The campaign season in the United States is well underway. The Republican Party, to nobody’s surprise, has once again introduced a dazzling array of characters including an ophthalmologist, a brain surgeon, a former Hewlett Packard CEO, and a casino mogul well known for his failed marriages, hotels, pageants, a reality show, a beautiful daughter named Ivanka, a cameo in Home Alone 2 and a penchant for models half of his age. Donald Trump needs no introduction. At the time of this writing, this hotel and casino entrepreneur is leading the pack of the Republican candidates. What explains his appeal?
As a Canadian and a Torontonian, I can’t help but draw eerie parallels between Trump and our former mayor Rob Ford, a pugnacious character who spoke his mind and saw his political demise (although he returned as a city councilor before his cancer diagnosis) following the discovery of a drug scandal involving many unsavoury characters of Toronto’s underworld. By the time of his exit from city hall, he was still dogged by legal troubles and hungry lawyers smelling potential lawsuits. Ford also needs no introduction as he has been spoofed endlessly on places like Buzzfeed.com, aside from being late-night comedy fodder for Jimmy Kimmel.
Both Trump and Ford are known for shooting from the hip and their political incorrectness. As somebody who also watched Sarah Palin’s rise to fame in 2008, political incorrectness scores points because these speakers tackle issues close to the everyday lives of their constituents. They know what people are thinking about in their private lives. Most people are not weighing the pros and cons of a global climate treaty in their spare time or the Iranian nuclear deal. Many, especially in the middle-class, are concerned with budgeting and saving for retirement. They are concerned about where their taxes are going. They are worried about jobs and whom their kids are interacting with in school. There is definitely a fear among them that the system is somehow rigged in favour of the rich and sometimes even illegal immigrants because these people are the recipients of generous government benefits that ordinary taxpayers will never see. This is why Trump has scored well in his relentless ranting about the ills of illegal immigration and received approval for the idea of building a fence along the US-Mexico border. This is why Trump’s narrative of Asian countries stealing jobs from Americans has only boosted his poll numbers.
In Toronto, Canada, circa 2010, Rob Ford was also railing against the system – the elites versus the taxpayers. The campaign theme revolved around elites being out of touch with the little guy and the ills of taxes. Despite inheriting millions, Ford resonated with the little guy and the blue-collar worker. Just like how Trump has been doing well despite coming from a privileged background. 2010 also marked the end of a mediocre mayoral term that saw public strikes and fiscal mismanagement. Ford directly benefited from the unpopularity of the outgoing mayor, a member of what Ford called the elite. Interestingly, Ford’s support base did not consist of your traditional card-carrying conservatives but also many immigrants. Toronto is a city of immigrants, most of whom are extremely hard-working and genuinely want to create a better life in Canada than back home. Most are not big fans of taxes. Ford’s team was able to capture this important voting bloc, catapulting him to the mayoral office in 2010.
So if Rob Ford can win an election, so can Donald Trump? Both men have shown that it does not take too much explanation or intellectual scruntiny to convince the public that the system is rigged. No statistics or expert reports are required to convince their supporters. Both have taken advantage of people’s short-term thinking. There is a great difference between a Canadian mayoral race and a race that will determine the leader of the free world (if Trump can win the confidence of his party first). Mayoral elections are all about the local issues: garbage collection times, whether the subway runs on time, whether the city should scrap the eco-fee on plastic bags and etc. The President of the United States will have work with not just his supporters, but foreign countries, many of whom have very different agendas often opposed to America’s interests. His decisions will carry great weight with reverberations around the world.
Perhaps, political incorrectness and populism can work at a local level. It proved to be good enough for Rob Ford to win his mayoral term but still not good enough to re-elect him. Barring a sex scandal (Herman Cain 2012, anyone?) or a major personal foible, how far Trump’s rants can take him through the campaign season remains to be seen. The politics of shooting from the hip has been tried and tested but has not been proven to be true in the major leagues yet.