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.
Perot’s brand of plainspoken populism—he vowed to “get under the hood” and fix the American economy—would find an echo in political candidates as diverse as Sarah Palin and Trump himself, and his anti-establishment distrust of Big Government in Washington was the same spirit that animated Tea Party conservatives a political generation later. He was so ubiquitous a pop-culture presence that Dana Carvey of Saturday Night Live was forced to do double duty, offering dead-on impressions of Perot and Bush.
Perot, a pint-size Texan (he stood just 5 feet 5 inches), made his fortune in data processing. He signaled his willingness to run on King’s prime-time CNN show on February 20, 1992, challenging supporters to get him on the ballot in all 50 states. “We’re the owners of this country,” he declared. “We don’t act like the owners. We act like white rabbits that get programmed by messages coming out of Washington.”
His platform offered an eclectic mix of airy themes and concrete proposals. He called for balancing the federal budget, stepping up the War on Drugs, promoting economic nationalism, and creating “electronic town halls” to foster town-meeting-style direct democracy. By spring, he was leading in the polls in both Texas and California, and striking fear into the hearts of both the Bush and Clinton campaigns. No less a loyal Democrat than Mario Cuomo allowed of Perot, “I have no negatives to say about him,” and summed up public dissatisfaction with government this way: “We’re not happy with the Democrats, because you’re in Congress and you didn’t do it. We’re not happy with the Republicans, because you were president and you didn’t do it. Unless the Democrats and the Republicans answer that challenge, Perot will be president.”
But Perot proved a wildly uneven and unpredictable campaigner, repeatedly rejecting the counsel of his own paid advisers and stirring controversies with a wide range of groups, from the NAACP to AIDS activists. In July, with his poll numbers slipping, he dropped out of the race, saying he feared his presence could throw the election into the House of Representatives.
Still, Perot left his name on the ballot, and in October he suddenly resumed active campaigning, claiming that he had dropped out initially because of rumors that Republican operatives had planned to disrupt his daughter’s wedding; he floated suggestions of a wiretapping plot against him and his business. Bush’s White House press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, dismissed the allegations as “loony” and the president himself called them “crazy,” leading Perot to adopt Willie Nelson’s mournful country ballad in defiance. “There are millions of crazy people in this country,” he told his supporters in the campaign’s waning hours, “and I’ll say tomorrow, I bet it’ll be a crazy day at the polls.”
Perot ultimately spent something more than $70 million of his own money on half-hour television infomercials in which he made his case, one of them titled “Ross, You Bet Your Hat We Can Win.” But after his defeat, his influence was never the same. He was widely considered to have lost a televised debate with Al Gore about the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, and when he ran for president again, in 1996, under the banner of his newly formed Reform Party, he failed to qualify for the televised debates and wound up with just 8 percent of the vote.
If, as James Carville once remarked, Perot was the “John the Baptist” of the “disenchanted, displaced noncollege white voter” to whom Trump would later appeal, he differed greatly from Trump in other important respects. He was an Eagle Scout, a Navy officer, and a spectacular success in business, first as a demon salesman for IBM and later as the founder of his own company, Electronic Data Systems. If he had run with the backing of a major party, he might well have won—just as Trump did—and in his best performances, his appeal was powerful and undeniable. Here’s how the staff of Newsweek summed up Perot’s performance in the first three-way debate in 1992:
In theory, Perot was all wrong for television—unpretty, unsmooth and uncool. In practice, his can-do answers cut through all the rehearsed rhetoric like a breeze through morning mist. “I’m all ears,” he said at one point, getting a big laugh. No three words he had spoken all year had done more to establish his humanity. When he was challenged on his lack of experience in government, he knocked that one out of the park, too. “I don’t have any experience in running up a $4 trillion debt,” he said, but he did have some at getting things done.
Perot never won the presidency, but that doesn’t mean his impact wasn’t lasting. By channeling and embodying visceral public discontent with politics as usual—by giving it a vivid face—he helped usher in the seesawing waves of anger at Washington that have produced, in such rapid succession, the wildly contrasting presidencies of Clinton and George W. Bush, Bush and Barack Obama, and now Obama and Donald Trump. Perot’s brand of “Throw the bums out!” politics may well be the enduring reality of our era. “In plain Texas talk,” he said in 1992, “it’s time to take out the trash and clean out the barn.” We’ve been living with that legacy ever since. Just what kind of a barn it’s left us is a different matter altogether.