Globe editorial: Doug Ford, Steve Bannon and the future of conservatism

“The only question before us,” Steve Bannon told 60 Minutes last weekend, is whether the future of politics is “going to be left-wing populism or right-wing populism.”

That’s what Mr. Bannon has been predicting and promoting for years, so there’s no surprise that in his first interview since leaving the White House, he predicted and promoted it once more. But there’s no guarantee that he’s wrong.

Thanks in part to him, American politics really has shifted. Mr. Bannon is among those on the right side of the spectrum whose chief enemy is the mainstream Republican Party and the traditional conservative movement; in 2016, he helped outsider Donald Trump outwit the party’s leadership, execute a hostile takeover and become President. Ever since, the GOP has been torn apart by an ideological war over what it stands for.

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Mr. Bannon says he left the White House to return to Brietbart News in order to ensure that civil war continues, and that his side wins. He also made it very clear that, at least when he’s talking about the “swamp” in Washington that has to be drained, half of the sludge he wants removed is Republican.

Canada and the U.S. are different, and much of what moves Trump voters won’t necessarily work here. But the general thrust of the movement that Mr. Trump put himself at the head of should sound familiar to Canadians. After all, long before Donald Trump, there was Rob Ford. Long before “Drain the Swamp,” there was “Stop the Gravy Train.”

In Toronto last week, the late Mayor Ford’s brother Doug announced that he’s running for the top job in next year’s election. Just like Mr. Trump, Rob and his big brother Doug were once underestimated, and seen as sideshow freaks with no chance of winning the big prize. Yet Rob not only became mayor of Canada’s largest city; for a time, he became this country’s biggest celebrity export, a massive presence on social media, and catnip for consumers and producers of news. He was in many ways Trump before Trump.

Rob Ford did it by instinctively understanding, to a degree few Canadian politicians have, the mysteries of branding and celebrity, and the possibility of making them central to politics. We are now in a world where politicians have to compete with Hollywood, and where celebs can talk seriously about running for office – from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to Kid Rock to Mr. Trump.

Rob Ford channelled the resentments of a large group of voters who, just like Mr. Trump’s voters, felt under-appreciated and not spoken for by the traditional candidates. And though both the Fords and Mr. Trump come from the right side of the political spectrum, both won by being aggressively disdainful of the niceties of traditional politics, and the ideas of traditional conservatives.

The latest poll shows high voter satisfaction with Toronto’s current very progressive conservative Mayor John Tory, and Mr. Ford a distant second. That’s the way things may end up, come next year’s election. But don’t once again underestimate a Ford, or the ability of voters to become furiously dissatisfied with the status quo.

His brother won on an exceptionally simple message, namely that government wasn’t working, and your taxes were being wasted. The brilliance and shallowness of the message is that it’s always at least somewhat true.

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Mr. Ford ran against government, and convinced a big chunk of mostly suburban, middle- and lower-income voters that egghead elites were wasting their money on pet projects, downtown baubles and pinko social causes. (He may have been wrong when it came to solutions, but he wasn’t always off base on the problems.) Like Mr. Trump, he managed to combine a series of social and cultural insecurities into a winning formula.

Mr. Ford said he would make government smaller and get it out of your way – except of course when it came to all things related to the car, where government would continue to ensure a free, taxpayer-supported road, encumbered as little as possible by those damn streetcars. Oh, and subways. He promised lots of them, essentially for free. “Subways, Subways, Subways,” was Toronto’s “Build That Wall.”

Unlike Mr. Trump, however, Mr. Ford’s pitch didn’t have a racial element. Be thankful for that. On the contrary, many of those car-driving, elite-resenting, suburban voters he won over were immigrants and racial minorities.

Like Mr. Trump, Rob Ford was from the authoritarian school of politics. Government would get less money, but it would work better by ordering it to do so. Mr. Ford, unlike Mr. Trump, had a remarkable folksiness about him on this score. His favourite activity was answering constituent calls and badgering bureaucrats to see to their complaints. It was no way to run a giant bureaucracy, but it was a very populist and popular way to convince many voters that you cared.

A few weeks ago, Steve Bannon told The New Yorker that he’d taken populist lessons from Prime Minister Trudeau’s chief adviser, Gerald Butts. Somebody should have asked him about Rob Ford.