Perot and Trump — two of a kind
Ross Perot, a billionaire businessman from Texas and a two-time candidate for the US presidency, died last week. Though he had been absent from the national stage for more than 20 years, his death reminded the country of his contribution to the political scene. In many ways, President Donald Trump’s rise to political success can be traced to Perot’s actions in the 1990s. Today, a new wave of non-politician candidates in the Democratic Party can also trace their opportunities to Perot.
In 1992, Perot ran for president as an independent candidate. That means he was not attached to a political party. He was not a Republican, a Democrat or a third party member. Almost 20 percent of voters chose Perot in 1992, but he lost to Bill Clinton, with incumbent President George H.W. Bush coming in second. In 1996, Perot ran again, this time at the head of the new Reform Party, but he received less than 10 percent of the vote. Though Perot could not win the presidency without an affiliation with one of the two major political parties — the last president from a different party was Millard Fillmore in 1853 — he did disrupt the election by speaking to the needs of many Americans. It is commonly believed that Perot’s candidacy in 1992, in particular, swayed the election in favor of Clinton by taking votes from Bush.
Though he failed to win political success in the 1990s, Perot was a forerunner of the modern political scene in America. In 1992 and 1996, Perot ran on two main issues: The economy and avoiding unnecessary military conflict. Two decades later, Trump did the same. Perot recognized that there was a push by the establishment in both parties to make it easier for businesses to move their jobs outside of the US. He opposed this strategy, which had actually started more than a decade earlier, and he warned America that it would lead to great suffering in the American heartland. He was right, and it did. The US lost so many manufacturing jobs in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that whole towns were impoverished.
When Trump ran for office in 2015 and 2016, he promised the return of manufacturing jobs. This has been a major effort of his administration from the start. Manufacturing jobs are essential to a healthy economy. It is not possible to employ everyone with service sector, creative and high-end jobs. Today, Trump argues that the US buys too many goods that are manufactured abroad, in countries like China and Mexico. Fixing this trade imbalance is the motivating force behind much of what the Trump administration does.
Perot ran on two main issues: The economy and avoiding unnecessary military conflict. Two decades later, Trump did the same.
Ellen R. Wald
Perot’s campaigns also addressed overseas military engagements. Perot was a veteran of the US Navy who devoted much of his adult life to assisting veterans of the Vietnam War. The 1992 campaign season began shortly after the US and its allies drove Iraq out of Kuwait in the first Gulf War. That conflict had led to an impressive fervor of American patriotism and pride, but Perot warned against unnecessary military entanglements. He warned that the US military could be used to advance corporate interests or the interests of foreign countries. He also warned against using the US military without clear objectives. When Trump ran for office, he echoed much of the same. Perot’s warnings appeared eerily prescient after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Perot left another mark on presidential politics. Outside of his stint in the Navy as a young man, he had not been a government employee. Until 2017, every president had received a paycheck from either the US government or a government of one of the states before becoming president. Perot’s supporters saw him as a new concept — a businessman, not a bureaucrat or politician. When Trump started his campaign in 2015, his supporters felt the same. Trump was a man who had never been paid by the government. He had made his own money in the private sector. He did not have the baggage of government.
Now, on the Democratic side, there are several candidates who have been inspired by Perot and Trump. There are three Democratic candidates for president with no prior government experience. They are all hoping to present themselves as outsiders. There is Andrew Yang, an attorney and businessman with no government experience. He has a populist economic view, but also espouses some radical ideas like originally supporting a ban on circumcision. Marianne Williamson is a new age author who shocked audiences at the first debate when she spoke about the need to win the election with “love.” Then there is Tom Steyer, who just recently entered the race. Steyer is a billionaire hedge fund manager who has promoted two main goals: Fighting climate change and impeaching Trump.
Howard Schultz, the billionaire founder of Starbucks, has also flirted with running for president as an independent. As a candidate unaffiliated with either political party, Schulz would face the same impossible odds as Perot did. Yet, of all the outsider candidates, he is the most likely to shake up the election. He is serious enough to get votes, while Steyer, Williamson and Yang will not reach the general election. Ultimately, though, none of them have the brashness and boldness of Perot or Trump. Perhaps Perot and Trump were just two of a kind.
- Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy