Republicans Were Trumpy Long Before TrumpRoundup
tags: Republican Party, Donald Trump, Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan
Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Rogers Center for the American Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.
In February 1992, a small, graying man in a slightly wrinkled suit eased himself into a seat across from the television host Larry King. Larry King Live was the hottest show on cable news—mostly because it was the top-rated show on CNN, the only cable-news channel widely available in the U.S. at the time. And so it was there that a reedy-voiced Texan announced that he would run for president if and only if his supporters got him on the ballot in all 50 states.
Thus began the improbable rise of Ross Perot, the billionaire presidential candidate who threw the 1992 presidential campaign into disarray, first by entering as an independent, then by dropping out just a few months before the election, and finally by jumping back in with only a month left to go. Despite his erratic campaign, he captured nearly 20 percent of the vote: the best showing for a third-party presidential candidate in 80 years.
The Perot phenomenon was more than a curiosity of the 1992 campaign. It revealed a political culture in crisis, one reeling from the end of the Cold War, profound economic shifts, a rapidly transforming media landscape, and a newly empowered generation of women and nonwhite Americans. It also revealed a frustrated and malleable electorate with loose ties to the major parties and their platforms.
It was a moment that mattered because of both the discontent and the possibilities it highlighted. And although Perot was an independent, his run sheds light on the current state of the Republican Party. People curious about the dramatic changes in the party over the past several years often start with the 2016 election, but they would do better to look back to 1992. In that election, as well as in the years that followed, the party sketched out a path designed to attract disillusioned voters not through the flexible, heterodox politics of the Perot campaign but through a hard-right, reactionary politics made palatable by a new style of political entertainment and a deepening anti-establishment posture. That path led to the election of Donald Trump, which by the 2010s was not only a possible outcome of the choices the right had made in the 1990s, but one that had been a long time coming.
The 1992 election, the first after the end of the Cold War, came after a decade of Republican successes. Ronald Reagan won two terms as president in back-to-back landslides, and his vice president, George H. W. Bush, won in 1988 in a landslide of his own. But by the early 1990s, the electorate was frustrated, if not furious. The adrenaline spike of the Gulf War, which sent Bush’s approval rating into record-high territory, vanished as the economy stuttered into a recession.
That recession was compounded by broader domestic shifts and the new geopolitical reality of the post–Cold War world. California, which had been particularly reliant on the Cold War to fuel its universities and aerospace industry, felt the collapse the hardest. But the pain was also felt by factory workers, who were caught in a decades-long shift to service and information-sector work. Added to the frustrations of the recession was genuine uncertainty about what role, if any, the U.S. should play in the world now that the Cold War was over. The Gulf War had been a short, triumphal affair, but as it faded from the headlines, it offered few answers about what should follow.
But Pat Buchanan did have answers. Buchanan, a former communications director in the Reagan White House and a popular television personality, felt unconstrained by party orthodoxies. He had long professed his belief that the “biggest vacuum in American politics today is to the right of Ronald Reagan,” and he set out to prove that in his 1992 campaign for the Republican nomination. He ran well to the right of Bush, not just taking hard-line positions on issues such as immigration (he called for a “Buchanan fence” at the border) and affirmative action but also resurrecting themes of the Old Right of the 1930s and ’40s: a closed, cramped vision of an America that needed to be protected from foreign trade, foreign people, and foreign entanglements. He carried out an “America First” campaign that argued against U.S. involvement abroad and denounced free-trade deals such as the newly negotiated North American Free Trade Agreement.
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