Skip to content

Rob Ford, Donald Trump, and the New Direction of Political Polarization

You are not a typical American. Not even close. The typical American doesn’t read lengthy articles in policy journals. The typical American gets up far too early in the morning, after too little sleep, works too hard for too long in a job that pays too little, before heading home, feeding the kids, cleaning the house, and collapsing into bed far too late. He or she has precious little time to consume news: a fleeting glimpse of pithy headlines, maybe a two-minute newscast on the radio if they drive to work or a few minutes of local TV news—mostly weather and sports scores. It is through this lens that typical Americans view the world beyond their personal experience and that of friends and family. It’s through this lens that they assess their government and judge their politicians.

These are the typical Americans who elected Donald Trump. They weren’t alone in voting for Trump, and they didn’t cast their ballots by mistake. They chose Trump because, out of the available alternatives, he best represented their view of the world.

I am not a typical American, either. In fact, I’m a Canadian. I was a key player on the team that helped elect Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto—North America’s fourth largest city. I helped him craft a campaign platform that resonated with typical Torontonians and, later, helped him translate that platform into an actionable governing agenda. I helped him get things done. Three years later, Ford fired me as his chief of staff when I insisted that he go to rehab to address the personal demons that were destroying both him and his mayoralty. My experience with Ford has given me an unusual perspective on the recent presidential election, the Trump phenomenon, and the rise of a new and powerful political force that favors unorthodox candidates.

The Right Message for a New Coalition

No, you and I are not typical at all. We have time to read (and, apparently, to write) long-form articles in policy journals. We can pause our breadwinning labor and child-rearing duties long enough to consider hypotheticals and to ruminate, now and then, on an idea or two. We may not recognize this as a luxury in our modern world, but we should. Amid all that rumination, however, we rarely stop to think that what motivates us does not necessarily excite typical Americans, the people who elected Donald Trump some six years after their northern cousins elected Rob Ford in Toronto.

Almost by mistake, this bloc of typical citizens—overstressed, under-informed, concerned more with pragmatic quality of life issues than idealistic social goals—has become a powerful political movement. And we didn’t see them coming. Conventional political leaders seem to completely misunderstand them, and even their own champions often appear to disrespect them. They do so at their peril.

In 2010, Rob Ford was a dark horse candidate in the race to be mayor of Toronto. He later became internationally notorious for his very public battles with drug addiction and frequent appearances as a punch line in late-night television monologues. But his 2010 campaign was based on his understanding of the struggles typical residents endured and their limited time for politics. Ford boiled his campaign down to “Respect for Taxpayers” and “Stop the Gravy Train.” His message was concise and understandable. It fit on a bumper sticker. It could be passed by word of mouth from one person to the next without loss of meaning or impact. That it meant something different to everyone was not a weakness but a strength—no matter what you thought the “gravy train” was, everyone wanted it stopped.

In the U.S. presidential election, Donald Trump appealed to rising popular concerns regarding the direction of the country and to a nearly universal, easily-repeated desire to “Make America Great Again.” Unemployed or struggling to get by? “Build a wall!” Fed up with establishment fat cats getting rich while your family struggles to make ends meet? “Lock her up!”

Respect for Taxpayers. Make America Great Again. Both fit on a bumper sticker. Easy to remember. Hard to disagree with. Quick to pass on by word of mouth.

Yet these campaigns didn’t succeed simply by spinning a better message. They out-communicated their opponents, for sure. But, they found a fertile audience because they addressed a compelling need in the population better than anyone else. There are very real gaps in our society that have not only gone unfilled—they’ve gone seemingly unrecognized by our governments for decades.

The Indiscreet Charm of Rob Ford

Rob Ford beat his opponents by assembling a pro-change coalition. Of those who voted for Ford, about 60 percent self-identified as traditional right-wing conservative voters (in provincial and federal elections—there are no political party affiliations in Toronto municipal politics). The remaining 40 percent of Ford voters were about equally divided between centrist Liberal Party supporters and left-wing New Democratic Party supporters.  What united them was a clear hunger for change in a city where they wanted government to make their lives a little bit easier: taxing them less and focusing on the often forgotten must-do details of municipal life—taking out the garbage reliably, keeping the buses moving, fixing potholes, etc.

