“I understand good times and I understand bad times. I mean, why is a politician going to do a better job than I am?” – Donald J. Trump on NBC’s Meet The Press, October 1999
You could be forgiven for thinking that 2016 was the first time Donald Trump ran for President of the United States. Much was made about the Republican nominee’s lack of political experience, and his campaign certainly looked the part. The candidate regularly ignored the consensus and orders of Republican leadership, staffers were kicked out seemingly at random, and the campaign’s ground game consisted of little more than eye-catching rallies. Of course, Trump’s unorthodox campaign was ultimately enough to win him the presidency in violation of all political wisdom. But his campaign wasn’t quite as unprecedented as it’s made out to be, either.
During this election, surprisingly little attention was given to the first presidential campaign of Donald Trump–no, not this year’s, but his campaign for the Reform Party nomination in 2000. Granted, Trump’s first run for President wasn’t much to write home about, as his campaign lasted just four months and the Reform Party was little more than a footnote in the election. The eventual Reform Party nominee, Pat Buchanan, captured less than 1% of the national popular vote on Election Day. In the mythos built up around the 2000 presidential election, pundits and historians have been much more interested in debates over the Electoral College, Bush v. Gore, and Ralph Nader than the meager implications of the Reform Party.
But Pat Buchanan’s Reform campaign in 2000 was a remnant of a powerful wave of populism that swept the nation eight years earlier. Populist movements already had a proud tradition in American history, periodically resurging in national politics every couple of decades. The mid-nineteenth century witnessed the rise of the nativist Know-Nothing Party; the turn of the century saw the radical anti-bank campaigns of William Jennings Bryan; and in the 1960s, Alabama Governor George Wallace militantly defended Southern “states’ rights” and segregation. In the 1992 presidential election, another populist wave motivated by economic nationalism, cultural conservatism, and rabid anti-elitism propelled two fringe candidates to the front of the race and threatened to upend American political orthodoxy. Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, though far more successful than the movements which came before it, simply picked up where the last wave of populism left off a quarter-century before.
1992: Pat Buchanan Takes On Washington
President George H. W. Bush was in poor shape entering the 1992 presidential election. Just a year earlier, President Bush had become a national hero due to his decisive leadership in the Operation Desert Storm campaign to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. But the President had seen his approval ratings plummet since their high of 89% in early 1991. Bush infamously recanted on his 1988 campaign promise–“Read my lips: no new taxes”–by signing on tax increases to address the climbing federal deficit, costing him dearly among voters who once admired his integrity and commitment to the middle-class. The nation was struggling to recover from a recession, leaving many in doubt of the President’s ability to lead the country through economic crisis. Bush was also developing a reputation as an out-of-touch elitist, egged on by incidents including a clip that appeared to show the President marveling at a mundane supermarket scanner. Incumbent presidents rarely face serious challenges for their party’s nomination, but in 1992 one candidate saw an opportunity to take on George Bush: Pat Buchanan, a right-wing commentator and former advisor and speechwriter to Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Pat Buchanan’s campaign against President Bush rings awfully familiar to modern ears. Buchanan described his campaign as “America first,” claiming a need for “a new nationalism” that would defend the American worker first and foremost heading into the 21st century. Buchanan attacked free trade deals that the United States signed with other nations and decried manufacturing jobs being outsourced to Japan. He called for a shutdown of immigration to the United States to prevent American jobs from being stolen by foreign labor. He rejected George Bush’s conception of an American-lead “New World Order” after the fall of the Soviet Union, asserting that the United States should stay out of unnecessary foreign conflicts and focus on domestic issues. Buchanan also railed against Washington elites, admonishing President Bush’s lack of energy and “vision.” He called for a “law and order” response to the crime wave seizing the nation, drawing criticism for racially suggestive comments he’d made in the past. And he undertook what he later coined as the “culture war,” attacking multiculturalism and liberal sensibilities–an obvious precursor to Trump’s assault on political correctness, albeit based more in conservative Christianity than deliberate vulgarity.
