As Savile-esque allegations start pouring in about Donald Trump, it may be tempting to write his campaign off as finally doomed. But as we’ve been saying from the start, if you really want to understand how Trump’s core support works, you need to look carefully at the career of the crack-smoking Mayor, Rob Ford.
Last November, we wrote about how Donald Trump’s seemingly unprecedented rise to the upper echelons of politics actually did have a precedent of sorts. The whole Trump Train spectacle closely follows a blueprint previously mapped out by Toronto’s crack-smoking former mayor, the late Rob Ford.
Many thought that when video footage emerged of Rob Ford drunkenly blazing up an actual crack pipe, he would have no choice but to resign. Instead, Ford refused to budge.
All sorts of scandals started flying at him after that. Accusations of sexual assault, covert recordings of him using derogatory language about women and minorities, power struggles with his own party and staff. Each new revelation seemed like it would be the last straw, the defining scandal that would oust him from office. Yet nothing did.
(And, were it not for an ultimately fatal bout of cancer, he might well have managed it too…)
Trump, like Ford before him, flat-out refuses to acknowledge, apologise or abdicate every time a new scandal hits. He has engaged in some of the most outrageous and inappropriate behaviour ever seen by a mainstream political candidate over these last eighteen months – getting into assorted dust-ups with Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, Latinos, women, the disabled, veterans, veterans’ families, journalists, his own party, even a goddamned baby – yet nothing seems to land that critical hit.
Many are expecting this latest round of sexual assault accusations to finally put the tin lid on his controversial campaign. But though Trump’s chances of winning are, admittedly, looking slim right now, early celebrations on the part of Democrats would be unwise. Why?
We gave three good lessons that Rob Ford could teach us about Trump’s campaign last year, so we’ll pick it up where we left off…
4/ The Blacklist
In his book Uncontrollable: How I Tried To Help The World’s Most Notorious Mayor, Rob Ford’s former Chief Of Staff, Mark Towhey, describes a rather telling discussion he had with a reporter for the Toronto Star.
First though, a little back story: Of Toronto’s four major daily newspapers, the Toronto Star is the one with the largest circulation – not only in Toronto, but all of Canada. It is a major paper of record.
An unconventional choice, Rob Ford found it a little tricky to get a newspaper to endorse his candidacy – and this was especially true of the Star. They didn’t much care for Rob Ford, and Rob Ford definitely didn’t care for the Star.
Back when Ford was a councillor, the Star had run an anonymously sourced story about how he had lost his temper while coaching high school football and had chased a student onto the field, whereupon he shook and slapped him. Ford always denied the story; the Star always refused to retract it.
This led to an unfortunate stalemate which permeated the entire campaign. Rather than try to reach some sort of conciliatory compromise, Ford decided to go on the offensive. He started a fight with them, singling out the Star whenever he gave a press conference. He accused them of personal bias. He publicly claimed that he avoided their journalism.
And – most pertinently – he blacklisted them.
Ford and his team refused to communicate with the Star‘s reporters, and cut them off from any stories coming out of his campaign. This didn’t stop the Star reporting on him, of course. In fact, it caused them to redouble their efforts in digging out stories on him.
This tactic worked out well for both parties (Rob Ford looked like he was hitting up against The Establishment; the Star looked a fearless fighter for the truth), but it caused big problems with democratic process.
Suddenly all of the Toronto Star’s readers are getting a series of one-sided stories on Ford (a candidate of whom they disapprove), while Ford’s supporters staunchly refuse to believe anything that the city’s paper of record is writing about him. Coverage of Ford ceased to inform the public, and started entrenching them instead.
Torontonians were put in a position where they could either pick the media, or pick the candidate – and very few people were swayed.
We see Trump doing exactly the same thing with a number of publications and organisations. His media blacklist was much bigger than Ford’s – incorporating at one point no fewer than six publications. He has railed against CNN (the “Clinton News Network“), the Washington Post (the “tax scam Washington Post“). He even tried to prevent reporters from getting in to his rallies as regular civilians.
His biggest fight though has been with the New York Times (or “the failing New York Times“, as he like to call them). This reached a head last night when the NYT released a story: Two Women Say Donald Trump Touched Them Inappropriately – and Donald Trump responded by promptly threatening to sue them.