While his opponents focused on ideological issues surrounding climate change, mandating “green roofs” on new and renovated commercial buildings in Toronto, Ford channeled the typical resident’s anger about living through a month-long garbage strike. He vowed to privatize garbage collection to reduce costs, improve service, and prevent future strikes. He pointed to the glaringly obvious example of one quarter of the city where this had been done with complete success. No need to study the issue. Just do it. He did. It worked.

While other politicians wrung their hands and beat their breasts about the plight of Toronto’s poorest people, Ford went door to door in the city’s run-down social housing complexes, dragging civil servants with him, to talk to occupants, to hear their list of complaints, and to direct the bureaucrats to “Fix it. Now.” Things got done. While other members of the Toronto council created committees to investigate the establishment of a sophisticated “311” call center to respond to citizen requests for service from the city, Ford returned every constituent phone call and went personally to people’s doors to hear their concerns and fix them. Personally.

Most Toronto politicians preached their ideology and debated abstract concepts. Ford focused on fixing what was wrong today. Ford made life easier for residents now.

Near the end of the 2010 election campaign, Ford was caught flat-footed during a televised debate by an ambush question about what he would do to welcome a boat of Tamil refugees reported to be making its way across the ocean to Canada, likely to settle in Toronto. The other candidates spoke eloquently about Toronto’s motto, “Diversity Our Strength,” and the critical role immigration played in creating the wonderful fabric of our municipal society. Ford, however, reacted frankly, honestly, and in a manner that would have spelled doom for most political candidates:

“Right now, we can’t even deal with the 2.5 million people in this city. I think it is more important to take care of people now before we start bringing in more people. How are we going to welcome another million people in? It is going to be chaotic. We can’t even deal with the chaos we have now. I think we have to say enough’s enough.”1

His opponents pounced on him, calling it a “turning point” 2 in an election Ford had been winning, and crowing that the public was finally seeing “the real Rob Ford.” The premier of Ontario said Ford’s comments weren’t “representative of Canadians or of the society that we aspire to build here together.”3 An influential academic from Ryerson University, speaking on behalf of the city’s educated elite, was critical, saying, “Anyone who runs for public office needs to do research before they blurt out comments on issues.”4

The criticism of Ford for his comments on immigration sounds eerily similar to criticism of many campaign pronouncements made by Donald Trump. Also similar was the reaction of typical residents. They weren’t upset with Ford in 2010. In fact, the vast majority of typical Torontonians—including the majority of recent immigrants—agreed entirely with Ford.

There was a very large gap between the response of the political and academic elite in Toronto and the response of the typical Toronto voter. That gap was just as evident in the results of the 2016 presidential election. How did we not recognize it during the campaign?

Populism and Widening Socioeconomic Divides

We see many gaps in American society today. The gap between rich and poor, in particular, is growing wider. The Occupy Wall Street movement grew out of the fact that, for too many Americans, the economy simply was not working. Since the end of the Great Recession in 2009, incomes for the richest 1 percent of Americans have grown significantly, reflecting the recovery in the stock market. Incomes for the poorer half of Americans, however, have been largely stagnant. Only 50 percent of children born in 1980 will earn more than their parents, compared with 92 percent of those born in 1940.

We shouldn’t be surprised that there is also a gap between the lifestyles, interests, perspectives, and priorities of the most successful Americans and those of what I’ve loosely labelled “typical Americans.” The people who make the decisions that matter in America are, by definition, our political and business leaders—the people who have been most successful under the status quo. Naturally, they have an implicit bias toward believing that the system works, because it has worked well for them.

Even if you do not consider yourself (yet) to be a business or political leader, you have somehow found the luxury of spending ten minutes doing nothing more than reading this article. So, whether you know it or not, you’re probably more successful than most Americans.

Let’s face it: it’s people like us who’ve formed the political class, the policy makers, the decision-makers, and those who advise them. What’s important to us is not necessarily what’s important to typical Americans. In fact, the gap between our perspectives and theirs has been growing for years. It’s now so different that we’re seeing new political powers emerge, new coalitions formed along an entirely new spectrum of political interest. Donald Trump exploited this gap by focusing his campaign on uniting typical Americans who, regardless of ideology, felt that status quo America simply wasn’t working for them anymore.

