Populism Isn’t Always Xenophobic. Just Ask Ontario’s Premier.
Doug Ford is challenging conventional wisdom by utilizing a more inclusive and malleable brand of populism. And it’s working for him.
In mid-May, as COVID-19 infections approached their peak, Doug Ford, the Canadian politician often branded the “Donald Trump of the North,” put out a viral video on Twitter. Ford, the premier of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, wasn’t burnishing his legislative record, spewing conspiracy theories, or fulminating against his enemies. Rather, he was making cheesecake. “I learned this recipe years ago, off my mother,” he said, wearing disposable gloves and a T-shirt reading “We’re all in this together.” “These are some of the fun things you can do when you’re self-isolating.”
Ford is a self-styled man of the people, and his was a people’s cheesecake, made with Dream Whip and a hefty amount of refined sugar. A few pundits attempted to follow the recipe and reported mixed results, but that’s about the worst thing most of them had to say on the topic. For weeks, Ford’s popularity had been surging. The cheesecake video—an affirmation of small, domestic pleasures in an uncertain world—was remarkably well received.
In 2018, Ford came to power much like insurgent politicians everywhere—as a pugnacious outsider and an enemy of elites. (He is the older brother of Rob Ford, the late mayor of Toronto whose crack cocaine habits made him a global celebrity in the early 2010s.) During the campaign, major international newspapers reported that Canada was having its Trump moment. The comparisons were too easy to resist. Like Trump, Ford was a burly, blond-haired man, hostile to the press, popular at rallies, and inexperienced in government.
In Ford’s early days as premier, his actions seemed to vindicate the Trump comparisons. He attempted to appoint a friend as superintendent of the provincial police, and he redrew polling districts, cutting the size of city councils just as municipal elections were getting underway—a disruptive measure that led to a series of court challenges. His inaugural budget was wildly unpopular, pushing his approval rating below 30 percent. It was a disastrous first year, and detractors predicted more chaos to come.
Then the pandemic hit, and Ford struck a conciliatory tone. He not only recruited public health experts but also praised and deferred to them. In early April, he released epidemiological projections about COVID‑19 and enacted a stringent lockdown regimen followed by a cautious reopening. At daily press conferences, he was plain-spoken, respectful, and candid about the tough times ahead. In many democracies, right-wing populists have struggled to weather the COVID-19 storm: Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and Matteo Salvini, the former deputy prime minister of Italy, have all seen their approval ratings tumble. But in May, 76 percent of voters approved of Ford’s performance, a figure that put him in company with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
So, how did Canada’s Trump suddenly morph into a sober, decorous statesman? The simple answer is that Ford isn’t—and never was—Canada’s Trump. True, Ford has built a center-right coalition by tapping into the restless, anti-establishment energy that is as prevalent in Canada as it is in Trump’s America and seemingly everywhere else. But he is channeling that energy into a style of politics that is heterodox and surprisingly nimble. Globally, right-wing populism isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon; the cultural forces that sustain it are much too powerful. Ford, however, offers a more durable, less dangerous vision for what it could be.
Although he comes from a family of politicians, Ford spent much of his adult life focused on business. His career took an unconventional turn, though, in 2010, when he sought (and won) the council seat his brother had vacated to become mayor of Toronto. As Rob’s newly elected right-hand man, Doug was suddenly in the middle of the most high-profile political story in the country. Many people recall Rob’s single-term mayoralty as a clown show: He is remembered for his impolitic outbursts, his penchant for public intoxication, and an awkward appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
But to write off Rob Ford as a failure is to miss one crucial point: He connected viscerally with voters, particularly those who felt estranged from the city’s managerial and creative classes: low-income residents, suburbanites, and people of color. He seemed to have unlimited time for all of them. “I remember when we did our first round of polling,” said Fraser Macdonald, the deputy communications director on the mayoral campaign. “Our pollster said, ‘I have never seen this depth of support for a candidate. The people who like him love him.’”
John Filion, a Toronto councillor who served alongside the Ford brothers, believes that Doug’s time at City Hall was formative. “He saw how people reacted to the mayor,” Filion said. “Rob had always been his dumb kid brother, but then, all of a sudden, he was drawing these massive, adoring crowds.” Doug may be temperamentally different from Rob—he’s more calculated, less prone to outrage, and unburdened by addiction—but he studied his brother’s gut-based, highly effective style of politics. “Doug was smart enough,” Filion added, “to see that the stuff Rob did worked.”
Rob Ford died of cancer in 2016, leaving his brother to uphold the family brand. In January 2018, mere months before a scheduled election, Patrick Brown, the leader of Ontario’s center-right Progressive Conservative Party, was ousted amid accusations of sexual misconduct. A week later, Ford announced his intention to seek Brown’s job. Five months after that, he was elected premier, bringing the center-left Ontario Liberal Party to the end of its 15 years in government.
The start of his premiership marked a return to the Rob Ford era but with a more technocratic spin. For Rob, all elites were equally contemptible, but Doug reserves his harshest words for cultural elites—environmental activists and university professors. “Doug sees himself as a big-systems man,” said Zack Taylor, a Canadian political scientist. “His anti-elitism doesn’t extend everywhere. He respects management consultants, even if he’s less enamored of, say, [the famed Canadian writer and environmentalist] Margaret Atwood.”