Allegations of sexual assault are usually enough to bring a politician into serious disrepute, but Trump and the NYT’s relationship is so transparently fractured, it’s entirely possible that this major story will have a very minor effect.
NYT readers were never going to vote for Trump. Trump voters won’t believe a word that the NYT writes about their candidate. So unless the story results in an arrest, it is entirely possible that the only purpose it will only serve is to bolster NYT readers’ conviction that Trump is a perv while galvanising Trump’s supporters in their fight against the biased mainstream media.
And if you’re not sure you quite buy the comparison between Trump and Ford here, this is what Ford’s former Chief Of Staff Mark Towhey said the Toronto Star reporter back in 2011 in that discussion he described:
“Nobody believes anything you write about him. He could murder someone in the public square outside City Hall and, if the Star wrote about if first, many would think you made it up.”
Remind you of anyone?
5/ Locker Room Talk
In April 2014, in the midst of his scandal-ridden campaign for re-election, audio footage emerged of Rob Ford chatting candidly in a bar in his home ward of Etobicoke, talking about this and that. Among the juicier phrases uttered by Ford in that discussion was in reference to a married woman, Toronto councillor and fellow mayoral candidate, Karen Stintz.
Ford said: “I’d like to fucking jam her but she don’t want it.”
In October 2016, in the midst of his scandal-ridden campaign for election, audio footage emerged of Donald Trump chatting candidly on a bus with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush, talking about this and that. Among the juicier phrases uttered by Trump in that discussion was in reference to a married woman, unidentified on the tape
Trump said: “I did try and fuck her. She was married […] I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there.”
When this tape of Ford discussing Stintz in such terms was published, commentators were quick to say that this might actually prove to be even more damaging for Ford’s reputation than the crack smoking video – for while the crack smoking was bad, this tape would indisputably alienate a core demographic: women
Had his health issues not forced him to withdraw from the election, this point may well have been proved. The tape may well have been the thing that lost him the election. However, what we know for sure is that it wasn’t damning enough to lose him support amongst his core base. For two months after the tape emerged, polls showed that Rob Ford was in a neck-and-neck three-way tie for the office with 27% support.
Karen Stintz – the woman Rob Ford had been talking about ‘jamming’ – had just 5%.
6/ Injudicious Pussy Use
Another of the stand-out lines on the leaked Donald Trump tape was the phrase “Grab ‘em by the pussy”.
Trump was bragging to Billy Bush about how he was such a great big star that he could automatically kiss any woman he wanted, that they let him get away with anything because he’s famous – including grabbing them by the pussy.
This was the phrase that really started the alarm bells ringing. Essentially an admission of wanton sexual assault, the phrasing was so gross – so unbearably gross – that this is the line that has made all the headlines.
The public’s response to this was so severe that Trump was forced to make a rare video apology for his words. Instead of sounding contrite, however, Donald Trump used the apology as an opportunity to tell people complaining that we were “living in the real world” where potential admissions of sexual assault were just a distraction, and besides Bill Clinton had done it too.
You’d think that issuing a glib press statement about a sensitive matter like sexual harassment would be political suicide, but it’s nothing Rob Ford hadn’t done bigger and better before Trump.
While all the crack-smoking shitstorm was unfurling, rumours were also swirling around Rob Ford’s behaviour towards a former special assistant of his, Olivia Gondek. Allegations had surfaced that Ford had made lewd insinuations toward Gondek, saying “I’m gonna eat you out” and “I banged your pussy”.
Rather than taking an appropriate and delicate approach to these accusations, Rob Ford assembled the press and said this:
“And the last thing was, erm… Olivia Gondek. It says that I wanted to eat her pussy. Olivia Gondek. I’ve never said that in my life to her. I would never do that. I’m happily married. I’ve got more than enough to eat at home.”
That statement was issued on November 14th.
On November 15th Rob Ford’s approval rating stayed steady at 40%.
As we said, the chances of Trump actually making it to the White House have been getting slimmer by the day. At the time of writing FiveThirtyEight are currently forecasting a 16.7% chance of him clinching it – which may seem small, but that is a one in six chance.
After all Trump’s done, it’s literally still a roll of the dice.