David Moscrop is a Canadian political commentator.
To look at him, you would not think that Ontario Premier Doug Ford was a warrior. He always seems to have a smile on this face. Or at least a grin. He seems to be pointing all the time — as though he sees you. On first glance, he disarms you. He comes off more Augustus Gloop than Caesar Augustus.
But then he speaks. A casual “folks … ” heralds the arrival of the culture warrior, with his weapons of plain-spokenness, ad hoc social conservatism and “common sense” prepared and drawn for battle. The moralizer with a morally questionable past is there to fight for what is right and just and decent and true.
For Ontarians who are used to a mellower, traditional right-wing touch, Ford appears as a 40-cents-on-the-dollar version of Donald Trump. And ahead of his election win in June, rough and ready comparisons of the leader of the Progressive Conservatives to the U.S. president were in oversupply, as were ripostes lambasting the characterization as an overreaction. But what each side missed then, and what was more clearly revealed in the first weeks of the new government, is that what Ford’s brand of governance shares with Trump is a right-wing model of decades-old vintage.
In America in the 1960s and ’70s, as those who were on the outside started to make their way inside. The Rules, which had held a subtle social authoritarianism and sense of order — backed by religious, class, gender and racial oppression — began to be torn up. For a brief time, the liberal political consensus coexisted with an emerging social and cultural space dedicated to inclusion and liberation. But as progressivism grew in America, so did a counter-movement, something you could awkwardly but accurately label a counter-counter-movement. Force and reaction. And overreaction.
The Republican Richard M. Nixon would be the last right-wing liberal president. After him, conservative culture warriors began their work in earnest. William F. Buckley, founder of National Review and conservative stalwart, who had shaped American conservatism for years, found his influence waning as a new brand of populist, sometimes folksy cultural politics replaced his elitist libertarianism. It was as though he was being poisoned by his own children.
Along came the reincarnated New Right and Ronald Reagan, Terry Dolan, Phyllis Schlafly, Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak, William Bennett and eventually a mutant pastiche generation of George W. Bush, Ann Coulter, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and their acolytes. From the 1970s through to Trump, right-left polarization in America grew, the religious right rose, politics turned to city vs. country, and policy was a clash of values designed to leverage anger and frustration for political ends. Where you stood on race, drugs, abortion, school prayer, textbooks, guns, gay rights, immigration and political correctness would reveal not only who you were on the political spectrum but also whether you were good or evil.
Wittingly or otherwise, Ford has declared a culture war in Ontario. During the campaign, he launched predictable volleys. He opposed supervised injection sites for heroin addicts. He railed against elites. He praised police services and vowed to restore law and order.
After his victory, he spent his first days covering considerable symbolic and substantive terrain by moving fast and breaking things. At his swearing-in ceremony, he offered only a Christian prayer and skipped the emerging (but already widespread) norm of making an Indigenous land acknowledgement. He made a point of playing the now-unofficial version of the national anthem, “O Canada,” singing “In all thy sons command” instead of the new and inclusive “In all of us command.”
On the legislative and policy front, he moved immediately to remove environmental protections, proposing to scrap green programs and the province’s cap-and-trade scheme designed to tackle carbon emissions. Immediately after this, his minister for children, community and social services stood in front of a lectern adorned by the seal of the province and announced that Ontario was done cooperating with the federal government on resettling asylum seekers, just as the number of claimants crossing between ports of entry into Canada has risen in light of Trump’s election and fears about how they would be treated in the United States.
Next was sex education. The Ford government looked back to the good ol’ days of 1998, restoring a curriculum designed before same-sex marriage was legal in Canada and consent was not considered an issue worth discussing. Later, after a recent spike in violence in Toronto linked to concerns about mental health, the premier signaled his intent to send some of the province’s mental-health funds to the police.
Marinated in plain-spoken, folksy “common sense,” and drawing on an American playbook, Ford has brought a dangerous populist politics of cultural resentment and revenge to Ontario. We can expect outrage and self-righteousness. Regression and oppression. A slip back to an imagined never-time of cultural rigidity and economic retrenchment. And this at the moment when inclusiveness, environmental responsibility and a commitment to decent deliberative politics are needed to advance a just and pluralist democracy.