Will Canada Elect a Tin-Pot Northern Trump?

Doug Ford, the brother of the deceased former mayor of Toronto Rob Ford, has a strong chance of becoming premier of Ontario. His rise to leader of the right-leaning Progressive Conservative Party represents a global crisis from which there seems to be no escape. Credit Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star, via Getty Images
Doug Ford, the brother of the deceased former mayor of Toronto Rob Ford, has a strong chance of becoming premier of Ontario. His rise to leader of the right-leaning Progressive Conservative Party represents a global crisis from which there seems to be no escape. Credit Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star, via Getty Images

Tell me if you’ve heard this before: The spoiled son of a sprawling business dynasty positions himself as an anti-elite populist. During a pivotal campaign, he brushes off a history of crude remarks as political incorrectness to the delight of his base. Then, running against the establishment of his own party and an evidently more qualified female candidate, he loses the popular vote but manages, by way of an arcane voting system, to take power.

No, I’m not rehashing the victory of President Trump. I’m describing the rise of Canadian politician Doug Ford, who this month was elected leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, the right-of-center opposition in the country’s most populous province. With his party leading in the polls ahead of a June 7 election, Mr. Ford has a strong chance of becoming premier.

Trumpism, it seems, has migrated north.

Several years before the 2016 United States presidential campaign, Mr. Ford’s brother, the deceased former mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, more or less invented the politics of boorish, divisive populism the American president has since mastered. Rob Ford figured out as early as 2010 that riding out scandal, while blaming the media and other unspecified “elites,” was a winning political strategy.

Torontonians forgave flaws in his character, appreciated them, even embraced them as signs of authenticity. It didn’t matter to his base that he smoked crack cocaine while in office. The Rob Ford era demonstrated that someone as shameless as Mr. Trump had a shot as a political figure.

Doug Ford is a more serious and self-disciplined version of his bumbling younger brother. He has resisted comparisons between himself and the president, but has also spoken fondly about The Donald. “Absolutely he respects women,” he said of the Republican presidential candidate in 2016. “There’s millions of women that have voted for him. So all those millions of women are dumb? I don’t think so.”

Mr. Ford, while much less addled than his brother was, has also been connected to Toronto’s underbelly, where Rob Ford spent so much of his time as mayor. The Globe and Mail newspaper reported in 2013 that Mr. Ford sold drugs throughout the better part of the 1980s. (He has never been charged and denies the allegations.) Thirty years later, if elected his government would be responsible for implementing Ontario’s new, legal recreational cannabis stores.

Overnight, the election of Mr. Ford crushed the smugness Canadians have been feeling since their prime minister, Justin Trudeau, appointed a cabinet of 50 percent women and became the envy of enlightened progressives the world over. The deep-seated cultural and political alienation at the root of Trump and Brexit is in full force in Canada as well.

Mr. Ford is already a front-runner. One poll has the Progressive Conservatives at 47 percent support and the incumbent Ontario Liberal Party at 26 percent. The latter, having ruled since 2003, has nearly 15 years’ worth of scandal to show for it. Rising inequality across the province, distaste for progressive rhetoric and the sense of a generalized corruption of politics as a whole is fueling, as elsewhere, a populism as inchoate as it is powerful.

And from Italy to the Philippines to Canada, this cannibalizing populism is swallowing traditional Conservatism whole. Mr. Ford snuck through to the leadership on a voting system that ranked ballots. He won neither the popular vote nor the greatest number of constituencies. But the Progressive Conservative machine is behind him already. It operates on inherited loyalties, antipathy against scandal-plagued opponents, time-for-a-change sentiments and basic self-interest.

Ideas were probably always somewhat irrelevant, so it hardly matters that the so-called Conservative parties aren’t conservative anymore. Or rather, Conservatism itself has changed. The Conservatism of law and order, of common decency and of fiscal responsibility has been rendered null and void. After the last provincial election, which the Liberals won handily, Mr. Ford, then a Toronto city councilor, prescribed “an enema from top to bottom” for the caucus he just inherited. The effluent is now lapping at his feet.

They may hope to change him. They won’t. Already, Mr. Ford, who has never held a seat in the Legislature, is boasting about a historically large victory in the offing. His bragging has an all-too familiar ring stateside. To stand with Mr. Ford is to express rage — and this rage will take its customary atavistic forms.

The current premier, Kathleen Wynne, the first lesbian elected to the post, introduced a modernized sex-education curriculum to the province’s public school systems. Just days after his election, Mr. Ford pledged to remove it, a policy that has support among some new immigrant communities, who tend to be more socially conservative.

He’s also running the standard Ford playbook. Elites are people who sip “Champagne with their pinkies in the air.” (His family’s label and packaging company is said to make tens of millions in annual sales.)

His infamous brother, when you get right down to it, was only the mayor of Toronto, which is not a very powerful position. Toronto’s “weak mayor” system ensures that its leader only gets one vote on the city council. In Canada, it’s actually the premier of a province who matters. His or her government regulates the schools and the public health care system. Do the people of Ontario really want a tin-pot northern Trump in charge of things that affect their daily lives? Canada’s Constitution calls for “peace, order and good government”; it is hard to imagine anyone who could fulfill that mandate less.

Mr. Ford’s sweep in as quiet and stable a place as Ontario points to a broader global crisis from which apparently there is no escape. Conservatism is no longer a political ideology in the recognized sense, but a repository of loathing and despair. It’s where people thrust their hatred of modernity — of globalism and multiculturalism and technocratic expertise, but also of the democracy that fostered those systems in the first place. By giving high office to buffoons, by choosing thugs as their representatives and by reveling in nastiness for its own sake, the Conservative brand now is principally a marker of contempt for political order itself.

Conservatism has meant many things to many people around the world. Now, just about everywhere, it looks a lot like a raised middle finger; Ford and friends are the latest to salute.

Stephen Marche is the author, most recently, of The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the 21st Century.

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