Trying to understand the Trump phenomenon, I find myself thinking back to Ross Perot’s third-party presidential campaign of 1992. Trump is sui generis and his campaign has so far been waged within the Republican Party. Yet I can’t help but hear echoes of Ross Perot in Trump’s campaign. I offer the a few casual thoughts in the spirit of inquiry.
Like Trump, his claim to fame was his success as a businessman with a strong patriotic tint. Many of us had first come to know him as the motive force behind the extrication of several of his company’s employees from captivity in — where else? — Iran. Ken Follett had told the story in his best-selling book On Wings of Eagles. His ability to take on Iran (and get things done) seemed to exceed that of the government itself. Today Trump vows to bring the mullahs and China and Russia to heel. He unabashedly asserts the cause of American supremacy.
Perot had long supported the cause of the American prisoners of war in Vietnam. He forged close connections with the community of Vietnam veterans. When it came time to name a vice presidential candidate to run with him, he enlisted retired Admiral James Stockdale (don’t spellcheck me, bro), a former POW of unimaginably heroic virtue.
Concerns about Mexico also fueled the Perot campaign. Perot heard “a giant sucking sound” coming from south of the border and taking American jobs. Today we hear “a giant sucking sound” from north of the border attracting a hefty slice of the population of Mexico. Yesterday I heard Trump decry Ford’s announcement of a new factory to be located in Mexico. I thought the factory might help keep Mexicans in Mexico but Trump condemned it in the spirit of Perot. With his condemnation of China’s trade and monetary policies, Trump also harks back to the protectionism behind some of Perot’s appeal.
Even nearly 25 later, I’m not sure we understand what drove Perot in 1992. Animus toward the first President Bush seemed to have something to do with it. Many of us were angry at Bush for abandoning his no-new-taxes pledge without public remorse or apology in 1990. Our feelings toward Jeb Bush range from apathy to hostility. We are familiar with his take on illegal immigration as an “act of love” and suspect he can’t wait to sell us out in the general election and in office.
Perot surged in 1992, at one point leading both President Bush and Bill Clinton in the polls. He subsequently withdrew and reentered the race. Many of us waited for Perot to fall to earth. He didn’t win, but he took home 19 percent of the vote and may well have swung the election to Clinton.
In retrospect, it seems to me, Perot was symptomatic of President Bush’s weakness. From an approval rating of 90 percent following the Iraq war in 1990 Bush fell to — do you recall? — a pathetic 37.5 percent of the vote on election day. Perot didn’t win the election but it was President Bush who fell to earth.
Many Republicans like me have viewed the field of presidential candidates as remarkably strong, yet Trump’s ascent suggests a deficiency. It may be symptomatic of a weakness among the candidates, especially the politicians seeking the nomination.
Trump certainly reflects the anger of Republican and independent voters who lean Republican. We sense that these politicians can’t wait to sell us out. I refer to Jeb Bush above, but the case of Marco Rubio is also suggestive. He is a compromised character on the subject.
Trump taps into our anger on immigration, Iran, political correctness, and all the rest. He expresses repulsion to “weakness.” He promises strength.
I may change my mind about this later today or tomorrow, and Trump may be falling in the polls. Allahpundit says he is. I thought Trump’s balloon would begin descending after his debut in the big show last week. Perhaps it is. His candidacy lacks the seriousness we look for in public policy. He embarrasses the causes with which he associates himself. At this point, however, the extent to which Trump harks back to the Perot phenomenon suggests a certain staying power on his part and a cause for concern about the prospects of the politicians in the Republican field.
NOTE: I meant to add somewhere that Sean Trende got me thinking along these lines with his column “What to make of Trump’s candidacy?”