Ontario Election 2018

Doug Ford is a Dangerous Right-Wing Populist

Populists are dangerous because they use their popularity as a cudgel to attack and scapegoat their enemies, accusing those enemies of engaging in shadowy conspiracies to undermine and betray "regular folks".

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 25, 2018

Populism is a political strategy used by charismatic leaders who consolidate support and power by claiming to represent "the people" against "the elites" and other imagined villains. Trading mainly in simplistic, folksy slogans that reinforce preconceptions and prejudices and shift blame outwards, populists undercut the truth by spreading appealing lies in down-to-earth language.

When confronted with facts that contradict their claims, populists go on the attack against all challengers, projecting furiously by accusing their critics of lying and pushing a hidden agenda. Their aggression and abuse is presented as a willingness to "tell it like it is".

All politicians tend to spin the facts to suit their interests, but populists challenge the idea that there is a shared repository of facts we can all agree on. In doing so, they begin to systematically break down the norms and restraints governing elected politicians in a liberal democracy, while at the same time erecting firewalls to protect themselves from democratic accountability.

Today, after three decades of neoliberal government policies that have tended to concentrate wealth in the hands of the already-affluent while leaving middle- and lower-income citizens further and further behind, populists have a rich well of resentment and cynicism to draw upon.

But instead of championing meaningful changes that will actually improve people's lives, populists channel and redirect the anger and resentment of their followers against a grab-bag of cartoon villains while consolidating power for themselves and their friends.

Populists are dangerous because they use their popularity as a cudgel to attack and scapegoat their enemies, accusing those enemies of engaging in shadowy conspiracies to undermine and betray "regular folks".

This is precisely the strategy that Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leader Doug Ford is following in his path to become Ontario's premier. He is following the now-classic populist playbook, endlessly repeating the same handful of lies and continuously attacking "the elites" while claiming to speak for "regular folks".

'Elites' vs. 'Regular Folks'

In Ford's worldview, "elites" are people who "think they're smarter than other people" and "drink champagne with their pinkies in the air".

This is how he denies that he himself is an elite, even though he's the rich son of a multi-millionaire business owner, former MPP and PC Party power-broker who inherited his father's business and took over his brother's mayoral campaign, and whose main policy promise is to give big tax cuts to his fellow rich people.

Ford uses "elites" as a shorthand to mean whoever he wants to attack and discredit at that moment. All of his foes are "elites" and "liars" when he needs them to be. He even attacked the leaders of his own PC Party as "elites" trying to hijack the leadership contest and control the grassroots when it looked briefly like he might not win the nomination.

Now that he's the leader, Ford has wasted no time appointing his friends and cronies to represent ridings - like the son of the former premier, who lost his own nomination campaign and got parachuted into the adjacent riding after the incumbent was purged.

Just two months ago, Ford insisted, "I can assure you moving forward every single riding nomination is going to be 100 percent transparent — no little games, no backroom deals, no favourites to the leader are going to be put in there."

It's a shameless reversal, but Ford's shamelessness is proving impervious to the facts.

Demonizing the Mainstream Media

Like all populists, Ford hates reporters who ask him questions that challenge his lies. Violating basic standards of civility, he calls them liars, insults them, questions their integrity and intentions, and even threatens them.

All politicians feel attacked by the media from time to time - it's not specific to any party. But to Ford, the media are just more "elites" he needs to stand up to. At his recent crazy media scrum after the Ontario budget presentation, he responded to a question from a CBC reporter by saying, "My pals at the CBC. I know a way to cut some money."

He particularly seems to hate women reporters. In a 2012 radio interview on AM640, Ford accused Globe and Mail reporter Kelly Grant of lying about a story and told her to "get off [her] lazy ass". Grant was pregnant at the time.

In June 2014, he accused CityNews reporter Cynthia Mulligan of engaging in a "jihadist attack" when she questioned him about his comment that an Etobicoke group home for teenagers with autism had "ruined the community". (He also told the man who filed an Integrity Commission complaint about the comment, the father of a son with autism, to "go to hell".)

During Ford's 2014 mayoral run, several journalists overheard him after a media scrum saying about Toronto Star reporter Jennifer Pagliaro, "I can't stand that little bitch." He later denied it, claiming he was talking about someone else - as if it would be okay to call another woman a "little bitch".

Hiding From Accountability

It's also telling that Ford refuses to allow the news media to accompany him on his campaign bus. It's not required by law but is a tradition that goes back decades and allows the media to do their job of helping Ontarians understand the people running to lead them.

The reason for this sudden change in policy is clear: Ford's staff don't actually want Ontarians to see Ford too clearly, given his proclivity for angry outbursts, nonsensical rants and easily disprovable lies.

The only media who are safe from the populist attack live in the sycophantic parallel universe of right-wing populist radio and TV stations, newspapers and blogs who exist to create the social context in which populists can thrive.

So we have, for example, a leaked editorial strategy from the Toronto Sun detailing its plan to ensure that Doug Ford wins the election. It is no coincidence that the Sun's editor-in-chief was the communications director and press secretary for Doug Ford's brother, Rob, when he was Mayor of Toronto.

Reporters aren't perfect and every publication has a bias, but they still perform an essential democratic task, however imperfectly. By sidelining, attacking and demonizing the press while giving preferential access to jingoistic publications that advance their agenda, populists insulate themselves from any kind of genuine accountability.

Attacking Political Opponents

Populists also insulate themselves from accountability by demonizing their political opponents and using state power to undermine competing parties. All parties criticize other parties, of course, and negative attack ads have become a depressingly common occurrence in Federal and Provincial elections. But populists take the threats to the next level.

Ford has already echoed Donald Trump's "lock her up" chant in reference to Premier Kathleen Wynne and has threatened a punitive audit of the Liberal Party if he wins.

Regardless of how you feel about the Liberals and their track record in government, that is an alarming abuse of power and a dangerous violation of our longstanding governmental norms and traditions - something conservatives are supposed to care about.

Doug Ford is a dangerous populist. He claims to speak for "regular folk" but he is only concerned about himself, his own power and his own interests, and he will lead the PC Party to sell its soul if he is given the opportunity. Principled conservatives should be appalled by his cynical bullying, pandering and disregard for basic facts and the norms that govern and restrain the actions of politicians.

Conservatives may like his politics today, but he won't be in power forever and things will get progressively worse for all Ontarians if our politicians determine that they can get away with doing whatever they want with no constraints and no accountability as long as they are sufficiently shameless.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 25, 2018 at 21:45:47

One of the most disturbing features of modern populists is their open advocacy of violence against some of the most vulnerable of people. For example, Rob Ford's solution to Toronto's homeless problem was not to support a homeless shelter in his ward when he was a municipal councillor. He called that idea "an insult to my constituents." Perhaps the idea that these homeless people ARE his constituents somehow escaped him.

Mr. Ford's proposed solution to the homeless problem? "A public lynching." See the shocking video at:


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