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Toronto From Ford Nation to Trump Nation: ‘They are the same people’

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wait for the start of a rally in Westfield, Ind., July 12, 2016.

Michael Conroy/AP Photo

Toronto City Councillor John Filion, a self-confessed U.S. political junkie, is in Cleveland to soak in the atmosphere around the chaotic Republican National Convention. He also stopped by a local bookstore to give a talk to a small group about his 2015 book, The Only Average Guy: Inside the Uncommon World of Rob Ford, and the parallels between supporters of Toronto's controversial late mayor and supporters of Donald Trump. But, as he tells Toronto City Hall reporter Jeff Gray, few in the U.S. seem interested in drawing what seems north of the border an obvious comparison.

You're not actually attending the Republican convention are you?

No, we've been walking around the city. Yesterday, we were in the public square where the protests take place. There was a guy saying "Vote for Jesus" carrying this big wooden cross across the square. And the police came and confiscated his cross because there's a regulation against bringing lumber into the square. And then a guy came along with a loaded assault rifle, two loaded Remingtons and a Taser, and of course he was allowed right in. It's quite unbelievable. It's just complete insanity that you see in the square and on the streets that kind of reflects how crazy and polarized everything is.

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But nobody in the U.S. seems interested in comparisons between Mr. Ford and Mr. Trump?

It's not so much the comparison between Rob Ford or Doug Ford and Donald Trump. The big comparison is Ford Nation and Trump Nation. They are the same people. I am not trying to pretend that I am a great political pundit, but as soon as I saw Trump last year and heard the message and saw the type of people he was attracting, I just thought I know how this is going to play out.

Everybody was saying,'Oh this guy doesn't have a chance, he's a buffoon.' And I thought, I've heard all that before. I've even thought that before. And I was wrong. And people in Toronto were wrong. And people in the U.S. have been wrong for exactly the same reasons.

People, their brains, are still stuck in their conventional way of viewing politics. At the event I was at, it was a room full of people who were not voting for Donald Trump. But they still thought that the way to win the election was to denounce him.

And that is not in your view the way to do it? That won't work?

No, that solidifies his base. And depending on what the basis of the criticism is … it just drives more support to him. I remember in Toronto I used to try to explain to the lefties on council, please tone down your anti-Ford rhetoric because it just gets him votes in Willowdale [Mr. Filion's suburban Ward 23], where I was trying to not have him get any support. A lot of people thought that if the lefties on council are so against this guy, maybe I'll vote for him.

Everyone at the bookstore where you spoke had heard of Rob Ford, yet they were not interested in the parallels?

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They were surprisingly [uninterested]. I said you probably think of him as Toronto's crack-smoking mayor, but the point is, it showed how outrageous somebody could be and still maintain a base of support. … I am not sure they were understanding what I was trying to say. The main thing is, a lot of people vote by gut, not by intellect. And this was a room full of people that voted by intellect. So they think other people do, too. And they think the way you get to undecided voters or unravel a Trump supporter – good luck with that – is to appeal to their sense of logic, to explain that Trump lies or to explain that what he says isn't true, or explain that he can't fulfill some promise. And of course, I've talked to enough Ford Nation people to know that that type of argument doesn't work at all. Because their reason for supporting him in the first place is emotional, it's in the gut, and you can't deal with it through an intellectual response.

So how do you deal with it? What's your advice, looking at the race now against Trump? How do you counter a candidate like this?

I would look for what's the emotional appeal to the undecided. The vast majority of people who vote intelligently are not going to vote for Trump. So you need to make your appeal to [the undecideds'] emotions. You have to appeal to whatever motivates them to want to be a good person or to feel better about themselves. You certainly don't do it by making them feel like they're stupid, or that you think they're stupid. That's what used to get Ford Nation so riled up, the implication that they were stupid. You have to appeal to how people want to see themselves. You need to go for the gut.

I'm always struck by the fact that Ford and Trump were both punchlines, were ridiculed quite widely, and yet became champions of people who feel humiliated or feel that they are not being taken seriously.

If you are undervalued by your husband or wife, your neighbours, your boss, your teacher, a lot of people feel undervalued. They identify with the guy who's being ridiculed and written off and labelled as a buffoon. Especially when he has a lot of views that are kind of similar to theirs, or, a really simplistic understanding that is similar to theirs. He makes them feel smart. He makes them feel like they can go out and have a discussion about politics with their next-door neighbour with completely ill-informed views, because Donald Trump has those same views and he just won the nomination.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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