Buchanan’s message hit home in New Hampshire, a state roiling from the recession and the first stop in the Republican primaries. Voters in the state, fraught with economic worries, were drawn to Pat Buchanan’s promise to restore American jobs and economic power. New Hampshire was also flooded with ads attacking President Bush’s dishonesty for caving on his “no new taxes” pledge, sinking his reputation in the state. Buchanan won 37% of the vote in the New Hampshire primaries, including over half of independents and most of the 30% of voters who said they wanted to “send a message to the White House.” Buchanan’s showing in New Hampshire was also his best; after giving President Bush a severe rattling in the first primary, Pat Buchanan’s campaign began to lose steam for the rest of the race. Buchanan won 22% of the total Republican primary vote to Bush’s 72.5%. The President emerged victorious in the Republican primary, but not without some serious fatigue. Later on at the Republican National Convention, Buchanan gave a concession speech touching on several familiar refrains. He assailed the “radical feminism” of future First Lady Hillary Clinton, criticized the Democratic Party for elitist pro-free trade policies, and called for Americans to “take back our country” in the wake of the Los Angeles riots, describing the city like a war zone.
Pat Buchanan was not the only challenger to the political establishment in 1992. Though many in the nation were looking for a change from President Bush, the Democratic nominee wasn’t proving to be a very appealing alternative. Emerging from a hard-fought and bitter primary, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was already battling an unsavory reputation due to his involvement in the Whitewater housing scheme and accusations of sexual impropriety from multiple women. Many Americans, dissatisfied with both major parties, found themselves supporting Ross Perot, an eccentric Texas billionaire and independent candidate who announced he would run for President on CNN’s Larry King Live in February. Much like Buchanan before him, Perot campaigned on a protectionist economic plan to restore American jobs and a strong response to the crime wave, all the while railing against Washington elites and government corruption.
Ross Perot began his national campaign with a huge wave of support, leading in several polls taken in early summer of 1992. But just as his lead was surging in July, Perot unexpectedly suspended his campaign due to a bizarre alleged blackmail plot involving his daughter’s upcoming wedding, only re-entering the race a few weeks before the general election. Despite his months-long absence from the race, Perot still won 19% of the popular vote, the best of any third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose run in 1912. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton was elected President with 43% of the popular vote, the smallest share by a winning president since Woodrow Wilson.
The Aftermath of 1992
Pat Buchanan wasn’t ready to rest after his 1992 defeat. He ran in the Republican primaries again in 1996, this time facing off against Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. Though Buchanan had a better-organized campaign in his second run, he still couldn’t keep up with Senator Dole, capturing just 21% of the total primary vote in a distant second to Dole’s 59%. However, Buchanan’s second campaign found a stronger audience in the industrial Midwest, where he pulled 34% of the primary vote in both Michigan and Wisconsin. Blue-collar voters, concerned about their economic future, were drawn again to Buchanan’s rhetoric about an “America first” economy that would protect the working-class and sympathized with his distrust of immigration and multiculturalism. Though Buchanan was defeated for a second time, his campaign laid a blueprint for a populist candidate to court working-class voters in regions like the Rust Belt by appealing to economic nationalism and anti-elitism.
Ross Perot also ran again in 1996, this time on the Reform Party ticket after establishing the party himself a year earlier. But the less conservative and more reform-minded crowd that Perot captured four years ago had largely come around to President Clinton, who was by then quite popular nation-wide and easily leading the race. Perot was able to win 8% of the popular vote–not a bad performance for a third-party candidate in the greater scheme of history, but a marked drop from his much more successful 1992 campaign.
The populist wave began to seriously wane after 1996. President Bill Clinton’s popularity was only continuing to increase, and a period of immense economic growth left a satisfied country less skeptical of globalism and multiculturalism. The Reform Party would face a serious crisis of character in 2000; without Ross Perot’s magnetism to unify it, many feared the primary could become a free-for-all of fringe candidates in search of a party. Pat Buchanan eventually won the Reform Party nomination, but not without enduring a bizarre and dramatic primary which at points involved Donald Trump calling Buchanan a “Hitler lover” and a counter-convention organized by John Hagelin supporters following his primary loss. Buchanan attracted just a fraction of the voters he won over in the Republican primaries, ultimately winning 0.43% of the popular vote.
The radical populist movement appeared to die off after the Reform Party’s dismal performance in 2000. After Pat Buchanan’s challenges to the Republican Party in 1992 and 1996, following primaries would be largely dominated by mainstream conservatives like George W. Bush and John McCain. Ron Paul was probably the closest successor to Pat Buchanan, a staunch libertarian with a devoted cult following who entered the Republican primaries in 2008 and 2012, but he never posed much more than a headache to party leaders. The Tea Party movement, a hard-right grassroots movement motivated by economic conservatism and anti-establishment rhetoric, briefly threatened to challenge Republican orthodoxy during Barack Obama’s presidency. However, so-called “tea-party whisperers” like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio were effective at bridging the gap between Republican leadership and the newest popular conservative movement, helping to preserve party order.
