One day in September, 2014, the people Rob Ford liked to call Ford Nation gathered in a sprawling suburban parking lot – where else? – to cheer their dauntless leader.
Mr. Ford, by this time, had admitted to smoking crack cocaine. He had misled the people of the city. He had turned Toronto politics into an international joke. His mayoralty was ending in a train wreck. Sidelined by cancer, he was out of the race for mayor and running for his old seat on city council.
And yet when Mr. Ford took the stage, his voice hoarse from a round of chemotherapy, the crowd gave him a hero's welcome, whooping and hollering and jostling for a look at the taxpayers' champion.
Say what you like about Mr. Ford and the mess he made of his job, his ability to connect with ordinary people was extraordinary. The folks in the parking lot on that sunny September day simply adored him. He was their Rob, and nothing – not his frequent absences from City Hall, not his shameless boasting (best mayor ever), not his bullying of colleagues and critics, not his vulgarity, not his contempt for the facts, not even crack cocaine – could change their minds.
Their devotion was something to behold, and it said something disturbing about the state of our politics. It said that there is a much bigger market for bigotry than we lead ourselves to believe (witness Donald Trump). It said that mainstream politicians are woefully out of touch with the people they represent. It said that a great many people agree with Ford that political life is dominated by a coddled establishment whose sole aim is to feather its nest. It said that a great number of people agree that an ever-expanding government is picking their pockets and wasting much of what it takes.
Mr. Ford is gone, but the anger and the alienation remain. You can find it in the suburbs of Canada, where hard-working people feel their picket-fence lifestyle is under attack. You can find it in the high-rises and housing projects, where new Canadians are struggling to get a foothold on the bottom rung of the ladder. You can find it among taxpayers of all kinds who sit down at the kitchen table to look at their monthly bills and wonder where all the money goes.
The Rob Ford story was much more than just a circus show – though, goodness knows, it often was that. It was a warning to Canada's political class: Stop listening and voters will elect someone with a club to smash all the furniture.
Mr. Ford spoke to people on the margins in a way that few politicians manage. He spoke to them directly. He spoke in simple words and slogans. If you asked his supporters why they liked him so much, they would often say something like, "He says what he thinks," "He does what he says," "He talks like we do" or "He understands what we're going through."
Much of what he said was nonsense ("subways, subways, subways"), but in a world where every bit of news is spun, every message massaged, the appeal of plain talk is obvious. Just listen to one of the robotic announcements that issue from the ministers of Ontario's Liberal government. Listen, for that matter, to the earnest mush uttered by the new man in Ottawa. Is it any wonder that Toronto voters turned to a guy with a rumpled suit and a sweaty brow who said "lie-berry" when he meant library. For all his faults, there was something real about the guy and, in a time of blow-dried politicians with freeze-dried words, that was golden.
Here was a politician who would personally return phone calls from voters, hundreds and hundreds of them. Mr. Ford's staff would hand him stacks of messages and, one by one, he would return them, often from behind the wheel of his car. If Rajiv had a pothole on his street, Mr. Ford would get a city crew out there pronto to get it fixed. If Mike was having trouble getting his disabled kid into housing, Mr. Ford would put in a word. It was a ridiculously inefficient way for the mayor of Canada's biggest city to solve problems, but people never forgot the gesture. He called me back. That, too, was political gold.
That Mr. Ford continued to have such strong, even passionate supporters – even after his mayoralty plunged into scandal – was astonishing to much of the country, indeed the world. Reporters from London and Berlin dropped in to ask, "Why do you still like Rob Ford?"
His success should not have come as such a surprise. In his crude, awkward, haphazard way, he managed to forge a bond with his voters that most politicians can only envy.
"I love ya, Ford Nation, I love ya," he told cheering supporters at that parking lot rally. And they loved him right back.