Former Toronto mayor Rob Ford at a political rally with a Canadian flag
Former Toronto mayor Rob Ford connected with constituents through his physical weight and casual dress. Mark Blinch/Reuters

Populism is usually seen as the outgrowth of left-behind places, but Rob and Doug Ford’s rise happened in diverse, progressive Toronto.

Conjure up the current image of a populist politician: someone like Donald Trump may come to mind, a politician who feeds into the anger of the white working class in left-behind places. But large, superstar cities are not immune to a brand of urban populism.

Before Trump, the late Rob Ford rose to power in Toronto, arguably North America’s most diverse city, filled with tall towers, dense walkable streets, and a vibrant knowledge economy, with a long history of progressivism on social issues. Rob Ford’s rise was not just a one-off event: It was part of a much broader populist movement dubbed “Ford Nation” that ended up propelling his brother Doug to the much more powerful post of premier of Ontario.

The rise of Ford’s brand of populism in Toronto is the subject of a new study by my University of Toronto colleagues Daniel Silver and Fernando Calderón-Figueroa, and Zack Taylor, a political scientist at the University of Western Ontario. Their detailed research is a warning to all of us, especially to left-leaning urbanists, that populism can grow in superstar cities. So exactly how did Ford’s populism emerge in Toronto and Ontario, the largest city and largest province of a country whose national political scene is often noted as virtually immune to populism?

For one, Rob Ford did not fit the conventional image of a populist. We think of populists like Trump as being anti-immigrant, but Ford embraced, and was embraced by, a wide band of ethnicities, cultures, and religions. In addition to the white working class, his base of support drew heavily from recent immigrant groups like Arab Muslims, South Asian Hindus, Caribbean Evangelicals and others. The study notes that more than half (57 percent) of Ford supporters said more should be done to protect the rights of racial minorities, a striking departure from the coalition that often supports Trump and other populists in Europe. That said, Ford’s appeal was still rooted in more traditional values regarding family, gender, sexuality, and religion, similar to many conventional populists. As the study points out, “Ford supporters held the LGBTQ community in much lower regard than immigrants and non-whites, and rated feminists lowest of all.”

Whereas American and European populism is premised on geographic divides between thriving cities and left-behind rural places, Ford’s populism was based on divides within a successful city—in the economic and cultural differences between the downtown core and outlying areas. Take a look at the map below, which compares the large difference in attitudes on key social issues separating the more progressive city center from the outlying areas that formed the base of Ford’s support.

“These changes were focalized in the downtown core,” the study argues. “The downtown is home to the Gay Village and to numerous university professors who proudly and forcefully advocate for feminism and LGBTQ rights. Ford’s supporters could present themselves as defending traditional religious and family values against secularism and feminism imposed from above. The concentration of secular and feminist attitudes in the downtown core further amplified the sense that defenses against them must be directed against not only individuals but also the places they inhabit.”

Average favorability toward groups per ward

Data from the 2014 Toronto Election Study. (Source: Zack Taylor, University of Western Ontario)

The study makes the important point that populist movements are a political response to economic and cultural threats. Populists build their support by promising to protect their followers from these perceived fears. In Toronto, the threat was not immigration, but the threat of urban gentrification and the so-called “urban elite”—everyone from bankers and government officials, to young urbanites and the creative class—and the erosion of traditional values for gender, sexuality, family, and religion.

These threats were a product of Toronto’s long-running post-industrial economic transformation and deepening class divides, originally identified by my other University of Toronto colleague David Hulchanskiseparating the prosperous downtown core of knowledge industries from the less-affluent, working-class, mostly immigrant neighborhoods at the city’s fringes. The study quotes a letter to the editor of one of Toronto’s leading newspapers by a Ford supporter:

Ford appealed to the residents of the city’s outlying areas in several ways. He was against big government and wanton public spending, going after the public sector “gravy train” and advocating for lower taxes. He was someone who would stand up for “the people” and against the “downtown elites.” Nontrivially, he famously returned all of his phone calls, something which created a tight bond with his constituents and supporters. As the study points out, Ford supporters rated the importance of local politicians that “really care about people” much more highly than non-Ford supporters did. Ford framed his rhetoric in terms of these overlapping geographic and class divides, lashing out against bike lanes and the so-called “war on the car.”

For all those proponents of regional government out there, let this be a cautionary tale. Ford’s support came from neighborhoods that were originally parts of separate jurisdictions, but were later amalgamated into the city in the late 1990s by a conservative provincial government aiming to dilute the power of the original city’s liberalism.

Attitudes toward media treatment of Rob Ford in the 2014 Toronto election

Data from the 2014 Toronto Election Study. (Source: Zack Taylor, University of Western Ontario)

Ford’s struggles with his weight, with alcohol, and infamously with drugs, did little to undermine his support. In fact, they made him appear even more authentic to his supporters, creating a deep and lasting emotional bond. As you can see in the chart above, Ford voters were much more likely to think the media gave him a much harder time than he deserved. A similar pattern comes through in the map below which shows how outlying areas were much more likely to say that the media has given Ford a difficult time than the more liberal downtown.

Average scores for views of media treatment of Rob Ford in the 2014 Toronto election by ward

Data from the 2014 Toronto Election Study. Higher scores indicate a greater share of residents who agree that “the media has given Rob Ford a harder time than he deserves.” (Source: Zack Taylor, University of Western Ontario)

Indeed, Ford’s bond with his supporters was so strong that it transcended him. It was, and still is, embodied in a broader movement dubbed “Ford Nation.” When Rob Ford withdrew from the 2014 mayor’s race due to his battle with the cancer that ultimately took his life, Ford Nation transferred its dedicated support to his brother, Doug. And even though Doug Ford lost that race to John Tory, the city’s current mayor now serving his second term, he ultimately led the Conservative party to victory in the Province of Ontario, where he now serves as premier, a position far more powerful than mayor of Toronto and considerably more powerful than governors of large U.S. states. It’s as if a populist had become mayor of Los Angeles and his sibling went on to become governor of California.

Ford is not the first nor only populist to rise to power in a big city. As the study notes, left-wing populists have risen to power in Mexico City, Bogota, and Manila. In Europe, Pim Fortuyn built his base of support in Rotterdam before surging onto the national stage; and right-wing populists have been successful in cities in Austria, Spain, and Italy. American cities have not been completely immune to urban populism, either. On the left, the study points out, Dennis Kucinich’s rise as mayor of Cleveland in the 1970s foreshadowed elements of what we now perceive as left-wing populism. And on the right, two New York City mayors—Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani—presaged some of the personal elements of Ford’s populist appeal. And, of course, Trump himself is a New Yorker.

When Rob Ford’s originally rose to power in my adopted hometown of Toronto, I predicted that if he could take power in such a thriving diverse and progressive city, more would likely follow. After reading this study, I am more worried now than ever.

CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

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