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Bad Emperor: The saga of Rob Ford

image by Natalie Lochwin

One has to have sympathy for Rob Ford. As with many grand stories of the rise and fall of larger-than-life figures, the tragic dimension to the last act cannot but elicit a sense of human solidarity even from opponents and despite the knowledge that he has most often lacked this same compassion for others himself. And yet faced as he is with a terrible diagnosis, he has managed as he has always so desperately wanted, yet again, to captivate the city of Toronto and its political narrative, although now for reasons that may prove to be fatal.

No longer in the race to be mayor, a race he thrived off of as he has all attention, negative or positive, he is fated to watch from a hospital bed as his brother Doug seeks to carry the family torch, albeit with the consolation prize that he will almost certainly cruise to victory in the council race for his old ward despite his grave medical condition and despite the likelihood that he will not be able to campaign physically at all.

Despite this, despite having been sidelined by a physical reality that he cannot lie to or deny, Ford remains palpably the centre of it all, at least until election day. His major rivals agreed to cancel a debate and were quick to give press conferences to be seen to be both magnanimous and concerned, and, perhaps more importantly, to try to capture some of the refracted media attention that seems unable to be diverted, for one strange and awful reason after another, from Ford and what is without any doubt the most dramatic and outrageous story of a single political administration in Toronto's and quite possibly Canada's political history.

It has been quite the show. We need not go over the details, as they are well known, but I think it would be accurate to say that even the most fierce critic of Ford in 2010 could scarcely have imagined what the next four years held in store.

Yet, and endlessly maddeningly to his opponents, there is something undeniably compelling about Ford. A personality cult that both has seemingly inexplicable staying power and that, as personality cults do, seems to be nearly impossible to break the spell of among nearly a third of the city's population.

The story has always been about Ford himself, a fact that some have never fully grasped. Ford was the "likable" guy seen to be "one of us" by many in Toronto in 2010 who felt alienated from its politicians and the decisions they were making. Ford had a simplistic and largely false tale of "gravy trains" and "elites" that fit rather nicely with the movements of white male middle-class anger that were, yet again, drifting forcefully into North America's political scene, while also being able to connect in sufficient numbers with disenfranchised voters from many marginalized communities so that a rather unlikely and very powerful alliance of the disparate faces of alienation would propel him into office. He was aided in this by the tacit compliance of Toronto's ruling business class and wealthy who, quite accurately, thought he would take on the unions and would look to privatize Toronto's public life.

Ford does not, basically, believe in government at all. He is a pure nihilist, a rare politician who will oppose everything government in the modern era does on principle, even when it would seem destructive to his own administration or chances at reelection. Hence the stunning number of council votes in which he was the lone, or close to lone, dissident. Ford does truly despise the idea of governance, and this can perhaps explain in part the contempt he showed for it in his personal actions while in office.

Despite what many of us would like to think, however, this totalizing hatred and contempt for governance and the norms of the democratic process is not that rare. Many, if not a majority of Canadians and Torontonians, share it. A sense that most politicians are phonies and that they do not actually care about much other than themselves. A sense that, for many people from many backgrounds, no one represents them at all. No one even tries.

Ford, as a force of rebellion, as a pure negativist, as a politician who was willing to say the things that others were not, even though these things were almost universally wrong and false, actually inspired people. He motivated them to vote. 

Ford Nation, four years on, has become a very different thing. Unlike the winning coalition of 2010 Toronto's business class and much of its upper middle class are no longer on board. They are inclined to austerity without the unpredictability and the sideshow. The loss of these backers to John Tory is a major blow when it comes to money and to "respectability," a fact that matters altogether too much in Toronto.

Now the Nation is increasingly fixated on the man himself and has become a function of both celebrity culture and a rejection of politics, to a degree, altogether. Rob Ford is a celebrity. Rob Ford became a celebrity by breaking every rule and social convention that we normally expect of our "leaders." Rob Ford thumbed his nose at the police, the political class and the institutions that actually make government run. This made him a hero to many for whom government seems irrelevant.

One fact of the war on the poor and the reality that basically no one in Ontario, for example, advocates for doing anything for people living in poverty or on poverty wages, is that many do not have any connection to the condescending moderation of progressive politicians whose commitment to ending poverty consists of forming a lot of committees and making a lot of money for themselves.

Ford is an antidote to this. His buffoonery, criminality and celebrity are entertainment. In an era of nothing politics that makes him remarkable. Does anyone think that if Olivia Chow or John Tory are elected that anyone, anywhere outside of Toronto will care at all or that we will get the constant stream of ridiculous and yet diverting news alternately exposing or ridiculing this absurd figure?

Most of us would likely be happy for this tranquility. But not all of us. For some the show is what defined the politics. They want it to go on because it connects them to an administration without the usual six degrees of bureaucratic separation. From his drug scandals, to idiotic attempts at surreptitious meetings at a dump like Steak Queen, to his childlike denials and then admissions of wrong doing, he is unlike any other politician in the country.

This, if nothing else, is a mark in his favour.

"Nero was a fool and a megalomaniac, but a fool can also be charming and interesting. The thing he invented, which all demagogues after him repeated, was that he cherished the masses," says Andrea Carandini in National GeographicThe article goes on to note that in his rise to popularity among some of the people and yet hatred by the political class, Nero had "become the entertainer in chief."

But, as others note, Nero ends being portrayed demonically for crimes that were committed equally by others. In our era it is worth noting that Rob Ford's political contempt for those living in poverty differs from provincial politicians from New Democrat to Liberal to Tory almost not at all.

None of them have policies or do anything to fight to end this horrific injustice. So Ford gets singled out for a contempt for the poor that is universal though usually stated with more eloquence in the administration of austerity. His misogyny, racism and homophobia are simply, it seems, footnotes to most.

Rob Ford, with his family's now obvious imperial ambitions at a dynasty, sought, intentionally or otherwise, to be this same thing. To be the "entertainer in chief."

While it may take many years to fully grasp or understand Rob Ford and what he meant as a political phenomenon, the entertainment is now over.   

image by Natalie Lochwin

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