He was a celebrity billionaire who had a flair for getting attention. He was deeply concerned about foreign trade. He had a short temper, an authoritarian streak and didn’t much care for the Bush family.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Ross Perot, who died Tuesday at age 89, is often described as a forerunner of Donald Trump and in many ways, that’s true. But those comparisons are only partly true. The ways they are different are as instructive as the ways they are similar.
Perot’s name today may seem like a quaint memory—like a hit song from a one-hit-wonder band now nearly three decades in the past. Here’s why we remember him, though: For a time in the late spring and early summer of 1992, there seemed a very real chance that this quirky independent might really be the next president of the United States. (If you’re curious, the No. 1 song then was “Jump” by Kris Kross.)
Perot tapped into the same well of discontented voters that Trump later did: He ran best with white men in lower income brackets and who did not have a college degree, what some might call the white working-class. These were voters who once had been part of the Democratic coalition but who had drifted away from the party as the party had drifted away from them. Just because these “Reagan Democrats” had voted for Ronald Reagan didn’t mean they were enamored of President George H.W. Bush. They were a voting bloc up for grabs and Perot, for a time, grabbed them.
In early June 1992, Perot peaked in the polls—39 percent for him, 31 percent for Bush and a mere 25 percent for Democrat Bill Clinton.
Then it all came apart. One of the advertising consultants that Rollins brought in told Perot how much it would cost to buy television time. Perot, it was said, “flipped out” and demanded to know: “Why would I spend that when I could go on the ‘Today’ show for free?” There was no Twitter then, but there was “Today.”
The higher Perot rose in the polls, the more questions he faced about things he hadn’t thought about, or didn’t want to think about. In California, he was heckled to “talk about the issues!” He addressed the national NAACP convention but ham-handedly referred to African-Americans as “you people.” He started slipping in the polls, campaign workers started to quit when he wouldn’t take their advice or sign the loyalty oaths he required. By July Perot quit the race—only to re-enter in October in time to make the debates, including the one in Richmond where Bush infamously checked his watch. In the end, Perot took 18.9% of the vote, the biggest share for any third-party candidate since former President Theodore Roosevelt had attempted a comeback in 1912.
It’s easy to trace a direct line from Perot in 1992 to Trump today. The similarities are too obvious to ignore. But the differences are worth noting, too. Perot’s main issue was the federal deficit, an issue that Trump seems little concerned about. Trump ran to the right, and made an alliance with evangelicals. Perot tried to run in the middle and didn’t much care about social issues. To the extent he did talk about them, he generally came down on the liberal side. He favored abortion rights (“yes, it’s a woman’s choice) and gun control (“I can’t believe the gun lobby wants the crazies to have machine guns.”) He didn’t talk much about immigration at all. Perot was mostly worried about the federal deficit and trade. He wanted to raise taxes on the rich to pay off the national debt and then finance improvements in infrastructure—which made him sound more like a Democrat at times than a Republican.
Perot ran as an independent, and came up short as independents almost always do. Trump’s political genius was to run his insurgent campaign within the Republican Party—and take it over. It’s hard to see Perot doing that with some of his more liberal views. Perot’s campaign did help give birth to the Tea Party movement—which originally was concerned mostly about federal spending—and in that sense led to Trump decades later. But Perot was very different from Trump. Perot’s appearance before the NAACP was rightly criticized but at least he tried to reach out to all Americans; Trump has gloried in dividing them.
Perot was an early version of Trump, but without some of Trump’s key characteristics. Perot tried to marry his economic nationalism to a certain strain of mainstream respectability; for example, his first Virginia campaign stop was supposed to be the College of William & Mary. It was cancelled when he temporarily dropped out. Trump has married his economic nationalism to nativism and a general anti-establishmentarianism. Perot vowed to “get under the hood” to fix the government; Trump has been fine shutting it down.
Perot was what Trump could have been—although it’s probably not lost on Trump that Perot failed to get elected, and he did.