Populism is the Old Faithful of American politics, erupting at intervals — from President Andrew Jackson railing against the “giant Augean stable” of Washington corruption to William Jennings Bryan’s “cross of gold” speech to Pat Buchanan’s “America First” tagline.
What they all had in common was a vision of a united and virtuous “We the People” facing off against a corrupt and self-serving elite. Ross Perot’s presidential campaigns of the 1990s brought that boiling underground river of populism to the surface in ways that anticipated and influenced the tea party movement a political generation later and Donald Trump’s successful presidential run. Perot’s pitch wasn’t quite the same as the tea party’s, nor was the tea party’s platform precisely like Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again.” But each drew upon similar populist energies, and it’s hard to imagine the tea party — or a Trump presidency — without the influence of Perot, who died Tuesday at 89.
All three movements were genuine grass-roots uprisings, driven by passionate supporters who in many cases put the rest of their lives on hold to dedicate themselves to the cause — though their efforts were supplemented by a shower of plutocratic money from above. All of these movements arose in times of economic anxiety and drew in many disaffected citizens who previously had been uninvolved in politics. They attracted participants who were overwhelmingly white, mostly male and generally fearful of the future. They represented a revolt against politics as usual, an embrace of economic nationalism and deep resentment of conventional politicians, the media and the “establishment,” that catchall term for those powerful but amorphous forces reshaping the culture in ways the populists abhorred.
There were differences: Perot’s 1992 independent run — in which he garnered 19 percent of the popular vote — and 1996 third-party effort were less partisan than the tea party and Trump movements, even if those latter professed disdain for the GOP leadership as much as they did for the Democrats. As The Washington Post’s Dan Balz reported in 2010, Perot’s campaigns seem to have attracted a younger, more ideologically diverse and more secular following than the tea party. And Perot, unlike tea partyers and Trump, was a genuine believer in deficit reduction who was willing to raise taxes as well as cut government spending to balance the budget. His budget pie charts were mocked as corny props, but deficit reduction was central to Perot’s political identity, not an afterthought: In a 1992 “60 Minutes” interview, he compared budget deficits to “a crazy aunt you keep down in the basement,” adding, “All the neighbors know she’s there, but nobody talks about her.” He not only believed that running up the debt was a crime against future generations but also feared that we might see “our country taken over because we’re so financially weak.”
Despite these differences, all were movements that advocated positions that were popular but mostly overlooked or taken only semi-seriously by both major parties. As historian Richard Hofstadter observed in his classic work “The Age of Reform,” third parties attach themselves to such neglected issues and force them to national attention: “Their function has not been to win or govern, but to agitate, educate, generate new ideas, and supply the dynamic element in our political life.”
Of course, Trump, unlike Perot, did win the White House. But once in office, his lack of interest in the details of policy and competence in governing, as well as his championing a tax cut without corresponding budget cuts, reinforced the view that his campaign in many ways was more a hostile takeover of the GOP than a call for genuinely new political direction.
Perot forcefully expounded positions that were destined to be taken up later by the tea party and Trump: America is in decline and heading in the wrong direction. The system is rigged against the middle class. Trade deals and globalization benefit the wealthy at the expense of blue-collar workers. Wars in the Middle East and elsewhere waste our blood and treasure while failing to spread democracy. The Republican and Democratic parties are run by free-spending, incompetent, out-of-touch elites who are more responsive to moneyed interests (what Perot called “the lobbyists in their Gucci loafers”) than the concerns of ordinary citizens.
But Perot, like other populists, tended to put forward simplistic and unrealistic solutions to complex national problems. (“What the media doesn’t understand,” one of his supporters told a reporter in 1992, “is that we the voters like it simplistic. We want to cut through the rhetoric.”) Trump capitalized on this professed desire for simplicity, but as president, some of his belated revelations, such as the assertion that “nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” underscored the weakness of his, and Perot’s, underlying claim that a businessman without political experience was uniquely qualified to run the government. Perot’s plan to balance the budget in five years, essentially by presidential fiat, foreshadowed Trump’s ludicrous claim that he could eliminate the deficit in eight years by cutting better trade deals.
And though he was no bigot, Perot’s call to his mostly white audiences to “take back our country” raised the question — just as it does when Trump says it — From whom? The phrase, intentionally or not, evoked white unease over illegal immigration (one of the reasons for Perot’s opposition to NAFTA) and the country’s gradual movement toward majority-minority demographics. “I want my country back!” was a sentiment that animated parts of the tea party and was the subtext of birtherism, the baseless claim embraced by many tea partyers (and promoted by Trump) that President Barack Obama was foreign-born and thus illegitimate.
Perot’s conspiracy theorizing made it easier for establishment politicians and the media to dismiss him as a crank. But in hindsight, he was prescient in sounding the alarm about the challenges that economic globalization and mass immigration posed to the working class. Few other national politicians until Trump paid as much attention to the damage done by deindustrialization to families and communities in the left-behind parts of the country.
In other respects, however, Perot’s campaigns worsened the problems he wanted to solve. His independent challenge was necessary, he claimed, because both parties shirked the necessity of combating the deficit: “Our president blames Congress, Congress blames the president, the Democrats and Republicans blame each other. Nobody steps up to the plate and accepts responsibility for anything.” But in reality, President George H.W. Bush agreed to a tax increase precisely to reduce the deficit, even knowing it would infuriate conservatives in his party. It continues to be a matter of heated debate as to whether Perot’s candidacy spoiled Bush’s reelection chances. But it’s undeniable that Bush’s defeat cemented the GOP’s determination to never again increase taxes, and by extension it would never again take serious action against the deficit. The result has been the growth of the national debt from around $4 trillion in 1992 to $22 trillion today, with, by some estimates, more than $2 trillion resulting from the Republicans’ fiscally incontinent 2017 tax cut.
Perot also claimed his “highest priority” was “to restore trust and confidence in government.” Yet his routine criticism of politicians who “assume we are major dumb” and had “created a country that’s a mess” contributed to the ongoing collapse of public trust in government. Perot also criticized Republicans and Democrats who “are bred from childhood to fight with one another rather than get results,” saying, “If they would talk to one another instead of throwing rocks, I think we could get a lot done.” But his 1992 showing led to the 1994 Republican “Contract with America” and Newt Gingrich’s elevation to speaker of the House, and no politician of the past half-century did more to destroy bipartisanship than Gingrich. More recently, those politicians who were closest to the tea party picked up Perot’s anti-establishment animus but dropped his emphasis on the need for cooperation, while their embrace of norm-breaking and resistance to compromise made them natural allies of Trump.
An enduring lesson of Perot-ism, Trump-ism and the tea party is that populist outbreaks are like inflammations, indicating real maladies in the body politic. But their reductionist narratives pitting “real” Americans vs. interlopers and elites is a poor fit for a diverse, pluralistic, advanced democracy. Trump’s update on Perot won him the presidency, but it’s also making it nearly impossible for him to prudently govern.