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Toronto Ford Nation’s populism prevailed in the past – why couldn't it again?

It is tempting just to laugh off Doug Ford's plan to launch a populist movement with a new tell-all book about the saga of his brother Rob. Rob Ford died of cancer last March, depriving the family political outfit of its driving force. Doug, the big, brawling older brother, lacks the strange charisma of his sibling. The weirder-than-fiction Ford era already seems like a bad memory, an anomaly in the generally sane and sensible world of Canadian politics. It would be wrong, surely, to imagine that anything like it could happen again.

Not so fast. The astonishing rise of Donald Trump south of the border and the shocking vote for Brexit across the pond show how quickly sparks can turn into wildfire. If you think that voters would never back a blowhard like Doug Ford, if you believe that insulting Justin Trudeau ("a part-time drama teacher") and bashing the media ("the media spins, we just tell the facts") aren't winning tactics, well, no one thought the fibbing and snarling of Mr. Trump or Brexit's Nigel Farage would sell either. In the Philippines, they love their tough-guy, shoot-from-the-lip President Rodrigo Duterte, even when he stands accused of using a curse word to describe Barack Obama.

The rise of populism is one of the big political stories of the moment. Why should Canada be immune? Rob Ford rose from grumpy, lone-wolf city councillor to mayor of the country's biggest city. It is conceivable that he would be mayor still, drug scandal notwithstanding, if cancer had not brought him down. Don't forget that Doug, subbing in for Rob as Ford Nation's mayoral candidate after his brother fell ill, came a close second to John Tory in the 2014 election, with about 34 per cent of the vote. When Rob died, his nephew Michael Ford won Rob's old city council seat in a walk.

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Anyone who toured the Fords' ward in northwest Toronto during that by-election campaign found the resentments that led to Rob Ford's rise – over rising rates and taxes, over remote downtown power structures, over city hall's big spending and poor management – still very much alive. Up there, amidst the auto-body shops and rundown apartment towers and green postwar subdivisions, Rob Ford is still a hero to many people, from struggling immigrants who admired how he spoke his mind and returned constituents' phone calls to middle-class suburbanites who see their way of life under attack and all the glitz and glory going downtown.

Toronto's struggling inner suburbs are not the only place resentment is fermenting. It was precisely to head off a populist revolt by resentful ratepayers that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne just announced she is giving ratepayers a break on their electricity bills, at cost to the treasury of a billion dollars a year. She faces an election in 20 months and can feel an angry wind kicking up, especially in hard-pressed rural areas.

Doug Ford played deliberately on all these resentments when he called reporters to his family's lush compound off Royal York Road to announce the arrival of Ford Nation: Two Brothers, One Vision – The True Story of the People's Mayor. Mr. Ford said the book, to be published Nov. 22 by HarperCollins, with proceeds going to charity, is to tell "the true story, the untold story" of Rob Ford, "the greatest mayor this country's ever seen." Humble as always, he called it "the most exciting book this country's ever seen when it comes to politics." He promised to call out both journalists and politicians for their sins. "It's going to rock the media world, it's going to rock the political world."

But this is more than just settling scores. Mr. Ford made it clear the book is part of something bigger: an attempt to revive and scale up the Ford Nation movement. He said he would travel around the country speaking to ordinary people. Sooner or later, "as sure as I'm standing here," he would throw his hat back in the ring and run for office, though he could not say yet what level of government would be blessed by his candidacy.

Voters, he said, are fed up with a prime minister who spends his time "running around taking pictures with Vogue." They are fed up with paying higher and higher taxes with little to show for it. The average person, he said, "works his back off 10, 12 hours a day, puts food on his table, pays his mortgage – and then the government sticks a hand in their pocket and steals 50 per cent of their money."

If it all sounds awfully familiar, no wonder. It was Rob Ford's shtick for years. It worked for him. It could work again. Whether or not his brother can revive Ford Nation, it is a dangerous mistake to think their brand of populism can never succeed in Canada.

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