The Republican Party Was Trumpy Long Before Trump

The GOP today isn’t a break from the past so much as a direct result of it.

Illustration of Ross Perot walking toward Pat Buchanan walking toward Donald Trump on a red background
Getty; Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic

In February 1992, a small, graying man in a slightly wrinkled suit eased himself into a seat across from the television host Larry King. Larry King Live was the hottest show on cable news—mostly because it was the top-rated show on CNN, the only cable-news channel widely available in the U.S. at the time. And so it was there that a reedy-voiced Texan announced that he would run for president if and only if his supporters got him on the ballot in all 50 states.

Thus began the improbable rise of Ross Perot, the billionaire presidential candidate who threw the 1992 presidential campaign into disarray, first by entering as an independent, then by dropping out just a few months before the election, and finally by jumping back in with only a month left to go. Despite his erratic campaign, he captured nearly 20 percent of the vote: the best showing for a third-party presidential candidate in 80 years.

The Perot phenomenon was more than a curiosity of the 1992 campaign. It revealed a political culture in crisis, one reeling from the end of the Cold War, profound economic shifts, a rapidly transforming media landscape, and a newly empowered generation of women and nonwhite Americans. It also revealed a frustrated and malleable electorate with loose ties to the major parties and their platforms.

It was a moment that mattered because of both the discontent and the possibilities it highlighted. And although Perot was an independent, his run sheds light on the current state of the Republican Party. People curious about the dramatic changes in the party over the past several years often start with the 2016 election, but they would do better to look back to 1992. In that election, as well as in the years that followed, the party sketched out a path designed to attract disillusioned voters not through the flexible, heterodox politics of the Perot campaign but through a hard-right, reactionary politics made palatable by a new style of political entertainment and a deepening anti-establishment posture. That path led to the election of Donald Trump, which by the 2010s was not only a possible outcome of the choices the right had made in the 1990s, but one that had been a long time coming.

The 1992 election, the first after the end of the Cold War, came after a decade of Republican successes. Ronald Reagan won two terms as president in back-to-back landslides, and his vice president, George H. W. Bush, won in 1988 in a landslide of his own. But by the early 1990s, the electorate was frustrated, if not furious. The adrenaline spike of the Gulf War, which sent Bush’s approval rating into record-high territory, vanished as the economy stuttered into a recession.

That recession was compounded by broader domestic shifts and the new geopolitical reality of the post–Cold War world. California, which had been particularly reliant on the Cold War to fuel its universities and aerospace industry, felt the collapse the hardest. But the pain was also felt by factory workers, who were caught in a decades-long shift to service and information-sector work. Added to the frustrations of the recession was genuine uncertainty about what role, if any, the U.S. should play in the world now that the Cold War was over. The Gulf War had been a short, triumphal affair, but as it faded from the headlines, it offered few answers about what should follow.

But Pat Buchanan did have answers. Buchanan, a former communications director in the Reagan White House and a popular television personality, felt unconstrained by party orthodoxies. He had long professed his belief that the “biggest vacuum in American politics today is to the right of Ronald Reagan,” and he set out to prove that in his 1992 campaign for the Republican nomination. He ran well to the right of Bush, not just taking hard-line positions on issues such as immigration (he called for a “Buchanan fence” at the border) and affirmative action but also resurrecting themes of the Old Right of the 1930s and ’40s: a closed, cramped vision of an America that needed to be protected from foreign trade, foreign people, and foreign entanglements. He carried out an “America First” campaign that argued against U.S. involvement abroad and denounced free-trade deals such as the newly negotiated North American Free Trade Agreement.

He also brought a dark note to the campaign, calling for a revolution against a whole slew of enemies: liberals, feminists, immigrants, even Republicans such as George Bush. Running against Bush for the nomination, Buchanan took to calling him “King George,” promising that his supporters, the “Buchanan brigade,” would lead a new American revolution if Buchanan won. Even Buchanan was stunned by how well his message resonated. When reports came in on the day of the New Hampshire primary that he and Bush were neck and neck, Buchanan, who was in the middle of typing his speech withdrawing from the race, looked around his hotel room and asked, “What the fuck do we do now?”

Buchanan lost that night, but his unexpectedly strong showing suggested two things: first, that an incumbent president could be vulnerable to a challenger, and second, that the challenger didn’t need to be a political insider. Buchanan had never held elected office before, and neither had the man who, two days later, sat down on Larry King Live to announce that he would welcome efforts to draft him into the 1992 race.

