Up until a few months ago, discussions of Doug Ford becoming premier of Ontario, Canada, were relegated to amusing hypothetical conversations. The hypothetical “what if” has now become reality.
The man many see as the Canadian Donald Trump has seized on a unique political opportunity to dethrone the province’s Liberal party and reassert Progressive Conservative control over the most populous province in Canada with a majority government.
For some, the prospect of Ford’s tenure as premier is concerning if not downright frightening. There is an understandable fear that Ford’s brand of right-wing politics will bring sweeping reforms to social programmes while undoing many of the progressive policies enacted under Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government.
While it is impossible to predict precisely how his premiership will unfold, we can look to his rhetoric during the campaign as well as his late brother Rob Ford’s tenure as mayor of Toronto for an indication of what might loom ahead.
Rising tide of populism
Doug Ford’s campaign platform was based on well-worn conservative policy positions. From scrapping the carbon tax to reducing corporate tax and promising to balance Ontario’s budget within two years, Ford’s campaign, at least in terms of substance, relies on many of the same ideas and policy positions as other Canadian right-wing politicians.
What marks his campaign as unique, at least in Canada, is that these positions are couched in the language of populism. Ford has offered his candidacy and his ideas as a way to expel Liberal elites from power, remove the influence of “radical special interests” and, most importantly, to create a government that works on behalf of the people.
The populist framing of Ford’s campaign offers a reimagination of politics as a fight between hard-working, tax-paying citizens against out-of-touch “elites” beholden to special interests.
While there is no crystal ball to predict how successful Ford will be in following through with the specific promises outlined in his campaign platform, Ontario residents can expect that the populist discourse used to defeat the Liberals and the New Democratic Party during the campaign will continue, and may even intensify as Ford pursues his legislative agenda.
With Ford at the helm, we should anticipate a major shift in political discourse over the next four years. Like Trump, Ford represents a different way of doing politics, one where political civility, technocratic knowledge and compromise are replaced by brashness, common sense solutions and decisive unilateral action.
Ford’s successful positioning of himself as a voice of the people, and the harbinger of common sense, will force his opponents to adapt their strategies to appeal to Ontarians.
If this campaign demonstrated anything, it is that using Trump as a bogey man to scare voters away from Conservative politicians has only limited sway over the hearts and minds of voters.
For opponents at the centre and on the left of the political spectrum looking to draw support away from Ford, they will need to develop strategies to undermine his populist credentials while offering their own policies that appeal to those affected by a sense of disaffection and political alienation.
In his brother’s image?
While much has been written about the similarities between Ford and Trump, Doug Ford’s most closely resemble the populist stylings of his late brother Rob Ford. They share a remarkably similar neoliberal worldview, centred on halting the proverbial “gravy train” by drastically reducing government spending vis-à-vis the privatisation of government services. Above all else, their politics are shaped by staunch anti-elitism and anti-cosmopolitanism. Under Rob Ford, this mixture of populism, neoliberalism and anti-elitism manifested itself in proposals to close homeless shelters, end HIV/AIDS prevention programmes and cut funding for arenas, playgrounds, pools and daycare centres.
Doug Ford’s campaign evokes the same underlying logic used by his brother as mayor. In order to strengthen his appeal to middle class taxpayers, Ford has promised not to cut public sector jobs or reduce services. The successful alignment between Ford and the middle class represents a broadening of Ford Nation.
On the outside looking in are those who fall under the banner of special interests: the LGBTQ community, public sector unions and low-income communities.
So if we want to get an indication of where Ontario might be headed with Doug Ford as premier, we ought to examine his brother’s tenure as mayor and the groups alienated by Ford Nation.
While concern about Doug Ford may be widespread, it will likely be the most marginalised among Ontario citizens who are the most adversely effected by his premiership.
Brian Budd is a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph, Canada.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.