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Ford’s fallacies: a guide to right-wing populist rhetoric

Mary Code and Jesse McLaren

April 15, 2018

Doug Ford is using populist rhetoric to push his platform of austerity and social conservatism. It’s painful to witness, but Doug Ford’s persona can come across as likeable and appealing to many Ontarians. He does not talk down to his supporters, uses simple and accessible language, and he continually references the “elites in Queens Park” who are making life difficult for ordinary people.

Contradictions of right-wing populism

Like many populists, when Doug Ford speaks, he places struggling Torontonians at the center of his rhetoric. Whereas Trump appealed to working class anger against years of austerity under the Democrats, Ford is appealing to legitimate anger against years of Liberal rule. These clips of him seemingly sympathizing with the everyday Ontarian get a lot of air time, but the problem is that he is never critiqued or questioned on how exactly he will make life better for ordinary people. Like Trump, he is a millionaire claiming to speak for the “little guy,” and like Trump he appeals to working class anger so he can divert it to right-wing conclusions that will only increase social and economic inequality.

Because of this contradiction, Ford rarely discusses his actual policy and platform when addressing the public and media. Instead he has to find ways during interviews to hide behind specific “logical fallacies” or styles of retort that allow him to ignore or evade questions. Logical fallacies are errors in reasoning or arguments that, while not addressing the problem or topic at hand, can be very effective in persuading the audience to see the speaker’s perspective. In the age of sound bites and viral videos, it’s important to remember that media pundits are not journalists and therefore the public cannot rely on Ford’s media appearances for hard-hitting journalism and accountability for the logical fallacies and rhetorical tactics that he employs. In fact, Ford is rarely pressed by the media on simple things like how it’s possible that he himself is not part of the elite that he continually references as a massive problem, and is rarely asked to go into specific details about his platform.  

Understanding how politicians misdirect when asked uncomfortable questions can be an important skill to assist in critiquing populist rhetoric. There are many kinds of logical fallacies, and here are five to get us started examining how Ford avoids being held accountable for his actions and platform.

1) Ad hominems (personal attacks)

Latin for “against the man”, ad hominems are commonly used by politicians and can be found entrenched in Doug Ford’s interviews, especially when agitated by the interviewer’s questions. This fallacy involves the subject personally attacking or criticizing the opponent or person asking the question, and allows the actual question or argument posed to be ignored. We should all watch for this when Ford is asked uncomfortable questions. For example, in a recent interview on CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning with Robyn Bresnahan, he specifically took jabs at the interviewer and implied that she was not informed enough to comment on spending in Ontario. When asked how Ford will cut spending without cutting jobs, he replied, “Very simple: you haven’t done it, I’ve done it. That’s the difference, next question.” Luckily Robyn didn’t back down and asked if he could provide specific examples on how the PC party will accomplish this, and again he said that “I know you’ve never done purchasing, I’ve done it, I have a multi-million-dollar business both sides of the border,” implying that her lack of personal involvement in government spending discredits her serious questions about Ford’s policy.

2) Red herrings

Red herrings can be found when the interviewer brings up an irrelevant fact that distracts from the main argument. When debating Avi Lewis in February of 2017 on CTV, Lewis poignantly stated that Ford’s economic policies were hurtful to the working class and Ford scoffed. Lewis asked Ford to correct him and set the record straight on how Lewis’ statements were incorrect, and instead Ford responded by shouting that what was really hurtful are the taxes that millions of Canadians have to pay; the exchange turned into a back and forth where Ford hid behind taxes to avoid defending his policies.

3) Ad nauseums (repetition)

Like many politicians, Doug Ford repeats the same calculated ad nauseums over and over again whenever he is given a microphone or asked a question about his platform. He repeats that he will “put money into the people’s pocket”, without explaining how he would do this. Will he cut funds from Ontario’s already struggling welfare system? How about Ontario’s health care? He claimed he would help minimum wage workers by giving them a tax cut rather than $15/hr minimum wage—but this will cost minimum wage workers $800 a year. But give Ford a platform and he will shout these talking points incessantly. Media consumers must be cautious of repetitious talking points that have no action plan to back them up.

4) Ad misericordiams (appeals to pity)

In an ad miseriordiam, the speaker tries to win over the other person or argument by making an appeal to the listener’s sympathy or compassion instead of the presenting policy or facts, and we should watch for Doug Ford’s calculated insertion of his father’s and brother’s name and “legacy” when being interviewed or asked a question. Doug Ford is consciously rewriting history, and is committed to gaslighting the Ford name and thereby transforming their family’s 30-year history of austerity—from Doug Ford senior who as Conservative MPP from 1995 to 1999 supported Mike Harris’ devastating attacks on social programs and public sector jobs, to Rob Ford who as Toronto mayor from 2010 to 2014 cut jobs and services—into a vehicle that has “always stood up for the little guy.” He emotionally manipulates the interviewer and public with charming stories of his brother intended to generate pity in the listener, rewrite history and allow Doug Ford to continue his family’s harmful legacy.

5) Non-Sequiturs

A non-sequitur is when the conclusion doesn’t follow from what was said i.e., when the retort is irrelevant or adds very little to support the conclusion. When the Liberal budget included a plan for free licensed daycare for children between 1-1/2 and kindergarten last week, Ford’s response was that “It is amazing how they pledge billions of dollars for children who haven’t been born,” adding “I’m surprised that the finance minister and the premier aren’t up here saying, ‘We’re giving away free cars, we’re going to pay your mortgage — you get a free car, you get a free car, you get a free car.’” Similar to a red herring, Ford’s attacks are diversionary—attacking accessible childcare, a longstanding demand of women’s liberation, by comparing it to the random giving away of cars; these items are non-sequiturs.

Ford’s fallacies are frustrating, but they are also a sign of weakness. To appeal to working class voters tired of Liberal austerity, he clearly can’t run on an open platform of an elite millionaire trying to enrich his fellow 1% by denying minimum wage workers a raise and denying child care. Instead has to rely on ad nauseum talking points and ad hominems attacks while hiding behind red herrings, ad misericordiams and non-sequiturs. This means that movements fighting for working class demands—like $15 and fairness and affordable childcare—can polarize the election on class lines, expose Ford’s real agenda, and channel anger against the Liberals to the left. This also means the NDP can’t cynically attack Liberal progressive promises—which only adds fuel to Ford’s fire—but need to campaign on working class demands that provide an alternative to the left of the corporate Liberals and Tories.

Register today for Join the Resistance: Marxism 2018, a two day conference April 27-28 in Toronto, including the sessions “Workers rising”, “NDP, socialists and elections,” and “Fight for $15 and socialist strategy.”


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