Ford appeals directly to economically marginalized voters. The 2018 election saw decisive wins not only in white rural districts but also in exurban bedroom communities, industrial towns, and the multiracial suburbs of Toronto. What these voters have in common, says Kory Teneycke, who managed the 2018 campaign, is a sense of estrangement from the cultural preoccupations of the left: the environmental arguments that, when communicated poorly, seem contemptuous of industry and the social justice rhetoric that draws heavily on academic vocabulary—language that is commonplace among English majors but alienating to those who attended vocational schools.
“There’s been a shift in the things that the progressive left used to talk about,” Teneycke said. “There used to be much more of a blue-collar element to their rhetoric. But they’ve become less connected to working people.”
This realignment offers a political opportunity that Ford—an avuncular man in an inexpensive suit—is uniquely able to exploit. His rhetoric often scrambles traditional left-right divides. Like the yellow vest movement in France, Ford has reframed environmental skepticism as a form of class politics: He doesn’t deny the existence of climate change but insists that working people shouldn’t be made to pay for ambitious carbon reduction schemes. Similarly, although he appeals to members of suburban minority communities who feel excluded from an affluent, downtown elite, his ideas about race are inconsistent. (During the first year of his tenure, Ford cut funding to various refugee services, a fiscally conservative measure that also seemed like a sop to immigration-skeptical voters. And as his muddled response to the U.S. police killing of George Floyd revealed, concepts like “systemic racism” don’t come naturally to him.)
Then again, the faculty-club set isn’t Ford’s target audience. His public communications are often light on policy and heavy on affect, with statements that appear boorish to his critics but authentic to his supporters. He has spoken witheringly—if not exactly accurately—about his predecessors in the Ontario legislature (“the most politically corrupt government this country has ever seen”), the federal carbon-pricing scheme enacted under Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (“a complete scam”), and the political culture among university students (“crazy Marxist nonsense”). As part of this carefully cultivated populist image, Ford’s government polls voters frequently on a variety of quality-of-life issues and has built a web portal through which business owners can submit requests for simple regulatory changes.
This approach has led to a grab bag of policies, some conservative (cuts to education, health care, and social services), some progressive (tax relief for low-income workers), and much of them softly libertarian: Ford has scrapped emissions tests on used automobiles, attempted to opt out of the national carbon-pricing program, reduced the minimum price of alcohol, allowed people to bring dogs onto restaurant patios, and permitted barbershops to operate one sink instead of two. The core principles at play are frugality, smaller government, and opposition to environmental measures that cost working people money. Yet one senses that even these are negotiable. During the 2018 campaign, Ford defied eco-activists and pledged to allow housing developments on a protected green space near Toronto, but when the idea tanked in the polls, he quickly reversed course. “I govern through the people,” he said.
His measured response to COVID-19 is therefore hardly surprising. If he is concerned about ethnically diverse, inner-suburban neighborhoods where infection rates are the highest, it’s partly because these communities make up a large chunk of his base. If he is comfortable deferring to public health experts, it’s because these aren’t the types of elites he distrusts. And if he has evinced thoughtfulness, care, and cooperation over the last four months, it’s because this is what most people—including his people—expect from their leaders in times of crisis.
In Canada, as in the United States, opposition to the lockdown has come from a vocal minority on the populist right; the majority wants government to handle the issue sensibly. Unlike Trump or Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, Ford is sufficiently in touch with public opinion to understand this fact—and is adaptive enough to respond to it.
Those who call Ford a right-wing populist in the mold of Trump have observed one simple truth: His politics skew right of center, and his style—plain-spoken, anti-elitist, accessible—is distinctly populist. But to assume that all right-wing populists are Trump replicas is to miss much of what makes him unique.
Ford is capable of reining in his combative instincts when it’s politically expedient to do so. And while the Trump movement has roots in the chauvinism of Breitbart News and the fever swamps of 4chan, Ford developed his political brand in Toronto, one of North America’s most diverse cities.
Trump promises a return to a mythical lost era of “greatness,” but Ford’s pitch to supporters is less grandiose: a government that feels accessible, isn’t condescending, and makes life easier in small but measurable ways. He is, ultimately, a retail politician seeking to bring a personalized, transactional style—one more commonly associated with city governance—into a much larger arena.
Critics of right-wing populism tend to assume that the movement is inseparable from the worst human impulses: xenophobia, paranoia, and contempt for cities where millions of people live. There’s plenty of evidence to back this assertion up, at least in most parts of the world. But populism is more of a style than an ideology and is therefore changeable in ways that other political orientations aren’t.
While Ford’s brand may be uniquely Canadian—tailored, as it is, to a political climate where citizens are pragmatic and less consumed by nativism—it still offers potential lessons for politicians elsewhere. Ford’s electoral success indicates that there may be a market for working-class conservatism in places other than the white, rural heartlands, and his favorable poll numbers suggest that even centrists and progressives can, in theory, accept a populist conservative as a legitimate leader, even if they’re unlikely to ever support him.
Like a cheesecake made with Dream Whip, Ford’s political style may seem like a poor approximation of the thing it’s supposed to be. It’s markedly different from classical starched-collar conservatism or from the more virulent brand of right-wing populism that has recently swept the globe. It is a practical recipe, using whatever ingredients are at hand. But it may have a longer shelf life. And it’s beloved among those who like it—and at least palatable among those who don’t.
Simon Lewsen is a Canadian magazine journalist. He teaches writing at the University of Toronto. Twitter: @SimonLewsen