Be honest. Did you ever really believe that the foul-mouthed, swirly-coiffed, animate bottle of Tropicana Pure Premium that announced his presidential run by marking the guys who mill about Home Depot parking lots as the greatest threat to Western Civilization since the Barbarians sacked Rome would eventually run neck-and-neck with Hillary Clinton in a race for the White House?
Depending on where you stand politically, the 2016 race is shaping up to be either the election of your sweetest dreams or most abominable nightmares. Following the thinly-veiled Klan rally that was the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, erstwhile reality TV pimp-turned-trucker-hat-sporting Grand Dragon Donald Trump sunk in the polls like a snitch in the Hudson River. Heck, for a few halcyon summer weeks, it seemed like America might emerge from its collective fever swamp and realize that, while by no means perfect or even necessarily desirable, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was the far more stable option over which to hand control of the nuclear arsenals.
Alas, this is America we’re talking about.
As we head into the final stretch of the 2016 election, filled with hotly anticipated presidential debates and last-minute “surprises,” the biggest surprise of all is that the Trump Train just keeps on a rollin.’ What in any other civilized society ought to be a cakewalk for Clinton has turned into a referendum on the wisdom of Democracy. Whereas HRC once dominated the national polls, The Donald has narrowed the race. Moreover, in key battleground states like Ohio and Florida (the only two states that matter in national elections anyway) Trump is staying competitive. Clinton is still favored to win. Heck, even the odds-makers are still betting on Hillary to pull this one off. Nonetheless, there’s a huge a degree of uncertainty in this unorthodox race, so much so that election data nerd Nate Silver contends that, “a clear Trump win — or for that matter, a Clinton landslide — would be more of a problem for the polls.”
Plenty of writers, including your’s truly, have ruminated on what bolt of lightening created the Trumpenstein monster. Despite his decidedly non-political background and blustery personality, The Donald is hardly unprecedented in U.S. politics. His campaign has echoes of William Jennings Bryan, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan. But Trump’s admittedly special personality is a big key to his success. He tells it like is (even though he doesn’t), and he’s not afraid to call out “Political Correctness” for exactly what it is: a group therapy exercise for thin-skinned, privileged white people.
But Trump’s personality is just part of the equation. In fact, while his abrasive, dunder-headed demeanor was tailor-made for 2016’s social media drenched, 24-hour news cycle, braggadocio alone wouldn’t have carried him all the way to the GOP nomination if he hadn’t tapped into a very real undercurrent of anxiety crackling through the American body politic’s gangrenous limbs.
Donald Trump channels frustrations that are hardly new. In fact, they’ve been simmering since at least the early 1990s. Following the economic crash of 2008 and eight years of President Barack Obama serving as a totem for conservative white status anxiety, it makes perfect sense that a guy like Trump would emerge to finally crack open the stale cask of mass American resentment. But there’s one key figure that predated Trump, a guy whose legacy helps draw a direct line from the economic realignments of the late-’80s and early ’90s to the resurgence of economic nationalism that Trump has been gorging on for months: H. Ross Perot.
Ross Perot is a Texas billionaire who made his fortune in computer data collection as head of Electronic Data Systems. He’d long had an interest in politics, and while plenty of independents had gunned for the presidency in the past, Perot was the first to tout his business acumen as a top qualification for the job of chief executive. In this respect, he pioneered Donald Trump and other right-wingers’ now obsessive desire to “run the government like a business.” On the February 20, 1992 broadcast of Larry King Live, Perot entertained the possibility of running for president. He claimed that if his supporters (whom he called “the volunteers”) were willing to collect enough signatures to get him on the ballot in all 50 states, then he would take on the George H.W. Bush-Bill Clinton political duopoly. Perot’s supporters, loosely organized as THRO (for Throw the Bums Out), came through, and the diminutive Texan jumped into the race.
If Donald Trump is the Andrew Dice Clay of American politics, Ross Perot was the cornpone version of Jefferson Smith. He was basically a tycoon technocrat who saw the country as a busted-up coporation in need of a competent CEO at the helm, but he didn’t talk like a technocrat. His Foghorn Leghorn on helium vocal pitch, tractor wheel ears, and hayseed expressions (he once quipped that he entered politics to “clean out the barn”) endeared Perot to Middle America.
Yet voters were drawn to Perot’s populist message in addition to his folksy persona. Like Donald Trump, he railed against entrenched elites and a calcified two-party system that had grown fat and complacent on the American people’s collective dime. The Texan also vowed to fund his own campaign, which he ran like a company advertising its services. Among Perot’s most influential schemes were a series of half-hour, prime-time infomercials, through which he relied on a mountain of pie charts and a heapin’ helping of down-home Texas charm to lay out his plans to restore America’s greatness. He mixed a conservative obsession with reducing the deficit with a liberal penchant for deriding Reagan-style “Voodoo Economics.” In one memorable moment, he brandished a “Voodoo stick” that he received from “a great young lady from Louisiana” to demonstrate how America was in “deep Voodoo.”
But Perot’s biggest bugaboo was NAFTA. The billionaire believed that the North American Free Trade agreement, which Hillary Clinton’s husband, Bill, signed into law in 1993, would decimate America’s working class by creating a global race to the bottom in which American workers simply couldn’t compete with cheaper Third-World labor. When Perot managed to get himself into the 1992 presidential debates, he vowed to renegotiate America’s “one-way trade agreements” and famously claimed that NAFTA would create a “giant sucking sound” as U.S. jobs drained south to Mexico. Perot was so against NAFTA that, in 1993, he debated its merits with newly minted Vice-President Al Gore on Larry King Live.
Perot didn’t win the 1992 presidential race, but he received an impressive 18.91% of the popular vote, especially considering he lacked a party apparatus. He ran again in 1996, but failed to replicate his ’92 numbers.
Contrary to the popular notion, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does echo. The most startling aspect of Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential run is how much Donald Trump has co-opted the squirrely Texan’s anti-free trade rhetoric, even as he’s added a wallop of reactionary nativism that Perot was way too polite to embrace. “Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization – moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas,” Trump stated in a June speech on the economy. “NAFTA was the worst trade deal in history,” the Orange One continued, “it was Bill Clinton who signed NAFTA in 1993, and Hillary Clinton who supported it.”
Both Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign and Donald Trump’s quest for GOP glory in 2016 suggest that American society has yet to decide how it will deal with a globalized economic system in which capital is powerful and mobile while labor is neutered and geographically fixed. The reverberations from the 1990s regarding trade and the role “creative destruction” has played in stoking the nationalist fires on which Trump has poured political kerosene make the 2016 election a referendum on the past as well as the future. For their part, the American political establishment ought to ask themselves why it’s taken the uncouth ravings of eccentric billionaires to highlight the plight of workers who’ve been shortchanged by the march of globalism.
Ross Perot was fond of asking TV hosts to let him finish. He ultimately didn’t finish first in the 1992 election, but the fact that Donald Trump just might finish by embracing Perot’s decades-old positions should be cause for concern to everyone who’s afraid of a very real “giant sucking sound.”