It could never happen here. No way, no how. That's what they all said. Canadians were far too reasonable, too moderate, too liberal-minded. Canadians would never lose their minds like those deplorable Americans and embrace someone like Donald Trump.
Except, of course, that they did. Long before the orange-haired one rose to the most powerful office on earth, a cranky suburban councillor defied received wisdom about Canadian politics and took command of the country's biggest city. We all know how that turned out. Now his older brother is poised to lead the government of Canada's most populous province.
This should surprise no one. Rob Ford proved beyond a doubt that there is a market for populism in Canada. Forget all the stories we like to tell ourselves about how much wiser and calmer than our American cousins we are. Canadians are every bit as capable of lashing out at their governing class.
The impulse is entirely understandable, both here and there. Even in democratic, law-governed countries like ours, the political establishment can be intolerably smug and self-serving. When someone offers to give it a swift kick, many voters will cheer like mad. Governments tend to grow and grow, taxes rise and rise. When someone promises to stop the gravy train, many taxpayers will flock to his side.
The trouble is that populists, like revolutionaries, tend to make poor leaders. Rob Ford's city hall was a hot mess long before a drug scandal made him an international punchline. He was boastful ("best mayor ever"). He was ill-informed. He showed no real interest in the actual job of governing a city. He was in and out of trouble, and in and out of court, all the time. He was peevish and thin-skinned when under attack.
His big brother was at his side through it all, his wing man and biggest defender. Any notion that Doug would be the calming influence, the "smart Ford," the one who kept his volatile brother on track quickly dissipated when the Fords took power – Rob as mayor, Doug as city councillor and leading adviser.
Doug proved just as boastful, just as thin-skinned, just as incurious, just as likely to blow his top. It was Doug not Rob who landed the duo in hot water with a loopy proposal to put a monorail and a Ferris wheel on the waterfront, tearing up long-standing redevelopment plans. It was Doug not Rob who made unflattering headlines when he blasted Margaret Atwood during a debate about closing library branches and said he wouldn't have a clue who she was if she walked by him on the street. It was Doug who launched a tirade against the police chief for doing nothing more than his job during the crack scandal.
In city council debates, Doug was out of his depth. He never really learned the ropes at city hall. He never even seemed interested in learning. He was there to attack the place, not make it work. His speeches, like his brother's, were often little more than rants, peppered with error.
Doug Ford could be charming at times, with that big saleman's grin and joshing manner. Even if he is a wealthy businessman, he has a regular guy, hale fellow way about him that plays well against the buttoned-down, airbrushed, scripted politician that the system tends to churn out these days. He is much more outgoing than his late brother, who was often shy and awkward.
But it didn't take much to make Angry Doug emerge. When he didn't get his way, he blamed others – the dishonest media, his opponents on the left; whichever came to mind.
If all of this sounds familiar to those following the news coming out of Washington these days, it should. The Fords – Doug as much as Rob – were Trumpian before Trump. In his intolerance for criticism, in the way he twists or ignores the facts, in his disregard for the rules that govern others, in his shallow sloganeering, Doug is our very own Donald. His form of know-nothing populism is the last thing Ontario needs.
Remember what everyone said when Mr. Trump won his famous victory. He may mellow with time. He may become more presidential once he bears the burden of office. The apparatus of government will keep him in line. Cooler, cleverer heads around him will prevail.
They said the same sorts of things when Rob Ford came to office. They will no doubt say the same things as his handlers polish and burnish Doug into something that looks like a possible premier. Don't believe it for a second. Just as Donald will always be Donald, Doug will be Doug.