Before signing on as the Toronto Star’s Washington D.C. correspondent, Daniel Dale was one of the reporters covering Rob Ford’s shocking rise and even more shocking tenure as mayor. How did all that time studying (and occasionally battling) Toronto’s bombastic leader prepare him for the Grand Poobah of political bombast? We spoke with Dale about Trump’s appeal, his hair and why hating the media is a solid campaign strategy.
How did your time reporting on Rob Ford prepare you for the task of reporting on Trump? Presumably you agree there are some striking similarities.
I think it made me more inclined to take Trump seriously earlier than some other journalists did. I went to a Trump rally in Virginia, in October 2015, and talked to some of the people there. I felt their utter devotion to this man, and it reminded me so much of the devotion many Ford supporters had and still have. And then there have been a whole bunch of developments in the Trump saga that have been so similar to the Ford saga. The moment when I really felt it was when Trump said, “I could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and I wouldn’t lose any supporters,” and I thought, where have I heard that before? It was almost verbatim the Doug Ford quote from 2010 about Rob Ford being able to strangle someone on the steps of city hall and still win the election.
You have spent a lot of time with Trump’s diehard base. What can you tell us about these people and why they love him?
The first thing a lot of them mentioned was not illegal immigrants or Muslims or anything else to do with race or religion or security. It was that Trump, in their view, cannot be bought. He has perpetuated this myth that he has self-funded his campaign, and that seems to be the biggest selling point. These people are so sick of conventional politics. This man is a pure, untarnished saviour. That was really eye-opening.
Last night, Trump called reporters “disgusting,” which is hardly the worst thing he’s had to say about members of the media. How does his disdain for the press affect your ability to do your job?
There have definitely been reporters who have had trouble. A reporter recently said she’d been surrounded and jeered by Trump supporters in the press pen at a rally. A photographer was choke-slammed by the Secret Service at a rally. And a CBS reporter of Indian descent has faced racism from Trump supporters who’ve accused him of being an ISIS spy and told him to go “back” to Iraq. Personally I have found Trump supporters very personable, even as they are espousing these views—like one guy who told me that all Muslims should be rounded up and sent to camps in New Mexico. I think about my white male privilege when I’m interviewing them. Based on some of the things they say, I don’t know how they would respond to a black reporter or a Spanish reporter.
Is Trump’s open contempt for the media a strategic move? It was certainly a page in the Ford playbook.
I think it’s partly strategy and partly the fact that people like Trump have found they can get away with insulting the media without consequence, so why not? Trump can say whatever he wants. The way he attacks reporters by name as well as by outlet is something that you don’t generally see. That really reminds me of what Ford did on talk radio. I think in America, and also in Canada, there is a lot of mistrust in the media. For Trump’s base, the media is this out-of-touch institution that ignores them and takes the side of the elite. Having this powerful person attack the media in this no-holds-barred, very vicious kind of way is appealing, and it signals that their guy is not willing to kowtow to other powerful institutions.
Say you’ve been given five minutes with Donald Trump. What do you ask him about?
The most important question right now is what he actually believes. I think there is a real sense among Republicans that they have no idea how this man would govern. I would ask him, are you really planning to attempt to ban Muslims or is this just a very cynical attempt to rile up this anti-Muslim base? Do you plan to make a real effort to deport illegal immigrants? Are you actually a conservative or are you playing one on TV? When you think about campaign promises, usually they’re a good indication of how a candidate would govern. But in this case, we just really don’t know.
Last question: So many reporters have attempted to describe Trump’s hair. Care to take a turn?
Oh my gosh, oh my gosh. I never thought I would have to vividly describe it. I would say it’s a flowy inexplicable flouf of tousled blondness.