What explains the astonishing rise of Donald Trump? How could such a buffoon become the top candidate to lead the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower into the next election for U.S. president?
To plumb this mystery, the bewildered need look no further than mild, orderly Toronto. Five years ago, Canada's biggest city elected a man much like him.
Donald Trump and Rob Ford have a lot in common. Both love to tell the world how fantastically successful they are. Mr. Ford did not have the faintest blush on his face when he called himself the "best mayor that this city has ever had." Mr. Trump, who finds it just as hard to be humble, said that "I've done an amazing job" as a businessman. "I went to the Wharton School of Business. I'm, like, a really smart person."
Both claim that their success in business equips them to run a government.
"I'm a businessman," said Mr. Ford, who played only a modest role in the rise of his family's labelling company. "I know how to create jobs, I know how to meet a payroll."
Mr. Trump said in last week's Republican debate that he is qualified to lead the United States because "I've dealt with people all over the world, been successful all over the world. Everything I've done virtually has been a tremendous success."
Both are blunt to the point of rudeness, and beyond. Mr. Ford once called a female member of city council "a waste of skin," and that's not to mention all the slurs he uttered when under the influence. Mr. Trump made a crack about the appearance of his opponent in the Republican race, Carly Fiorina, and said that a debate moderator who dared to challenge him had "blood coming out of her wherever."
Both have landed in the soup for remarks about immigrants. Mr. Ford once said that "those Oriental people work like dogs." Mr. Trump suggested that illegal Mexican immigrants are "bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists."
Both offer simplistic solutions to complex problems. Mr. Ford said he had a ready answer to the age-old Toronto challenge of how to pay for more subway lines. Easy: get the private sector to build them. Mr. Trump would put a wall along the southern border and charge Mexico to build it. Oh, and he would replace Obamacare, the new U.S. health-insurance program, with "something terrific." He boasts: "Trade? We're gonna fix it. Health care? We're gonna fix it."
In spite of – in many ways, because of – all these faults, both men manage to get lots and lots of people to like and even adore them. Even after the crack scandal, then a cancer diagnosis that forced Mr. Ford to withdraw from last year's election for mayor, his brother and right-hand man, Doug Ford, took 34 per cent of the vote. Although, thankfully, Mr. Trump's support seems to be fading a little, he still tops the Republican polls despite everything . The reasons are not really so mysterious.
Most politicians these days are so programmed, so airbrushed, so slavishly on-message that a candidate who blurts out whatever comes into his head seems like a breath of fresh air, even if what he is saying is utter bilge.
When asked why they continued to back Mr. Ford, despite the whole crack business, his supporters would say things like "he says what he thinks," or "he's one of us" or "he isn't like a politician."
In a recent New York Times/CBS News poll of Republicans, the top three reasons people listed for supporting Mr. Trump were "outspoken/says what he believes," "not a politician/outsider," and "strong leader." That aura of authenticity counts for something, whether the authenticity is truly authentic or not.
Both Mr. Ford and Mr. Trump feed on a pervasive disenchantment with politics and politicians that has helped push election turnouts lower in both the U.S. and Canada. Mr. Ford famously promised to "stop the gravy train" at city hall. Mr. Trump says that Americans "are tired of being ripped off by politicians that don't know what they're doing."
It would be a terrible mistake if, perish the thought, Americans followed their anger into the dead end where this charmless blowhard would take them. Just look at what happened in Toronto. Well before crack, Mr. Ford had revealed himself as a divisive, ill-informed mayor who governed by empty slogan.
But it would be just as wrong to ignore what made Mr. Ford and Mr. Trump so appealing to so many voters in the first place. For them, the rants unleashed by these raging bulls against a privileged political class and overfed, inefficient governments ring true. In a plastic political world, they are desperate for something real.
As long as they feel that way, they are going to be tempted, in Mr. Ford's immortal phrase, to "go snake" and elect someone who promises to walk into the dinner party and smash a few plates.