At least, until this year. After lying dormant for nearly a quarter-century, the radical populist movement once led by Pat Buchanan returned with a vengeance to elect Donald Trump President of the United States. Trump’s presidential campaign focused on many of the same issues that Buchanan did in 1992: economic protectionism, backlash against multiculturalism or “political correctness,” resentment of the Washington establishment. But what was different about Donald Trump in 2016 that allowed him to win the presidency where Buchanan failed twenty-four years before?
Why Trump Struck Lightning
Part of the answer can probably be chalked up to pure party structure. In 1992 and 1996, Pat Buchanan was facing off against the most powerful Republicans in the country, leaving him little path to challenge party leadership and win the nomination. In contrast, Trump entered a Republican primary where attention was split between over a dozen candidates, none of which held the blessing of party leaders. Trump could take advantage of sheer personality to bulldoze past his competitors, gaining enough momentum to be unstoppable once the primary field was worn down to something more manageable. And unlike Ross Perot, once Trump won the primary he had the force of the Republican Party behind him; he didn’t have to worry about winning over conservative partisans or convincing pragmatically minded voters to throw their vote to him.
But there’s more to Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton than just being in the right place at the right time. Public opinion has shifted dramatically against globalization and the economic elite in the twenty years since the heyday of NAFTA and free trade. Many Americans believe that the economy now caters to elite interests and has ceased serving the working-class, increasing the appeal of economic populists like Trump. This sense of economic alienation only grew after the 2008 financial crisis, where to many it appeared that the federal government went out of its way to protect Wall Street and wealthy corporations while ignoring the workers those institutions left behind. For all of her progressive rhetoric, Hillary Clinton couldn’t shake her reputation as a Washington insider unsympathetic to American workers. Donald Trump, in contrast, fed into the feelings of abandonment and resentment held by many working-class voters, especially in the industrial Midwest.
Immigration is also a more salient issue now than it was in the 1990s–the number of illegal immigrants in the United States now numbers at about 11 million, compared to just 4 million in 1992. Declining faith in government and backlash against Congress also make anti-elitism and promises to “drain the swamp,” in Trump’s words, much more appealing to the public. In a 1992 interview with Face the Nation’s Bob Scheiffer, Pat Buchanan claimed Americans wanted a decisive leader who would take on Washington in response to Scheiffer’s description of the 102nd Congress as “the most partisan session that [he] could remember.” Buchanan was right, but a few decades too early.
Pat Buchanan has not been silent on the similarities between his past campaigns and the modern-day campaign of Donald Trump. In a pre-election interview with New York Magazine, Buchanan said he was “delighted we were proven right,” celebrating the similarities between Trump’s message and his own vision from 1992. In another interview with the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, Buchanan claimed the Republican Party will eventually realign around the values of nationalism and protectionism which Trump brought to the forefront, regardless of the will of the party establishment. He also correctly predicted Trump’s winning strategy for the presidential race, calling for Trump to “go for victory in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin … campaigning against the Clinton trade policies that de-industrialized Middle America.” Now that Trump is president-elect, Buchanan has expressed hopes that his ideological successor will engage in battle with Congress and refuse to back down on his radical campaign promises.
We don’t know yet if Buchanan’s prediction that Donald Trump will transform the Republican Party are true. The president-elect’s lack of political experience could make him vulnerable to manipulation from seasoned politicos, crippling his attempts to reshape the political culture of Washington. Attempts to predict Trump’s path during the election have a mixed record at best, however, casting doubt on any predictions of what a Trump Administration might look like. At any rate, the movement that propelled Donald Trump into the White House is far from new, building heavily on Pat Buchanan’s campaign from a quarter-century ago. The main difference between Trump and populists of the past is that the former was able to win a presidential election, overcoming efforts by political leaders from both sides to stem the tide of populism. Trump’s economic nationalism, backlash against political correctness, and militantly anti-elite rhetoric fed into feelings which had been fomenting among a significant portion of Americans for decades at the least. The political establishment will have to formulate a response to the Trump movement if they want to quash the populist uprising that seized the nation in 2016, or else pray that this bout of populism is just overstaying its welcome.