December 28, 2015

Donald Trump and Rob Ford: Diagnosis and Prescription

I live in a city that was briefly famous around the world for having a clueless, egotistical, crack-smoking mayor. 

Like many Torontonians (and most Downtowners), I was embarrassed and frequently mystified that Rob Ford had been elected in the first place. Who were these bozos who had voted for him? Couldn't they see how incompetent and ridiculous he is? But his "Ford Nation" fans couldn't seem to get enough, never censuring his antics, and eating up his "shock the bourgeoisie" pronouncements.

More recently, in the US, Donald Trump has been making headlines with his own shocking pronouncements.  The more shocking they are, the more enthusiastically received they are by supporters, and the more establishment voices are appalled and dismayed, with frequent astonishment that anyone can succeed with such buffoonery and demagoguery.

Part of what these two men have in common is reasonably obvious: both on the right, both appealing to a working class constituency.  On the surface, both seem to appeal to white, native-born voters, but interestingly, in the case of Rob Ford, many of his supporters are actually from visible minorities.

Another thing they share: their antics make the urban, globalized establishment crazy.

And I think this is the essence of their appeal, rather than the literal content of their policies. In both cases, a disaffected group takes pleasure in seeing the winners in the current economic order tweaked and horrified. 

In Rob Ford's case it was the suburban poor forced out of downtown by gentrification, and in Donald Trump's it is working class or small town men whose economic prospects have been off-shored by globalization.

Democracy works best when all constituencies feel that they have a voice. Perhaps rather than reacting with outrage at crazy policy suggestions, we should listen to the underlying concerns that fuel them. Not only will we reduce our own risk of apoplexy, we might strengthen our democracy and our society. 

If that doesn't move you, think of it this way: if you listen to the concerns of the constituency, you will stop encouraging the creation of the maddening showboat politicians needed to give them a voice.

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