Both Donald Trump and Rob Ford have been described as “populists”—usually by critics who use the term pejoratively. But is populism such a bad thing? President Abraham Lincoln talked of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” as the ultimate expression of democracy. Who wouldn’t want a democratic government to represent the population it governs? Is that not populism?

The aspersion most frequently cast on populism is that “the people,” meaning the masses of typical voters, don’t really know what’s best for them. The people may want to end immigration in the hopes it will increase wages, for instance, but we know better. A politician who promises to deliver the demands of an ignorant electorate is a “populist,” and that is a very bad thing. A politician who equivocates during the election, then does nothing to impede immigration, on the other hand, is a wise man skilled in the art of political campaigning and governance. He does not deliver what the people wanted. Instead, he presides over a government of the people, by those smarter than the people, for . . . well, frankly, we’re not sure whom.

In Toronto, the political and academic establishment knew that designating the city’s transit system an “essential service”— and thereby removing transit workers’ right to strike—would likely drive up labor costs.5 The typical residents wanted this designation so they wouldn’t have to suffer through future transit strikes. But the elites knew better. They long opposed the idea. Rob Ford, however, believed the people should get what they wanted. He knew how typical Torontonians suffered during transit strikes: when they couldn’t get to work, they didn’t get paid. Ford made and delivered on the promise. Transit in Toronto is now an “essential service,” and there have been no more strikes.

Typical Americans have spent decades electing smarter people who call themselves Republicans or Democrats. After each election, they’ve waited for their lives to improve, even just a little bit, to no avail. Whether Republican or Democrat, it seems the smarter people they’ve been electing have all failed. Maybe it’s time to elect someone who’s not a genius—who doesn’t pretend to know all the answers. Maybe it’s time to elect someone who’s more like a typical American, who will make decisions much the way any typical American would. Maybe it will work. Maybe it won’t. But electing the same smart people hasn’t worked out well for typical Americans, so what do they have to lose?

Rob Ford never thought he was the smartest guy in the room. Donald Trump might, but he talks like a regular guy, and voters got to know him “personally” through his popular TV show, “The Apprentice.” The fact that Trump frequently garbles his message, says outrageous things, and makes frequent mistakes only makes him seem more like an “average guy.” Both Trump and Ford were accepted by typical voters as one of their own.

Making Life a Little Bit Easier

There’s a masterful scene during the opening episode of the fourth season of Aaron Sorkin’s Emmy-winning TV series The West Wing. It puts what typical Americans want from government clearly into perspective for characters Toby Zeigler and Josh Lyman, both senior White House staffers in the show. They’re stranded in a hotel bar and strike up a conversation with a middle-aged “typical American” who’s spent the day touring the University of Notre Dame with his college-aged daughter.

The man and his wife together earn $80,000 a year and, he laments, “I never imagined I’d have trouble making ends meet. I spend half the day thinking about what happens if I slip and fall on my front porch. It should be hard. I like that it’s hard. Putting your daughter through college . . . that’s a man’s job, a man’s accomplishment. Putting your kids through college, taking care of your family. . . . [But] it should be easier, just a little easier, because in that difference is . . . everything.”

What that man wants from government is not welfare. Not a hand out. Nor massive tax reductions. He just wants government to focus a little bit of its resources and brainpower on making everyday life “just a little easier.” Our typical Americans are not much different. They don’t want perfection. Nor Utopia. Nor ideological purity. Just small, concrete steps that improve their lives. They are, for lack of a better word, pragmatists.

Rob Ford and Donald Trump recognized this. In Rob Ford’s case, he was genuinely focused on the little things that plagued everyday residents in the city of Toronto. His political affiliation was influenced by his father who wore conservative clothes and was a one-term Conservative Party politician, so Ford identified as a conservative. But his day-to-day political priorities were shaped by what he learned from typical Canadians at the most stressed levels of Toronto society—lower and middle income, precariously employed, and without permanent housing.

