Spite is the least useful, and least attractive, emotional motivation. It’s been fuel for a thousand excellent revenge movies, but it is something pathetic and small and mean in real life. It’s petty, destructive, and often counterproductive.
We know this. It’s the reason our most famous axiom about spite is that it would lead a person to cut off their own nose.
It also appears to be one of the driving forces of our provincial government’s policies and actions. Oh boy.
At first it was easy enough for some people to plausibly pretend that petty vengeance was not the main policy rationale behind some high-profile decisions — I mean, what kind of maniac would you have to be to derail an election and restructure an entire level of government on the fly just to mess with some municipal-level politicians you’ve been carrying a grudge against?
Surely, in the name of the principle of charitable interpretation if nothing else, we could imagine some actual policy rationale that led to those actions, implemented in a rush as if it were a pressing emergency, and then further led to an attempt to hit the constitutional nuclear button of the notwithstanding clause to force it through if the courts hadn’t ruled it legal?
And when three new university campuses were cancelled, including one in Brampton around which a whole new urban revitalization plan had been based, the immediate and obvious suspicion that this was a middle finger raised at new Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown seemed too horrible to entertain.
But we are talking about Doug Ford. Catering to resentment and bringing the fury of hell down on those who have scorned him and his supporters is kind of his brand.
He often openly threatens retaliation on political opponents. Mark Towhey, who served as mayor Rob Ford’s chief of staff, wrote in his book, “Doug is a physical bully. He can be quick to anger, and, when opposed, puffs himself up and attempts direct intimidation — threatening physical violence, or some form of retribution or retaliation.”
It isn’t like this is some secret. For years, many of his supporters, and those of his late brother before him, have not only been aware of this trait, but have considered it one of his most attractive qualities.
On social media, in web comments, in emails and on talk radio, a surprising number of them have expressed to me directly and plainly some variation of, “We love him because he drives you nuts.” That is, his most attractive quality for many very vocal supporters is not what he will do for them, but what he will do to the people they hate.
That’s why his political rhetoric is so laser-focused on “downtown elites” and other imagined enemies: who he is standing up for is less important than who he is taking down. And in the last election, it seemed pretty obvious that voters wanted Kathleen Wynne and the Liberal government she led taken down, and elected Ford to enact revenge as much as for any other reason.
So it has been promised, and so it is being done. If suspicions of petty vindictiveness as a guiding principle of government could be waved away in the early going, this week has made it all the more obvious that it is true.
We learned on Nov. 13 that one of Ford’s most senior advisers made a phone call to get a former Patrick Brown aide fired from his new job. The severance for canning this guy on his first day will reportedly cost taxpayers $500,000. Then, on Nov. 15, his government screwed the Ontario Liberal Party by raising the minimum number of seats a party needs in the legislature to qualify for the official recognition and funding that comes with party status.
Does any of this benefit the people of Ontario? No. It’s not even clear it benefits Ford’s own party and government. As John Michael McGrath wrote in a column over at TVO this week, it’s easy to see how all of this could come back to bite them: “It’s pretty clear that the government is letting its instinct for revenge overpower other considerations — including what’s best for their own party.”
The potential for self-destruction or backfire is exactly why we have so many maxims warning us about revenge. About serving it cold, for example. A government that actually cares about the people it is elected to serve might do well to adapt George Herbert’s famous advice and realize that in the long run, governing well is the best revenge.
But that’s not Ford’s style. He likes his revenge served hot and messy and obvious. Governing well has nothing to do with it.
Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire