How Rob Ford Made Progressives Cruel

It was easy to laugh at Toronto’s late mayor. But the punch line, all too often, was that he was an addict.

Rob Ford in Toronto on September 27, 2014 (Mark Blinch / Reuters)

The first time I saw him, in the summer of 2013, a crowd was following him down College Street, which was closed for a festival. He appeared through a gap in the throng, a pink and blond slab of a man. He wasn’t just fat; he was maximized, leveled up, the difference between Super Mario before the mushroom and after. He was Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto. And as he moved through the festival with the crowd in tow, I couldn’t decide whether he looked more like a beast of burden tired from having dragged everyone so far, or game exhausted from trying to elude a hunter. He stopped in front of the midway and played a quick game—the World Cup Soccer Challenge—kicking miniature soccer balls at a little net. When he missed, it seemed half of those around him cheered, and when he scored, the other half did. Having briefly become perhaps the most famous mayor on earth because, by his own admission as well as taped evidence, he smoked crack while in office, Ford died two weeks ago. At 46, he had been felled by a rare cancer that, like his infamy, proved a malignancy he couldn’t outlive.

Before he became fodder for late-night bits the world over, Robert Bruce Ford, having served an undistinguished decade as a city councillor, was the brand-new mayor of a city that, to my mind as a native, must be the most self-conscious place on Earth. Toronto is the fourth-largest metropolis in North America, behind Mexico City, New York, and Los Angeles. Steve Martin’s character on the sitcom 30 Rock described it as like New York—but without all the stuff. Toronto residents obsess over whether their city is “world class.”

Ford’s predecessor, David Miller, was a handsome, Harvard-educated lawyer, a progressive policy wonk with good hair who charmed the city’s downtown liberals. Ford himself was a boorish, porcine, balding conservative from the suburbs, a gaffe-prone college dropout with a whiney voice and a DUI he got in South Florida on Valentine’s Day while his wife rode shotgun. He praised “Oriental” people for their hard work, was suspected of domestic violence, and declared in a council debate that you could only get AIDS if you were gay or an intravenous drug user. On a mission to “respect taxpayers” and “stop the gravy train,” Ford consistently voted against funding everything from the city’s Pride Parade to community grants programs, the Toronto Symphony, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the Canadian Opera Company.

He pissed us off, people like me and my friends—young, bookish progressives living in the city’s cosmopolitan downtown. Following the 2010 vote that put Ford in the mayor’s office, all it took was one look at the electoral map to see the schism in Toronto; he had been elected by the suburbs that encircled the city like a donut, while his left-leaning opponent, George Smitherman, took the downtown core. And it wasn’t just the rich voting him in on his promises of fiscal prudence. Because of rampant gentrification in downtown’s red-hot housing market, many of Toronto’s middle-class and immigrant communities are confined to its suburbs. In other words, Rob Ford had stolen the hearts of both the white suburbanites my friends and I despised for what we saw as their lack of culture, and our erstwhile progressive base—the working class. And he had done so while espousing a provincial, illiberal, socially intolerant vision of our city, which we wanted so badly for the world to love.

Unlike that of most large American cities, Toronto’s mayoralty is essentially symbolic: The mayor is just one of 45 city councillors, and has no real executive discretion beyond appointing committee chairs. The job doesn’t come with a red telephone or a nuclear football. Contentious portfolios include garbage collection (public or private), bike lanes (more or fewer), and public transit (above ground, below ground). But Mayor Ford was also the city’s avatar, an ambassador, and those of us who hated him did so not because he could tamper with our material lives, but because he tampered with our symbolic ones.

The war on Rob Ford was partly fought on a metaphoric front. Prior to the mayoral election in 2010, Stephen Marche, a Torontonian and Esquire columnist, ruminated in The Globe and Mail on the semiotics of Ford’s obesity. Marche located in Ford’s fatness both the source of his appeal (a kind of proletariat costume), and the evidence of his excesses—his rage, stupidity, and idleness. “It makes him look working class,” Marche wrote, despite Ford’s being “a man who has never been faced with the financial difficulties of ordinary people.”

The piece was pulled from the paper’s website following a strong reader reaction, but it struck a chord with those of us who hated Ford. To many of his well-heeled opponents downtown, myself included, it wasn’t so much that Rob Ford acted poorly, but that he acted poor. He was a class imposter, a thin rich man in a poor fat suit. And then came the video evidence that proved Ford to be a tough-on-crime millionaire who smoked crack in gang-run drug dens. How could Toronto ever hope to be a first-class city while its mayor used second-class cocaine?

There seemed to me at the time, as Marche had argued, something symbolic about Rob Ford’s illnesses—his obesity, his drinking and his drug use. They were telling—symptoms of his moral corruption, and evidence of his duplicity. Shortly after Gawker and The Toronto Star reported on the video of the mayor smoking crack, I was at a party in the city’s gentrifying Parkdale neighborhood when a condo-dwelling young professional with a graduate degree began holding forth about Ford’s villainy while waving a rolled-up bill above some solicitous ropes of coke. I toasted him with my evening’s nth gin. And when Frank Ocean’s “Crack Rock” came over the stereo later that night and we screamed along, it didn’t seem to strike any of the partygoers that the joke might very well be on us.

After Ford died, Marche wrote in Esquire that already, “Idiots were asking ‘Why were we all so hard on Rob Ford?’” I am, I’m afraid to report, one of those idiots. Don’t get me wrong: His politics weren’t my politics. I laughed when he busted out his janky patois to some Caribbean guys at a burger joint. I snickered at a 300-pound man hectoring Toronto to “stop the gravy train” of municipal spending. My friends and I shared GIFs of him bumping into things and falling and repeated choice lines from his incriminating videos to each other: “Don’t tell me we’re liars, thieves … birds?” And I howled along with Jon Stewart when he pilloried Ford, especially when Ford bragged about the benefits of dining in on his wife. But the punch line, all too often, was that he was an addict.

His critics on the left, including Stewart, didn’t satirize him—they ridiculed him. My friends and I didn’t just disagree with Rob Ford; we laughed at him. His failings, couched in the language of suffering, illness, or even joie de vivre, might have been humanizing, but in Ford they were the proof of his ideology’s rottenness, and therefore fair game. At the same time, the way that I, my liberal friends, and various left-leaning commentators treated him revealed the duplicity of our liberalism. We progressives were the people who promoted a disease theory of addiction, who evangelized trigger warnings, decried online bullying, and fought back against normative body images, all of which we’d gleefully abandon in the service of slaying our political enemy. Ford was as round as a planet—see, I still got it—and his face was so red it was two vodkas shy of green, but we saw him in two dimensions, and in black and white. The humanists refused to humanize him.

The last time I saw him there was a two-hour wait. The line snaked around the corner at City Hall, and everyone queued in the rain. When the honor guard unloaded his coffin from the hearse, it was wrapped in a plastic tarp that looked like a shower cap. It was the sort of self-protective shield Rob Ford would have forgone in life—I don’t think I ever even saw him with an umbrella—and it was altogether too late anyway.