Perot mined disillusionment in much the same way Trump has, but he was far more disciplined.
Americans like an outsider, an underdog, an unlikely hero. Perhaps our love for the passionate rogue stems all the way back to the 1700s when we began to rebel against British rule. Regardless, it’s a part of our culture. Conversely, a fear of change is interwoven in our national DNA as well. These two conflicting approaches are consistently at odds. There’s those who want to turn everything to ash and hit restart and those who prefer the incremental, kick-the-can-down-the-road approach.
In the presidential election of 1992, Ross Perot, a billionaire from Texas rose from utter obscurity to garner 18.9% of the popular vote. Nearly 20 million Americans pulled the level for the folksy third-party candidate—the best showing since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. It’s worth nothing that despite the historic showing from Perot, he did not win a single state and thus, did not receive any electoral votes. But still, it was a remarkably impressive showing, especially when you take into account that Perot dropped out of the race in July, only to re-enter in October.
Trump and Perot have a few obvious things in common. They’re both anti-trade billionaires (see:giant sucking sound) with no political experience who found success rallying against the establishment. And they were both, despite their massive wealth, able to appeal to common, disgruntled Americans. Of course, Perot—because he wasn’t beholden to a major political party—was able to run on a platform customized to his exact views. He was pro-choice and his entire campaign was centered around lowering the national debt, stopping the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and keeping jobs in the country.
Trump’s platform was also built around two main issues: immigration and trade. And in the beginning he kept it simple: Illegal immigration is a problem, I’ll solve it. Trade is a problem, I’ll solve it. He did not mince words, he did not speak like a politician. He may not have offered much in the way of specifics, while Perot on the other hand, would dive into these issues using graphs and charts during half-hour campaign infomercials, but it didn’t matter, by-in-large voters aren’t very wonky—simplicity works. He spoke to people who felt slighted; he ignited a fervor by stoking fear and squeezing every bit of juice he could from alt-right talking points. It’s what led to Trump winning the primary and its what could’ve propelled him to the white house. But he muddled his message and pushed it to the back page as his personal failures, corrosive demeanor and lack of maturity took the spotlight.
If Trump would’ve taken the Perot model and stuck with it, he could’ve won. Sure he still could, but it seems more unlikely with each week. His ego and his lack of tact and subtlety have led directly to his plunge in the polls. He followed up a moderately successful, although significantly calamitous convention by going after a Gold Star family. He asked Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email. He said Russia’s “not going into the Ukraine,” but they’ve been there since 2014. He suggested Hillary Clinton could be stopped by “Second Amendment people,” which was a thinly-veiled assassination prompt. These are just a few lowlights, and there’s been a cadre of distractions since, even if we omit the Access Hollywood video—which would’ve likely come out regardless of his behavior.
While these gaffes and moments of loose speak may have caused his devoted base to double-down their support, it turned off many dejected republicans who were looking for a reason to go with Trump, as well as many conservative-leaning independents pining for a moment of revelation. Perot was a wacky dude, he was an eccentric Texan who didn’t feel the need to fit into any so-called presidential mold, but he stayed on message. When people thought of Ross Perot, and what he’d do for the country, it was always about lowering the debt and squashing NAFTA. Sure, it was also about his twangy, melodic voice, his big ears, his quirky sayings, and Dana Carvey’s brilliant impression, but on the issues, everything was pretty clear and focused. If Trump would’ve stuck to immigration and trade, studied up a bit on foreign policy and maintained his composure this thing would’ve been very close.
But his petulance knows no bounds. He flails like a child, helplessly stimulated by everything around him, unable to ignore useless distractions and stay on course.
If he stuck to his message without bending, while continually hitting Hillary on her valid and perceived failures, and her overall lack of transparency, who knows what this race would look like.
To pull this off he needed to be laser-focused, and extremely disciplined.
He was/is neither.
For a great rundown of the ’92 election and Perot’s disputed influence on the results, check out FiveThiryEight’s documentary The Ross Perot Myth.
by Jesse Mechanic
Jesse Mechanic is the editor in chief of The Overgrown.