As a prepubescent political addict, I remember sitting down with my family to watch Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign infomercials. Yes, they may have been decidedly lo-fi and laughable by today’s standards, but most of us had never seen anything like them: half-hour lectures on the national debt and public policy, all appearing on major networks in prime time.
I was hardly alone. As Time magazine noted upon his death at the age of 89 on Tuesday, “More people watched his lecture on the economy that aired in early October 1992 than the baseball play-off game that came on next.”
I began to pay attention to politics during that era — and in a way, it’s difficult to imagine Ross Perot is dead. I know, he was a year short of 90, and 27 years have passed since that seminal campaign. It’s difficult not to imagine the self-made Texas billionaire, a preternatural ball of energy, explaining a chart about pork-barrel spending to you in that inexorably folksy manner of his.
The Perot campaign was inarguably a harbinger of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential run, and not just because both gave the Republican Party establishment a collective case of angina. Both were billionaires, both had never held elective office and neither even bothered to try to fit himself into the mold of a normal politician.
“If Donald Trump is the Jesus of the disenchanted, displaced non-college white voter, then Perot was the John the Baptist of that sort of movement,” James Carville put it during a podcast in 2016.
And, as one of his final political acts upon this Earth, John the Baptist decided to give some of what he had to Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
“In March, as Perot battled leukemia, in the last documented political act of his life, he wrote two checks for the legal maximum amount to Trump’s campaign for president, including for the general election next year,” The Boston Globe reported Tuesday.
The Globe wasn’t alone in noting the similarities between the two men and their campaigns, particularly when Perot ran a second time in 1996 — although, being The Boston Globe, you can probably guess the slant here.
“Perot’s 1996 campaign is even more similar to Trump’s 2016 victory (except, of course, for the end result),” The Globe’s James Pindell wrote.
“Perot changed his focus from the national debt to opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement and free trade in general,” Pindell said. “Perot coined the phrase ‘giant sucking sound’ as the result of good American manufacturing jobs being shipped off to Mexico (not the other NAFTA partner, Canada). His campaign became a cultural argument against Mexicans as much as it was an economic one for blue-collar Americans.
“Perot, like Trump, also demanded in 1996 that American allies pay more for common defense around the world.”
A somewhat more sympathetic write-up at National Review by Michael Brendan Dougherty called Perot the “Morning Star of Trumpism” — although he did accuse Perot of a “conspiratorial mindset.”
“Perot ran against the developing consensus politics of Washington, D.C., in 1992 and 1996 just as that consensus was becoming aware of itself. In some ways, he was running against the consensus of mass democracies,” Dougherty wrote. “He ran on raising taxes and lowering spending. He ran against waste.
“With Perot running outside the two-party system, his candidacies became the repository of frustrations from every corner of American life. ‘I don’t have any experience in running up a $4 trillion debt. I don’t have any experience in gridlock government, where nobody takes responsibility for anything and everybody blames everybody else,’ he said in a debate. The U.S. debt is now over $22 trillion.”
He concluded by noting that “Perot’s death was greeted with well-wishing and statements of admiration from his former political rivals. In his final public interview, Perot was asked to sum up his legacy. He replied ‘Texas born. Texas bred. When I die, I’ll be Texas dead. Ha!'”
And that he was. He was also a political Cassandra, a man who knew where the debt-spiral was going and where traditional party politics would take us. When he took 18.9 percent of the vote in 1992, it was a minor miracle. (It also ensured he probably wasn’t going to be invited to any parties thrown by members of the Bush family.)
Now, it would take an ocean of money to mount a third-party challenge that was even remotely that successful — not that it didn’t back then, but Hillary Clinton and her super PACs raised $1.2 billion in 2016 only to lose, making her husband’s 1992 campaign look positively quaint by comparison.
Perot was so much more than just a presidential candidate with a lot of money who left footprints on the political landscape quite out of proportion to his 5-foot-5 frame. He founded Electronic Data Systems, helped Steve Jobs fund his first company after his ouster at Apple in 1985, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and started the Reform Party — the party under which Donald Trump first considered running for president back in 2000. That’s a pretty impressive resume for anyone’s lifetime.
But, if he’s remembered as the first apostle of the kind of populism that would culminate in the Trump administration, you get the feeling he wouldn’t have minded, at least with his donations.
It sure beats being remembered for those infomercials, given how they’ve aged.
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