Ford received and returned over 100,000 phone calls from city residents during his ten years as a city councillor before running for mayor. I know this is true, because he kept a record of every single phone number he’d called. These were regular people, frustrated with their government, and struggling to get by. Their problems were small: trees that crashed on their fences, neighbors whose yards were an eyesore, garbage that didn’t get picked up, potholes that never got filled. One by one, he helped them fix their problems. He became good at it. And he developed a genuine perspective on city governance that was entirely shaped by the experiences of typical residents.

That perspective shaped Ford’s approach as mayor. He believed it was his job to deal directly with his constituents. He left his political staff to deal with the bureaucracy and with other politicians. That’s the exact opposite of how most politicians manage their affairs. Normally, they leave constituent work to junior staffers and focus their personal attention on big-picture, “global” issues.

This is why hundreds of thousands of people loved Rob Ford. It’s also why he wasn’t as effective as he might have been. By focusing entirely on the immediate problems facing residents, he often missed opportunities to step back and identify the bigger, systemic issue that was causing those problems. But people saw that he at least attempted to solve noticeable and growing problems that had not been addressed by the conventional political class.

In Donald Trump’s case, I am not convinced that he is genuinely moved by the plight of the typical American. He’s the epitome of establishment success. Whether billions or millions, he has enjoyed a comfortable and luxurious life by trading on the equity of his surname and the moxie of his deal-making. He’s a smart businessman who recognized a gap in the political market for a candidate who would champion the overlooked wants and needs of typical Americans. Whether he will remain true to those people as a guiding principle remains to be seen.

Trump voters listened to his rhetoric and heard in it the promise of a life made a little bit easier. Not the wholesale redistribution of wealth Bernie Sanders proposed—but a little bit of help, from a Washington focused a little bit less on grandiose international projects, a little bit less on the broad, utopian goals of traditional Democratic or Republican ideologues, and a little bit more on the day-to-day obstacles in the way of a better life for too many Americans.

Just prior to the 2010 Toronto mayoral election, I spoke with an upper middle-class banker who planned to vote for Rob Ford because, he said, “A lot of what he says seems impossible to accomplish. But, if he gets just one of those things done, my life will be a little bit better.” That was all it took to win one man’s vote. In the end, Ford won votes from 383,501 voters just like that. Enough to be mayor.

The banker was certainly not a typical Torontonian. He had time to dabble in political argument, even wrote checks to political candidates. But even he shared many of the challenges faced by typical residents. He may have had an easier life, but where he rubbed up against the city government, it was often in the same frustrating way as people with less time, less money, and fewer options. They shared a common cause, wanting their lives to be just a little bit easier.

The Eclipse of Left-versus-Right

If you spend much of your time working in, observing, or otherwise thinking about politics, then you probably view the political world along a left-versus-right spectrum. Democrats on the left versus Republicans on the right. Socialists on the far left, ultra conservatives on the far right. That’s the prevailing view of political affiliation. But I have grown to believe it’s a view that only prevails amongst us—the fortunate few who have time to ponder such intangibles.

In 2010, Rob Ford assembled a passionate coalition of voters that defied the traditional Left-Right spectrum in Toronto: they were conservatives, liberals, and socialists. The pro-Brexit campaign crossed political party lines and won. Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election by pulling together a coalition of support that most pundits didn’t believe existed. After all of this, I’m convinced that typical Canadians, Britons, and Americans simply do not view the world the way I do. They don’t see life through ideological lenses. They don’t measure politics on the traditional Left-Right continuum.

Most typical Americans don’t have time to divide the world into Left and Right. Instead, they instinctively divide the world into things that affect them and things that don’t, things that help them and things that don’t.

We can find typical Americans struggling to make their lives a little bit better on both the left and right ends of the political spectrum. Those on the Left often share the same problems with those on the Right, though they may want different solutions to them. The theoretical differences between the Right and the Left are determined by these different solutions. But a typical person’s vote—and a voting coalition—is at least as likely to be determined by a common problem—especially when no one else is paying attention to it.

