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Even Before the Crack-Smoking Videotape, Rob Ford was the Most American Politician in Canada

Flickr/Shaun Merritt

Few Americans had probably heard of Rob Ford before yesterday evening, when a bizarre story about the mayor of Toronto allegedly smoking crack cocaine appeared first on Gawker and then the Toronto Star, and promptly went viral. Gawker editor John Cook and two Star reporters were recently shown a bizarre video seemingly depicting Ford smoking what appears to be a crack pipe in the company of two other men. (In the video, the person who looks like Ford is also heard referring to Justin Trudeau, the son of revered Canadian politician Pierre Trudeau and the current leader of the Canadian Liberal Party, as a "fag.") According to the Star, the video is currently in the possession of a small group of Somali men involved in the Toronto drug trade who are trying to finance a move to Western Canada. They are currently asking for over $100,000 to release the tape.

Even by the standards of the American news cycle this story is kind of nuts. It combines all of the key elements of the most memorable political scandals of the U.S.: hubris, power, organized crime, hypocrisy, drugs, incriminating cell-phone footage, swearing, vans in parking lots. And by Canadian standards—where even the most egregious political misbehaviors tend to be pretty dull—Ford's implosion is a once-in-a-decade event. Given Ford's peculiar political persona it also makes perfect sense. More than any other Canadian in recent memory, the Toronto mayor has embodied the American conservative political style. It’s perfectly natural that he should destroy himself in spectacularly south-of-the-border fashion. 

For a country where “flamboyant politician” generally suggests, at most a willingness to take off your shirt in public, Rob Ford seemed like a character imported from a Mike Judge movie. Ford's appeal, even as a mere councilor, was that he was unafraid to insult people whom he deemed to be inferior to him, and then revel in his impoliteness. He was not compassionate, he was not careful. He was a big man with an outsized personality who didn't care what other people thought.

The co-director of a business-label operation in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, Ford first came into politics as a councilor for his Etobicoke district, running on a platform budget-cutting. He marketed himself as a populist and cultivated a macho, no-holds-barred willingness to take on “special interest groups.” Ford’s definition of these groups appeared to run the gamut of right-wing fixations, from gays and lesbians (on the city council, he advocated cutting funding to AIDS groups because "if you are not doing needles and you are not gay, you wouldn't get AIDS probably") to bicyclists ("a pain in the ass"). In 2008, he also got in trouble for comments about Toronto’s significant Asian population: “oriental people,” he said, “work like dogs.”

Unlike his counterparts on the American right—who usually get in trouble for personal indiscretions in the late, hubristic parts of their careers—Ford behavior also made headlines during his rise. In 1999, he was arrested for driving under the influence and marijuana possession in Florida. In 2006, he was escorted out of a hockey game for being intoxicated and belligerent and "shouting obscenities" at other people in the stands; he then lied about it to the media. In 2010, he was caught entertaining the possibility of procuring Oxycontin for another person over the phone.

Historically, this kind of thing has not been a recipe for success in Canadian politics. While there have been a few flamboyant figures—notably the playboy 1970s-era premiere Pierre Trudeau—none of them have approached the chutzpah or belligerence of Ford. Stephen Harper, Canada's current conservative prime minister, is a former university professor who combines a right-wing agenda with a personality that is about as magnetic as a coffee-table. Canadians tend to be mistrustful of loudmouths and rule-breakers and showboaters. Whereas the measure of the appeal of an American politician has often been whether he's someone voters would want to have a beer with, in Canada a successful politician is more likely to be somebody you'd want to have teaching economics to your daughter at a well-run public university.

So how to explain that, in 2010, Ford was elected to run Toronto, the fourth-largest metropolitan area in North America—and one of the world's most diverse, cosmopolitan cities to boot?

That a pol who played to conservative grievances could triumph in a city with such a liberal reputation is actually the least surprising thing about Ford’s story. Along with several other Canadian cities, Toronto is organized along lines that many American mayors dream of: Several years ago, many of its suburbs were amalgamated into the city, bringing with them their tax dollars—but also their voters. Sure, the center of Toronto is, like New York City, a hotbed for diversity and left-of-center politics. But the suburbs are more like parts of New Jersey and Long Island. And they got to vote Ford into office. The prototypical Ford voters drive cars and don't ride bikes, think they don't know very many gay people, and harbor feelings of resentment towards Toronto's diverse, liberal core.

Instead, what makes Ford so unique in Canadian politics is his clear attempt to cultivate an American conservative identity. On the surface, the grievances of Canadian conservatives aren’t so different from those of their U.S. counterparts: They dislike high taxes and oil-industry regulation, and fear a creeping social liberalism. But the similarities rarely extended to matters of style and rhetoric—until Ford came along with a schtick that included comparing centrist and progressive city councilors to Joseph Stalin.

It's even possible that Ford's success was indirectly spurred by the rise of the Tea Party across the border. One of the defining elements of the Canadian experience is that Canadians are, by virtue of being a nation of 34 million next to the most powerful nation on earth, exposed to a ton of American culture, including American politics. Ford is the first major Canadian politician whose penchant for drama replicates the excitement, engineered simplicity and ridiculousness of what Canadians have been seeing on the American news in the age of freak-show politics. In his 2010 mayoral campaign, Ford ran a campaign filled with talking points that seemed cribbed from the American Tea Party. He came out in support of "traditional marriage" (even though gay marriage has been legal throughout Canada for the better part of a decade) and against bringing more immigrants into the city (even though Toronto revels in its reputation as one of the world’s most immigrant-friendly cities). Rather than choosing some avatar of urban sophistication, Ford chose Don Cherry, a Canadian hockey commentator, to give an inaugural mayoral address. Cherry used the opportunity to make fun of "left-wing pinkos."

Luckily, Ford may also be our last American-style drama: Most of his mayoral policies, from transit to cost-cutting to redevelopment, have been lackluster at best and disastrous at worst. And now—a crack-smoking scandal! If the allegations turn out to be true, it's hard to imagine how he'll be able to make it through with his job intact. But perhaps that makes it a final test of how well American-style political theater plays up north. Though the U.S. has the tougher drug laws, its voters have historically been more forgiving of those who embarrass them. Crack cocaine scandals, for instances, don't always spell the end of a political career, and voters have a strange affinity for comeback stories. Forgiving someone who's let you down is actually an endearing aspect of American politics. But for the sake of Toronto—one of the world's most vibrant, interesting and genuinely wonderful cities—I’m hoping it won’t be the case here.