The Psychology of the Rob Ford Nation

Meet Toronto’s Mayor

If you haven’t been following, Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford has been faced with both allegations and undeniable proof in some cases, that he has done a number of unseemly things of late. From chronic drinking and “occasional” drug use to death threats, Rob Ford is challenging his City of Toronto. Interestingly, Ford supporters—known as the Ford Nation—have not abandoned the Mayor. As the Toronto Mayoral race begins to pick up steam, I can’t help but ask, What is the psychology of the Ford supporter?

Politics aside, there is a huge learning lesson to be had here. Torontonians have front row seats to an awesome display of human psychology 101. If I had to boil this all down to one idea it would have to be, the Ford nation (like many of us) can’t stand to be wrong.

Now, if this statement bugs you, pisses you off, irritates you—however you may characterize it—good! It should upset you. If you’re a Ford supporter and the bold statement above makes you feel attacked, or if you dislike Ford and get riled up over the above statement, you should read on to learn why.

Rob Ford, the simple man

What is most appealing about Ford is his simplicity. He isn’t cut from the same cloth as many politicians. He’s rudimentary, cut and dry, and uncomplicated. In his simplicity, there doesn’t appear to be any tricks or manipulation—unlike what many of us are used to seeing politicians lob at us every day. But, as Steve Jobs said, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” In other words, there is a lot more driving the Ford supporter than s/he may think. Because it is so simple, there appear to be no tricks. And because there appear to be no tricks, we take our guard down. This first step is crucial to successful manipulation. In all fairness to Mr.Ford, I firmly believe he isn’t tricking anyone consciously. But, we have all been tricked.

The psychology of validation

The first psychological principle or trick here is validation. Mayor Rob Ford and the saga that has enveloped him in the past many months isn’t really a political game at all. People who voted for him think they did because they agree with his politics but that is simply not the case—at least not for most of his supporters. Most of Ford’s votes were cast for the man not the politician. Even if you like his politics, it’s the “Rob Ford spin” that many find attractive. In fact, there are many examples that his policy record doesn’t align with his political reputation. So, even if folks want to think so, Ford’s popularity isn’t about his policy stance.

There is something basic in the man that gives many people a source of personal validation. The mere presence of Rob Ford on the political landscape validates the existence of many individuals and their political opinions. Rob Ford makes people who are tired of apologizing feel like they have a ring leader. There are people who don’t like to speak with political correctness, people who don’t always have the right words, and people who are tired of feeling beaten down by a political system that they feel robs them of their tax dollars and panders to the down town core not the suburbs. Rob Ford validates his supporters’ existence by being an average Joe. And everyone is a sucker for validation!

Personal values unite people

The second principle to consider is personal values. While many politicians carefully craft their every statement, Rob Ford doesn’t pander to anyone. Rob Ford supporters, like Rob Ford himself, are tired of being sold something artificial. Mr. Ford is simply himself. He doesn’t play a game of policy—in fact, his policies often don’t reflect his promises—he plays a game of personal values. The values he championed during his election were simple enough and universal enough, they touched the core of many individuals. In simply being who he is, he brings out the core values and beliefs upon which many people have proudly built their lives.

What are those values? I’ve asked a number of his supporters and I hear responses like, “He speaks his mind.” “He means what he says.” “He doesn’t take other people’s sh*t.” “He’s honest.” That sounds perfectly likable to me. Who can disagree with operating values such as these? More importantly here, these are values individuals would use to describe themselves. In this way, the Ford Nation wasn’t voting for Rob, they were voting for themselves and the values by which they live. A powerful trick indeed.

Honour your words

The third psychological principle or trick is consistency. Hard wired into all humans is the need to honour what we’ve said in the past. Research proves that when individuals set a goal, the chance of success greatly improves when we repeat the goal many times, write it down, and tell more and more people. This is perfect for Rob Ford. He stirs so much controversy that every single one of his voters has likely had to explain or defend his/her choice to support Ford at least once. And every time you have to defend your viewpoint, your stance becomes harder and harder to shake. You have to be consistent because, after all, “good” folks are reliable.

For a man who has faltered so many times, Ford has given his supporters countless opportunities to remind themselves why they stood by him in the first place. And every time they do, their brains grow more and more loyal to him on a subconscious level. Once you’ve made a decision, you rarely rethink it. Changing your mind would require that you override your brain’s usual mode of operation. Standing up for Rob Ford becomes an exercise is standing up for oneself.

Survival of the … most correct individuals

The final principle I’ll write about today is survival. Each and every one of us is built with a modern brain (the cortex) and a lizard brain (the limbic system). While our cortex analyzes everything, the lizard brain keeps things simple and instinctual. One thing that is vitally important to know about the lizard brain is that it can equate being wrong with death. This is one reason we have a predisposition to want to be right. This is why we take our beliefs as Truths. This is why people die for their beliefs. This need for survival accounts for some of our most instinctual behaviours.

To have supported Rob Ford this long only to discover you’re wrong is very difficult for the lizard brain to process. Without a second thought, your auto pilot kicks in and you want to stand by your initial decision. Your modern cortex knows better than to think changing your mind would mean death, but this is all happening in your subconscious where your lizard brain often rules the day.

If you support Rob Ford because any of the above principles apply to you, it makes changing your mind that much harder.

1. If Rob Ford being in politics validates your political voice… changing your mind means overcoming the fear that you don’t have a place in politics or valid political ideas about your community.

2. If Rob Ford’s values align with your values… changing your mind means accepting your good values likely exist alongside some inner weaknesses.

3. If you pride yourself on being reliable and consistent, meaning what you say, being a wo/man of your word… changing your mind means accepting that you’re not always right and sometimes you have to break your word.

4. If your lizard brain is fighting to survive… changing your mind means forcing yourself to feel safe in spite of feeling weak and wrong.

Turning your back on Mayor Ford can feel a little like turning your back on yourself.

Most interestingly, Rob Ford is going through this very psychological battle along with you. And he may be doing so while also battling addiction, rejection, and fears about his self worth. Overcoming the tricks our brain plays on us is very hard to do. It is even impossible for some. The only fool proof way to beat your subconscious in this game is to know the psychology. While you’ve faced some of it in reading this article, I fear Rob Ford has little awareness. He is at the mercy of his lizard brain.

Have I upset you?

Earlier I wrote that this should upset you. I wrote that knowing full well, that if this upsets you, than this article hits a particular chord for you. I won’t pretend to know the psychology of all Ford followers, but I know the principles explained here are universal. We get bothered when we hit our psychological and emotional limits. This is a great thing, because these are the boundaries we must push in order to grow stronger and smarter. If you never hit these limits and embrace the discomfort that comes with it, you simply aren’t growing as a person.

If any of this strikes a chord…

It take a stronger person to fight the lizard brain and the psychological tricks I’ve listed here than it takes to fall for them. There is pride in swallowing your pride because only the strongest can do it. It takes inner strength to be objective. And I believe if you want to be strong, you can be.

The last thing I want to offer is the same thing I would say to Rob Ford himself: If you could speak to yourself 50 years from now and ask for advice, what would the older you tell the you of today? If you can answer that question honestly, I think your discomfort will go away because you already know what you need to do, you already know what you truly believe at your core. You don’t need me to tell you.


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The Psychology of the Rob Ford Nation
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