Another Dimension: Pragmatism versus Idealism

We tend to think of “pragmatists” as centrists who occupy the space where the Left and the Right merge on a Venn diagram, representing a moderate position blurred between the two. For many people, however, pragmatism is not defined by moderate ideological tendencies but rather by a different prioritization of issues entirely. It’s a focus on the concrete, rather than the abstract. It targets immediate, specific problems rather than deep, systemic causes. It prefers clearly defined and implementable solutions rather than aspirational visions. In other words, what if, instead of referring to a place on a Venn diagram, the pragmatic-idealistic divide actually functions like a different political axis?

It may be easiest to describe this other political axis simply by visualizing it. Imagine, for a moment, the traditional Left-Right political spectrum on a horizontal line: Let’s call this the “x-axis,” and it runs, naturally, from left to right. Now imagine a vertical line that intersects the x-axis at its center. Let’s call this, unsurprisingly, the “y-axis.” At the top of this vertical line, we’ll put people who place a high value on theoretical concepts, ideals, ideologies, and principles that affect society in the abstract. Let’s call that end of the y-axis the “idealist” end. At the opposite end of the y-axis are people who place a high value on practical solutions and actions that help them personally. Let’s call this the “pragmatic” end.

Those at the idealist end of the y-axis are people who’ve succeeded in the current political and economic system. Those at the pragmatic end struggle to get by in the status quo system. They’re people like Aaron Sorkin’s man in the bar. People who want small but realizable improvements, practical solutions, and help now.

I believe this y-axis is how many Americans divide the world: idealism versus pragmatism; aspirations versus practical solutions; someday versus today; how it affects the world versus how it impacts me; people who’ve succeeded in the current system versus people who are struggling in it.

You (probably) and I (certainly) may fall to the left or to the right of the x-axis, but we are both more likely to be idealists than pragmatists on the y-axis. Whether we vote Republican or Democrat, we are the people who’ve found success (or inherited wealth) in the world as it is now. We don’t need it to be much easier. We’re “the establishment.” We have time to think, to discuss, to worry about how to feed the world’s children in the future. Most pragmatists, however, are too busy to worry about the future. Whether they’re on the left or right of the x-axis, they share a focus on more immediate needs, on feeding their kids today.

As the Democrat versus Republican partisan divide (the Left-Right ideological x-axis) has widened, it’s become more difficult for either party to build a plurality on these terms. There is a large group of Independents in the middle, but, as Gallup has reported, even they tend to lean towards one party or the other. Voters simply don’t move as much along the x-axis as they may have in the past.

The y-axis is another matter, however. Politicians like Rob Ford and Donald Trump have found success by building coalitions of voters who may be dissimilar on the x-axis, but who occupy a similar space on the y-axis. Both Trump and Ford built a voting base among pragmatists.

In the Republican primary race, Trump competed against a fractured group of establishment Republicans who had strong appeal across the right wing of the x-axis, but whose support was limited almost exclusively to the idealists—people for whom the status quo had worked well. They carved this territory up amongst themselves, but left the larger and growing pragmatic segment of the Right almost entirely for Trump.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton built her base largely amongst idealists on the Left and in the center. Clinton’s biggest competitor for the Democratic Party nomination, Bernie Sanders, also built his strong and faithful, but not decisive, coalition among pragmatists and idealists on the Left. But when he dropped out, some of his pragmatist supporters felt that they had more in common with the pragmatists on the Right than they did with Clinton’s idealists on the Left.

Trump crafted his message so it resonated not only with pragmatic Republicans but with just enough of the growing millions of typical Americans who make up the pragmatic extreme of the y-axis—no matter their traditional left-right political allegiances. Even if far left-wing voters wouldn’t vote for Trump, he appealed enough to their pragmatic sensibilities (hungry for life to be a little bit better) to drive a wedge between them and the left-wing idealists who rallied around Clinton (whose lives were already pretty good).

Implications for Politics and Policy

As the gap between rich and poor has expanded, and the percentage of people struggling has become larger, so too the pragmatic coalition has grown. Meanwhile, the shrinking segment of idealists has become increasingly entrenched in an unbridgeable left-versus-right divide. Thus the real opportunity in politics for the foreseeable future lies in uniting the pragmatists.

