His television platform was Larry King Live, not The Apprentice, and his persona was genial and folksy, not blustery and dark. But more than a quarter century ago, Ross Perot revealed a truth about the American electorate that Donald Trump would exploit: There is a big chunk of voters who feel disaffected, harmed by free trade, threatened by demographic change, and attracted to an eccentric outsider who promises to upend the status quo.
Like Trump, Perot was a billionaire narcissist whose convictions sometimes bordered on the conspiratorial, and like Trump, he was no fool. He proudly adopted Patsy Cline’s recording of “Crazy” as his campaign theme song in the waning hours of his three-way 1992 race against Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. “What we’ve been through hasn’t been pretty,” he told supporters in a final rally, “but, by golly, you’re taking your country back.”
For the sizable portion of the population not old enough to remember Perot’s renegade campaign, it is hard to describe just how thoroughly he captivated media attention and the public imagination, but a single statistic makes the case: He won nearly 19 percent of the popular vote, the largest share for a third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. He split the white vote with Bush, who blamed him for handing the presidency to Clinton, whose winning plurality was just 43 percent. (Exit polling disagreed.) Arguably, American politics has never been quite the same.