How Ross Perot paved the way for Donald Trump
The first paragraph of H. Ross Perot’s obituary was written decades before his death: He’s a self-made billionaire who became the most successful third-party presidential candidate in nearly a century.
But the legacy of Perot, who died Tuesday at 89 years old, extends well beyond what he did in the 1990s. Perot not only showed Trump how to run as a populist for president but also how to use cable news to build a brand, frame a nationalist agenda around opposing free trade, and, yes, how to use Mexico as a political foil.
Politics is a process. There would be no LBJ without FDR. There wouldn’t be a Reagan revolution without Barry Goldwater. And it’s possible there wouldn’t be a Trump presidency without Perot.
“If Donald Trump is the kind of Jesus of the disenchanted, displaced non-college white voter, then Perot was the John the Baptist of that sort of movement,” Democratic strategist James Carville said in a 2016 podcast.
In the 1992 campaign, Perot exposed and exploited the rift inside the Republican Party between establishment leaders and a more fervent base.
To many in the GOP, President George H.W. Bush was the symbol for a Republican Party of the past — out of tune with the rising religious right, broken promises like supporting new taxes, and supportive of Wall Street in free trade deals. At first, Pat Buchanan ran against all of that in the Republican primaries of 1992. But when it became clear Buchanan would not win, Perot announced in February that he would run, should he get ballot access.
It’s important not to overlook how Perot made that first presidential announcement — on CNN’s “The Larry King Show.” At the time, the primetime show was one of the highest rated on cable.
But Perot went further than other politicians to use evening cable news as a venue to lay out his case (sound familiar yet?). At the time, most other politicians focused on the broadcast news earlier in the evening.
And, more generally, Perot used television a lot for his campaign. He would pay for half-hour television programs (really, political infomercials), during which he would sit in front of a desk and talk about issues such as the national debt — with charts. And, like Trump, he talked at length about problems but offered very little in the way of detailed plans to address them.
Perot, at least for a moment, looked like he might win. A nationwide Gallup poll in July 1992 found Perot to be the front-runner for president with 39 percent, Bush at 31 percent, and then-Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas at 25 percent.
But, strangely, like Trump, the late summer was something of a disaster for Perot’s campaign. Perot wanted to be Perot. He wanted to focus on his branding and declined to heed the advice of aides who argued for a more professional and traditional campaign.
While Trump found himself in the late summer of 2016 dumping Paul Manafort and installing Kellyanne Conway as his campaign manager, Perot fired his ad maker, which led to a major strategist quitting the campaign.
Then, again on “Larry King,” Perot announced he was going to drop out based on some conspiracy theory that a Bush ally at the CIA was going to doctor some photos ahead of the wedding of Perot’s daughter.
Approximately a month later, Perot reentered the race and became the last third-party candidate ever invited to the national general election debates. But Perot never recovered: He received nearly 19 percent of the vote but not a single Electoral College vote in 1992. He finished second in Maine and Utah and third everywhere else.
However, Perot’s media and personality-driven campaign delivered a roadmap for Trump on how a populist could run against the establishment (and against a Bush, no less). In that campaign, Perot’s best-selling book “United We Stand: How We Take Back Our Country” was the item supporters waved at rallies. In 2016, Trump supporters waved similarly phrased Make America Great Again hats.
Perot’s 1996 campaign is even more similar to Trump’s 2016 victory (except, of course, for the end result).
Perot changed his focus from the national debt to opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement and free trade in general. Perot coined the phrase “giant sucking sound” as the result of good American manufacturing jobs being shipped off to Mexico (not the other NAFTA partner, Canada). His campaign became a cultural argument against Mexicans as much as it was an economic one for blue-collar Americans.
Perot, like Trump, also demanded in 1996 that American allies pay more for common defense around the world.
But, if there was one major lesson Trump might have learned from Perot, it was this: Even for a wealthy outsider with populist appeal, it is best to work within the two-party framework.
While Trump flirted with running for president in Perot’s Reform Party in the past, when Trump eventually did run, he did so as a Republican. Trump challenged the establishment from within the GOP — successfully.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the source of a political donation to Trump based on online records from the Federal Election Commission. According to a Perot family spokesperson, the donation to Trump was made by Perot’s son, Ross Perot Jr.