Donald Trump recognized this and used it to propel himself into the White House. Trump, like the pragmatic champion Rob Ford before him, was a flawed candidate and appears likely to be a very weak incumbent. Yet he was the only one to carry the flag for typical American pragmatists, and they chose him. Ford’s flaw was his inability to deliver on his full agenda due to his personal addictions. Trump’s flaw is that he is not really a pragmatist himself—he’s a savvy marketer who saw a gap in the market and moved first to fill it. Both men have had difficulty driving an establishment bureaucracy and the overall political process towards new, pragmatic goals.

When Ford ultimately failed as mayor of Toronto, the voters elected an idealist to replace him. Yet many still hunger for a more pragmatic approach to government. They deserve another champion. This is the real question: Will another pragmatist leader emerge who is better skilled in the political arts—a champion who can win the trust of the voters, win an election, and actually achieve lasting change in a political environment that is still largely controlled by idealists?

Can Donald Trump effect real change in Washington? It remains to be seen, but he may very well go down in history as the first to establish a beachhead for the cause of pragmatism, but not the leader to drive much further inland. On the other hand, if Trump can keep politics focused on issues that truly matter to typical Americans, and produce results that will genuinely make their lives a little bit easier, then that would likely pave the way to a second term.

The lessons for policymakers in this “pragmatic” world are many. Policymakers must recognize that a sizable segment of American citizens (enough to elect a president) is very unhappy with government—not just the government of the day, but the entire apparatus and culture of government. The political leadership of the country is largely drawn from the ranks of idealists who are increasingly disconnected from the day-to-day reality of the typical American. This has prompted pragmatists, despite the overwhelming burden of their daily routine, to stand up and be heard at the ballot box. They want a better process. They want better candidates. And they want their government focused on the very real obstacles standing between them and a somewhat better life.

Thus more attention and resources should be focused on doing the basics exceptionally well, and less on wonkish experiments or utopian designs that don’t make life easier for most people. For example, pragmatists want action on health care, not ideology. If President Trump cannot form a coalition with Republican lawmakers, then his base will be quite happy if he works with Democrats, as long as it produces a health care bill that makes their lives a little bit easier. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

This is a global tide: less ideology, more action. Small steps, not grand gestures. Results, not principles. Easier, not harder.

Pragmatists can and will vote for Republicans or Democrats. They’re up for grabs. They will follow a political champion who unites them with a pragmatic platform that delivers real, tangible results. But, if neither party makes the shift, then new candidates and new alliances may form voting coalitions of pragmatists to win the next presidency.

In the long term, addressing the needs of pragmatists is good for idealists too. As pragmatists breathe easier and can enjoy life a bit more, they will begin to have time to think about the future, to consider less tangible ideas, and to become . . . dare I say it, idealists themselves.


Notes
1 John Michael McGrath, “Latest Mayoral Debate: Ford Opposes Immigration and Giving Credit to Suzan Hall, Proposes Scrapping the Land Transfer Tax,” Toronto Life (online), Aug. 18, 2010, http://torontolife.com/city/toronto-politics/latest-mayoral-debate-ford-opposes-immigration-scrapping-the-land-transfer-tax-and-giving-credit-to-suzan-hall/.

2 Robyn Doolittle, “Ford goes on the defensive,” Toronto Star, Aug. 18, 2010, https://www.thestar.com/news/city_hall/2010/08/18/ford_goes_on_the_defensive.html.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 As explained in the Toronto Star, “It seems counterintuitive that designating a unionized workforce as providers of an essential service could increase wages; after all, unions then lose the threat of a full strike. However, with the designation, the union’s apparent loss of bargaining power is offset by having to compensate employees for the loss of their right to withhold services, and the greater role given to third parties—arbitrators and mediators—in setting wages and working conditions.” Benjamin Dachis, “There’s a Downside to Making the TTC an Essential Service,” Toronto Star, Sept. 12, 2008, https://www.thestar.com/opinion/2008/09/12/theres_a_downside_to_making_the_ttc_an_essential_service.html.

 

Sorry, PDF downloads are available to subscribers only.
Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log In