revealed that Ford is a great deal richer than an average man, with a successful family printing business and properties worth tens of millions of dollars. But his stance — stressing the profligacy of City Hall and the out of touch elite in their central Toronto mansions and plush apartments — won traction at a time of Liberal Party weakness and still has numerous followers and defenders.
For many years as a councilor, Ford fought to lower spending and make the city government smaller. In 2010, with no strong contender in the ring and a conservative mood in the country, Ford campaigned in the mayoral election. The suburbs, which hadn’t seen much benefit from city spending, backed him, as did councilors who saw the support he was able to garner. Once in office, Ford cut spending. For all his buffoonery, this delivery on some of his pledges has retained him a support base.
Where Ford must be judged is on is his conflation of reasonable conservative politics with grossly undignified — likely illegal — behavior, lowering a great public office into a gutter of shame for one of the world’s more innovative and welcoming cities.
But Ford is still mayor. The Council lacks the power needed to force his resignation. It has stripped him of most of the city budget and transferred it to his deputy — but it has left him free to be an even looser cannon than before.
Ford is part of the future of democratic politics. He is the greatest example to date of the big politician as part-entertainer, part-burning resentment, part-class warrior. He didn’t govern much, but he did work. He called constituents and pressed the flesh of the average guys, leaving strategy to his brother Doug (also a city councilor, whom I was told had ambitions to run for the premiership of Ontario) and the details to his aides. Ford is even freer now to stress his distance from what he proclaims are the enclosed and self-serving politics of City Hall.
Ford’s anti-establishment resentments chime in strongly with Europe’s new generation of far right leaders — including Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom and Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party. They see the mainstream political parties and the conventional liberal wisdoms of their own countries as burdens on the common man and woman.
Toronto goes to the mayoral polls next year. At this point, Ford is expected to run. He has demonstrated the power to fascinate, to entertain and to retain a base whose members scorn his opponents more than they scorn him. The more that politics has been co-opted by the media into entertainment, the more Ford-type leaders will thrive. A majority of Torontans will need to conform to the best parts of their stereotypes — reasonable, free of drama, courteous — to reject another challenge from Ford. If they don’t, then maybe a revision of the wisdom of the most northerly of North Americans would be in order.
Reuters: Toronto Mayor Rob Ford reacts to a video released of him by local media at City Hall in Toronto, November 7, 2013. REUTERS/Mark Blinch