By the historic standards of third party candidates, H. Ross Perot’s 1992 bid for the presidency was remarkable. The Texas billionaire took nearly 20 percent of the vote. Though he didn’t become president, Perot did launch a new political party—the now defunct Reform Party—and ran under its banner again in 1996, receiving a much smaller percentage of the vote. In 2000, current GOP frontrunner Donald Trump briefly sought the Reform Party’s nomination, but eventually backed out, citing, among other things, KKK leader David Duke’s membership in the party. After an acrimonious convention, the Reform Party nomination went to former Nixon aide and political commentator Pat Buchanan. Last week, Buchanan argued that Trump would turn the GOP into a “different, new, exciting, robust party.” The party he was describing is the Reform Party.
The basic tenets of the Reform Party, as laid out by Perot in the early 1990s, will seem familiar to anyone following Trump’s 2016 run. They include limits on immigration, protectionist trade policies, and an isolationist foreign policy. The Reform Party was an outsider movement that mocked the Washington establishment as incompetent. Like Trump, Perot promised that his wealth would make him immune to the influence of special interests. Discussing his lack of experience during a 1992 debate, Perot said:
Well, they’ve got a point. I don’t have any experience in running up a $4 trillion debt. I don’t have any experience in gridlocked government where nobody takes responsibility for anything and everybody blames everybody else. I don’t have any experience in creating the worst public school system in the industrialized world, the most violent, crime-ridden society in the industrialized world.
But I do have a lot of experience in getting things done. So if we’re at a point in history where we want to stop talking about it and do it, I’ve got a lot of experience in figuring out how to solve problems, making the solutions work, and then moving on to the next one. I’ve got a lot of experience in not taking 10 years to solve a 10-minute problem. So if it’s time for action, I think I have experience that counts. If it’s more time for gridlock and talk and finger-pointing, I’m the wrong man.
Now, 25 years later, another quirky billionaire candidate says he will stick it to the establishment, and bring practical business sense to Washington. Donald Trump’s playbook is almost identical to Perot’s, with one significant exception: Trump is waging his war from within the Republican Party. Trump saw long before anyone else that the white working class’s power within the GOP had grown. In 1992, less than 40 percent of white Americans saw racism against whites as a problem. That number is now nearly 50 percent—and growing. In a radio interview recently, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru called Trump’s political philosophy a “softer version of white nationalism.”
White working-class anger was always a key component of the Reform Party’s success. Just as Trump is shouted down by Black Lives Matters activists, Perot was heckled by the NAACP during a 1992 speech. The “fortress America” attitude of Perot and the Reform Party is almost indistinguishable from Trump’s foreign-policy platform.
There are lessons that anti-Trump forces in the Republican Party can take from the history of the Reform Party. First among them is an awareness of the fragile nature of the Reform Party coalition. So long as a dynamic leader like Perot or Trump can focus and control the anger of the white working class, policy differences can be smoothed over. But they exist. One element wants to build a wall and spend billions deporting illegal aliens. Another wants a shrewd businessman to balance the budget and reduce taxes. Ultimately these goals—and many others—may be irreconcilable. Trump has so far been able to use vague platitudes, instead of specific policy proposals, to keep his supporters on the same team. The Reform Party cracked up without a superstar at the top of the ticket because its members didn’t really agree on all that much.
If Trump wins the nomination, he would find himself in a position to set at least some of the Republican Party’s priorities. The price for delivering the white working-class voting bloc would likely be the adoption of some of the Reform Party’s philosophies into the GOP platform. But having won with a plurality, not a majority, and having so few adherents among the major Republican players in Washington, Trump’s influence would be limited. And just as the Reform Party self-destructed in 2000, a GOP with the Reform Party’s agenda at its core could split in two.
Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images