Many highly educated, politically sophisticated, well-off people voted for Rob Ford in the last Toronto mayoralty election. It was not for no reason. Despite a recent run of weeks that could hardly be worse for Mr. Ford – admissions of crack cocaine use, drunkenness, lies, cover-ups, personal meltdowns, international ridicule – 42 per cent of those now polled approve of him in his time in office. Again, it is not for no reason.
Before being elected mayor, Mr. Ford was a long-serving but not widely known city councillor. Those who knew him best are least surprised by the revelations. He promised to cut taxes. All candidates everywhere now promise to cut taxes, but Mr. Ford, with his blunt conviction, looked like he meant it.
In the 1976 movie Network, newsman Howard Beale loses his professional cool – and, in doing so, finds his citizen’s outrage. He breaks into his network’s newscast. “All I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad,” he tells his audience. “I want you to get up right now,” he implores, his body rising and quivering, “and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more.’” Mr. Ford’s platform was cutting taxes. His “mad as hell” message got him elected.
People everywhere are mad. Mad at their jobs, mad at the money they don’t make. Mad at others for getting the chances they don’t. Mad at seemingly getting the short end of every stick. Mad at the mess around them: crime, litter, traffic. In stores, on phones, mad at being treated as if they don’t matter. Mad that others get away with everything they don’t, mad at not being able to stop them. Mad that life isn’t what they thought it would be. Even those who have done well – mad that others’ stick is longer.
And together, mad at all those people who have the power, or believe they do. People who think they’re so smart. Who know everything. Who study and analyze. Who have all the facts. Who sound so smug, so superior. Who make everyone else feel so stupid.
To them, politicians are the worst. They’re so sure of themselves. They’re going to do this and that, and yet when they get elected, nothing changes. Then, they promise more change and everyone is expected to believe them, as if there’s no cause for embarrassment or apology. Mr. Ford, in his own mind, is the anti-politician politician; his opponents are the know-everythings. To these know-everythings, Mr. Ford and his supporters are the know-nothings.
Know-everything politicians, to Mr. Ford, sound smart, have the facts, but miss the truth. “Keep your facts,” Stephen Colbert says with eyebrow-arched irony, to the delight of his know-everything audience, “I’m going with the truth.” And his audience laughs and laughs. His is the perfect putdown of Mr. Ford and other know-nothings. Except, to the know-nothings, the irony is on the know-everythings. Mr. Colbert is unironically right. Truth is something different, or else the know-everythings aren’t playing with a full deck of facts, because know-everything governments don’t work.
The truth, Mr. Ford knows, is that government is useless. It’s what he told Toronto voters in 2010, and enough of them, rich and poor, well-educated and not, elected him. The lie comes from those who believe otherwise.
Not unlike John Belushi in the Saturday Night Live sketch The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave, Mr. Ford won’t go away. Each time something worse comes out, beyond anyone’s capacity to survive, Mr. Ford staggers, makes it until the end of a day, rallies, and then emerges from his corner the next morning. He has taken their best shot – the elite, the media, the opinion-makers, Colbert, Stewart, Letterman, Leno. The more abuse he and his supporters suffer, the more they hate their abusers, and the more determined they are to stay. Up your nose, Mr. Ford says back. I’m the mayor, you’re not. You call my government dysfunctional, in your so respectable way, because how I do things offends you? I call yours dysfunctional because it doesn’t work.
Each year, the gap between the know-everythings and the know-nothings widens – income, education, opportunity. And each year, the know-nothings have a choice. They can play the know-everythings at their game – information, compromise, opportunity – and lose. Or they can play their own game – outrage, disruption – and sometimes win, or not lose by keeping the know-everythings from winning.
The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street and the U.S. congressional strategy that has emerged from them are all expressions of the same thing. They know something is wrong. They are mad as hell because they have every reason to be mad as hell. They can also make government seem even more useless. After all, if Toronto can carry on with this mess, what value a mayor? If a budget can be sequestered and a government shut down, what value government? Mr. Ford or Ted Cruz – they are expressions of the same thing.
Push people aside, make them irrelevant and sometimes they fight back – like Howard Beale, but in a now even more unequal time.
Last week, Conrad Black – former media mogul, author, convicted felon – interviewed Mr. Ford on television. It was a love-in. The embodiment of know-everything sucking up to the embodiment of know-nothing. The powerful admire power. Mr. Ford was elected mayor because voters knew what they didn’t want. He retains the support of many because they still know what they don’t want. For Mr. Ford and his supporters, their greatest delight is to see the know-everythings whine, to see how powerless the know-everythings are with only argument on their side. To see how powerless the powerful can be.
The difference between the two sides now has little to do with cutting taxes or smoking crack cocaine. Mr. Ford’s supporters hardly support his abuses. It’s about the deep, diseased hatred each side has for the other. The other side can not, must not win.
Ken Dryden, an author and former Liberal member of Parliament, is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. He played goal for the Montreal Canadiens from 1971 to 1979, and for Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series.