Ford vs. Trump: A tale of two populists during COVID-19

Both politicians got elected to disrupt the status quo. Alas, only one of them is rising to the occasion
By Steve Paikin - Published on Apr 08, 2020
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and U.S. President Donald Trump have gone down different paths during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Frank Gunn/CP, Alex Brandon/AP)



On January 20, 2017, Donald John Trump took the oath of office and was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.

One year and one week later, Douglas Robert Ford announced his intention to seek the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. Less than five months later, he became the province’s 26th premier.

Both men got elected as populist disruptors. Trump pledged to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Ford promised that “the party with the taxpayers’ money is over.”

I’m not sure how much Trump knew about Ford, but it’s well-known that Ford held Trump in high regard. As recently as two months ago, during a trip to Washington, D.C., Ford acknowledged he’d “loved listening” to Trump’s State of the Union address. On prior occasions, he’s described himself as a “big Republican.”

That was then.

Times have changed.

Since COVID-19 took over our lives, it’s been hard to find two other previously like-minded politicians whose fortunes have diverged so dramatically. While Trump continues to be criticized for playing the buffoon at his daily briefings, Ford has garnered praise for the calm and plain-spoken way he’s been tackling the challenges the pandemic has brought.

Last week, Ford expressed shock and disappointment that Trump had ordered the manufacturer 3M to deny Ontario the N95 masks the province had ordered.

“They want to shut things down with their closest ally? That’s unacceptable,” a frustrated Ford exclaimed at a briefing over the weekend. “We’re family. See ya later, you go starve? They pull these shenanigans?”

Ford went on to point out that southwestern Ontario was sending 1,000 health-care workers across the border to work in Michigan every day and yet Trump was denying Ontarians these much-needed protective masks, which aren’t manufactured here.

“We’re stronger together,” he insisted.

The premier has received kudos for his steady performances during his daily briefings. When he doesn’t know the answer to a question, he doesn’t freelance — he shares the microphone with one of his ministers. A few days ago, he even called forward the man who was providing sign-language interpretation to take a bow.

By contrast, Trump is a microphone hog during his daily briefings, which seem to have replaced the mass rallies he used to stage. When Trump doesn’t have an answer to a question, he frequently makes one up, even going so far as to provide medical advice about what drugs people should take if they feel sick.

“What have you got to lose?” he asked at a briefing a few days ago when discussing whether people should try the drug hydroxychloroquine. The answer is, presumably, their lives — something that doesn’t seem to have occurred to the president, even though one Arizona man died and his wife fell gravely ill after taking the drug based on the president’s advice.

Ford has had plenty of fights with media organizations in the past. But, during this pandemic, he appears to have grasped the obvious — that the media can be a hugely powerful ally in getting important information out to the public. Even when the questions from reporters border on aggressive (why has Telehealth’s performance been so poor? Why did you cut public-health budgets? Why don’t we have enough masks or tests?), Ford has never acted defensively or barked back. He even said, “There are a lot of great articles in the Toronto Star,” a paper with whom he’s had a decade-long feud dating back to the days when his brother Rob was mayor of Toronto.

Trump bristles at any questions he doesn’t like, calls out reporters for purveying “fake news,” and looks like a child who wants to take his ball and go home. Rather than understanding that the media have a responsibility to question those in authority, Trump seems to see them as mere bit players in his daily bid for eyeballs. How do we know this? Because he boasts about it.

“Did you know I was number 1 on Facebook? I just found out I was number 1 on Facebook,” he actually said at a briefing the other day. He also boasted that his press conferences had better ratings than Monday Night Football.

When Ford wanted a shipment of something delivered tout de suite, he showed up at a manufacturing plant with his pickup truck and loaded the boxes into the truck himself.

Trump awarded himself a 10 out of 10 for his performance during this crisis, while reminding anyone who’d listen that none of the problems America might be having fighting this pandemic was his responsibility. This was after having insisted for weeks that the pandemic was either insignificant or would burn itself out.

In the midst of the worst health-care crisis in a century, Trump has called the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, “a sick puppy.” When he learned that Senator Mitt Romney had tested positive for COVID-19, he made a joke.

“Romney’s in isolation? Gee, that’s too bad,” the president smirked. (Romney has been extra cautious about self-isolating because his wife, Ann, has multiple sclerosis.)

Who does that?

Another contrast: Ford has a new political best friend in someone with whom he has virtually nothing in common: Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. Ford represents the inner suburbs of Toronto; Freeland’s riding is right downtown. Ford is a Conservative; Freeland is a Liberal. Ford is a university dropout who makes no apologies for his unpolished style; Freeland is trilingual (English, French, Ukrainian), has a bachelor of arts degree in Russian history and literature from Harvard University, and was a Rhodes Scholar at St. Antony’s College, Oxford.

And yet she calls him “my therapist,” and he refers to her as a “firecracker.” They seem to speak every day, have shelved their egos and past political disputes, and are singularly focused on the health of their shared city, province, and country.

When Ford takes to the podium at his daily briefings, you sense his deep empathy for average Ontarians, whose lives have been turned upside down by this pandemic. The premier even apologized to the myriad people whose calls he’s been unable to return because of the hours he’s working.

Trump? New York Times columnist Frank Bruni perhaps said it best: “In Trump’s predecessors, for all their imperfections, I could sense the beat of a heart and see the glimmer of a soul. In him I can’t, and that fills me with a sorrow and a rage that I quite frankly don’t know what to do with.”

I’m betting that, if you had asked a pollster two months ago to survey Canadians and Americans on whom they’d trust to lead them through a future crisis, not many people would have placed that trust in Donald Trump or Doug Ford. Neither man had spent much time in elective politics, knew particularly well how the levers of emergency response in government worked, or had any experience leading during a major crisis.

But that’s the funny thing about politics. Some people rise to the occasion. Others may bang the drum harder but shrink because they demonstrate they just don’t have it (no matter how much flattery-bordering-on-sycophancy the vice-president provides).

Ford seems to get it. Trump seems to find new lows in behaviour and performance every time he takes to the microphone.

This crisis is a long way from over. Ford may yet screw up, and Trump may, against all odds, discover some humanity (although he hasn’t demonstrated any over the past 73 years).

But the next time you’re tempted to make a facile comparison between these two populist disruptors, don’t. One has found his calling. The other is a pathetic disgrace.

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