Cards on the table: I was never a supporter of Rob Ford, because I’m a member of The Media and The Media is out to get him. However, when the crack allegations came out — at least before his non-specific denials and other shenanigans – I was at first reluctant to believe there wasn’t some other explanation for what was described in the video (because I thought “crack smoking Mayor” sounded almost like someone’s parody of Rob Ford), so I have at one point been unwilling to believe the absolute worst about him. This was, of course, mistaken, but at least that mistake makes me somewhat qualified to explain the thing that puzzles so many people: why do so many people still support Rob Ford, no matter what he says or does?
The first thing I think is important is the overkill factor: Ford gets accused of so many things that at some point his supporters may throw up their hands and not care about any of them. He does sometimes get made fun of for things that are not strictly relevant to his qualifications for the job, like his weight. His admitted drunkenness and drug use are, on the other hand, very relevant to his qualifications, but a supporter might just file them away in the same category as the fat jokes. If you like the man’s policies, or at least you think he opposes bad policies, then anything he does might seem like a distraction being raised by The Media to discredit him.
Second, throwing accusations against the accusers is a tactic that can work, even if you admit the accusers have a point. Doug Ford called for Bill Blair’s resignation the very day Rob Ford admitted Blair was right. It may sound like a screw-up, but in a way, it works by muddying the waters. A supporter might still associate Ford’s confession with the idea that the police are out to get him, or that they’re unlawfully holding back the video, or one of the other accusations that the Fords have thrown around. And that can create the impression that even though Ford confessed, he might have been bullied into it, or that a whole lot is being made out of one isolated incident, or that there is generally some conspiracy to drive him out of office by making him look worse than he is. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true, or even how much of a conspiracy the supporter believes there to be; the point is just that there should be some doubt left open even after Ford has admitted everything. A bizarre trick, really, but it works.
And third, and probably most important, support of a politician is often tribal, and support of Ford is particularly tribal, since he’s made his appeals more on feelings and attitude than specific ideas. It often seems that Ford is popular for the things he opposes or the particular concept he stands for, of the suburbs fighting back against the urbanites, the subways against the streetcars. If this fight is important to you, it stands to reason that the behaviour of a particular politician is less important than whether he supports and opposes the right things. That was Ford’s message in his “I’m not quitting” speech. He was elected to do a job and he will continue to do it, regardless of how loaded he gets, because the cause he stands for is more important than his ability to do anything about it. And that may be true. If Ford’s support is partly about the idea that it’s good to make liberals angry, then nothing can turn off a sizable chunk of his supporters. Well, not nothing. If he did something that made liberals happy, then that would probably lose him more supporters than all the crack and all the alcohol in the world.