Doug Ford was elected head of the Conservative party of Ontario last week, and as the blustering blond gripped the podium on the night of his narrow victory, the conclusion was clear: The tough-guy takeover of North American politics is continuing apace.
Ford, an ex–city councilor who shares the blue-collar bluntness and elite contempt of his late brother, the infamous Toronto mayor Rob Ford, was the chaos candidate of his four-man race, and to his supporters, this was very much the point. He was not the establishment candidate, or the moderate candidate, or the sellout candidate, or the crooked candidate, and given Ontario’s pressing need for a government that’s none of these things, he was objectively the right candidate — both in his party’s primary and in the June general election.
As with Donald Trump, Ford’s belligerent brand gave him the credibility to forge a diverse coalition of voters, including the province’s beleaguered social conservatives and what Americans might call “Tea Party types,” united by deep disillusion with the political class. For those well beyond any point of tolerance for Ontario’s gigantic debt, ballooning taxes, or seemingly unyielding march of postmodern social engineering, Ford, with his lumpen manners and steady flame of outrage, was their man.
Yet Ford was just as obviously not the policy candidate, or even a particularly ideological one. As a cultural figure, he is hardly a model of Tory virtue — his ascension signals his party’s favorable interpretation of Mayor Ford’s reign of vice, and the Globe and Mail has credibly reported he was a hashish dealer as a young man. His combative style and preference for communicating exclusively through simple, populist slogans make him a sloppy interview and a weak debater.
None of this necessarily undermines Ford’s electability, or Ontario’s crucial need for a Conservative government. But his rise, his success, and the accompanying philosophical sacrifices do reveal the overwhelming hunger voters have for “bad boy” personalities — the only type presumed capable of providing the energy and aggression the political arena’s current battles require. As demand for this archetype grows, in both government and media, new expectations of character and conduct are being baked into political life.
In a polarized age, a preponderance of tough guys, combined with an increasingly hierarchical, deferential political culture, can quickly breed the politics of intimidation. When the alpha male triumphs, the rest of his tribe is cowed to fall in line, while partisans in the press and social media emulate their leader’s style, bullying and bossing in their imagined roles as loyalty enforcers. Whether the boss is right or wrong about this or that becomes a more distant concern.
Many conservative media voices who initially promised pragmatic, issue-by-issue analysis of the Trump administration, for instance, have clearly been cowed into the safer, base-pleasing business of just being functionally pro-Trump, often by portraying progressives’ own bullying of the president — as opposed to the actions of the president himself — as the true theme of American politics. Another faction of Trump’s one-time rightward critics have basically become functional progressives, a status they’d no doubt claim to have been bullied into as well.
A similar phenomenon is unfolding on the left, of course. The leading institutions of progressive thought have developed noticeably more tough-guy swagger since 2016, particularly as the downfall of Hillary Clinton (and in Canada, the growing laughingstock status of Justin Trudeau) is interpreted in liberal circles as a mandate for a tougher, less compromising style of leftism. The PC Principal character from South Park — a judgmental thug who’s somehow both ultra-sensitive and ultra-cruel — is now less satire than norm in many of the spaces the Left rules. A liberal inclined to resist the offended-at-everything shrillness of her side — a Christina Hoff Sommers type — will soon find herself dragooned into an identity as a de facto Republican, with all the accompanying social stigma in the eyes of the Left and, in time, expectations of Trump loyalty by the Right.
This “politics of tough” has obvious assets. Strength is an attractive quality, and rage is often a useful measure of authentic motive. To the extent our political conversation is decided by shouting, it’s rational to want a team of strong shouters on your side. But an excess of rage theatrics can also deform politics by overrepresenting one sort of personality, and overvaluing its skill set.
To the extent our political conversation is decided by shouting, it’s rational to want a team of strong shouters on your side. But an excess of rage theatrics can also deform politics by over-representing one sort of personality, and overvaluing its skill set.
A polarized political landscape favoring the tough offers scant space for those who are genuinely sensitive, pragmatic, or moderate by temperament, regardless of opinion. This is because in a world of aggression, those oriented to offer emotionally distant or impartial analysis of the fray will invariably be cast as wusses, cowards, or weasels — the worst monsters of all. More than any sort of extremist, increasingly it is cautious men like David Brooks who are cast as the true villains of this age, as likely to be scorched by Sean Hannity as Chapo Trap House.
Yet a moderate personality is no more synonymous with moderate opinion than an increase in volume correlates with an increase in principle. Visible anger or elevated temperature of language does not always sync with substance, and can actually disincentivize developing any, if performative toughness monopolizes the political marketplace of supply and demand.
The triumph of warrior figures in our divided age is doing some good things, including exposing the degree that many of our supposed political conflicts are rooted in culture, class, and emotion more than in ideas. Yet it’s also led many who can’t muster the energetic bombast of an Evergreen State College protester, a Twitter troll, or Doug Ford that the political arena isn’t for them.
For the time being, alas, they’re probably right.