That outsider, anti-establishment ethos coursed through the 1992 campaign. It was most obviously present in Perot’s independent run—the first efforts to draft him came from a group called THRO, “Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out”—but it was also part of the Buchanan campaign. Bill Clinton, the young Arkansas governor running for the Democratic nomination, also tapped into the outsider aesthetic, playing the saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show and fielding questions from an MTV audience on everything from his youthful drug use to his underwear preferences. But for Clinton, this shake-things-up approach was mostly superficial, playing into the sentiment of the moment without offering much of substance to address it and not as novel as it appeared: Presidential candidates had been dabbling in those sorts of cameos for decades, including Richard Nixon, who popped up on the sketch-comedy show Laugh-In during the 1968 race.

The real media innovators on the trail in 1992 were Buchanan and Perot. Neither man had ever held elected office; both built their following through regular media appearances. Buchanan, who had been an editorial writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before he joined Nixon’s 1968 campaign, rose to national fame as the host of CNN’s Crossfire and a regular panelist on PBS’s The McLaughlin Group. Perot’s path was more deliberately plotted: He sold himself as a swashbuckling billionaire, and his antics, including a daring rescue mission to pluck hostages out of Iran, became the stuff of legend—and of the 1986 miniseries On Wings of Eagles (starring Richard Crenna as Perot). He then transformed himself into a political figure through frequent ratings-spiking appearances on Larry King Live.

Politics in the United States had always been full of artifice, but presidential candidates had nevertheless found it necessary to construct their personas around experience—time spent in elected office or military leadership. For Buchanan and Perot, the new age of interactive media (both Crossfire and Larry King Live started as call-in radio shows) infused their candidacies with a sense of novelty and authenticity. And the potent anti-establishment anger coursing through the country meant that they wore their inexperience as a feature, not a flaw.

Neither Perot nor Buchanan won in 1992, but they left a lasting impact on politics. At first, Perot’s vision appeared to be winning out. As the 1994 midterms approached two years later, both Democrats and Republicans fretted over how to capture the Perot vote. It was a hard segment of the electorate to pin down. Perot’s personality was mercurial, his leadership style authoritarian, and his views heterodox. He opposed free trade and abortion restrictions and supported gun regulation and balanced budgets. Unlocking the key to his appeal, which attracted Republicans and Democrats in roughly equal numbers, would not be easy.

On the Republican side, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich leaned into the challenge. He brought aboard Frank Luntz, who had worked as a pollster first for Buchanan and then for Perot, to crack the Perot code. Luntz argued that Perot appealed to so many people because he was explicitly nonpartisan and devoted to reining in the excesses and privileges of political elites. If Republicans wanted to win over his voters, they would have to focus less on attacking Democrats and more on developing a robust reform agenda.

That advice was an awkward fit for Gingrich. He had built his reputation by weaponizing ethics charges, which left an air of scandal around Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright that eventually led to his resignation. He had also spent the past few years using the organization GOPAC to train Republicans in rhetorical tricks for demonizing Democrats—part of an ongoing effort to polarize the parties.

Eager to build a coalition that would put Republicans in the majority and himself in the speaker’s office, Gingrich worked with Luntz to create the Contract With America, a document that made no reference to President Clinton or either political party, and that was ostensibly designed to promote only “60 percent issues”—policies that polled with at least 60 percent support.

Gingrich, the Contract, and Republicans all won in 1994, a historic victory that ushered in a new freshman class further to the right than that of any other House in modern U.S. history. Yet if pursuit of the Perot vote shaped Gingrich’s rise to the speaker’s office, he quickly abandoned it for his preferred path of polarization. Under pressure from the True Believers, as the right-wing hard-liners in his caucus dubbed themselves, he shifted focus from reform to a series of innovative obstructionist maneuvers, including endless investigations, lengthy government shutdowns, and an unpopular impeachment effort—none of which spoke to the frustrations and angers of post–Cold War Americans.

As Perot’s popularity suggests, those frustrations and angers could have attached themselves to any of a number of political figures and agendas. But the agenda that the right built over the course of the 1990s would be far more Buchanan than Perot. When an anti-government militia movement gained power in the early ’90s, the right saw it as an opportunity, not a warning. Republicans such as Representative Helen Chenoweth of Idaho embraced the causes and conspiracies of her militia constituents, and the NRA played into attacks on federal agents in fundraising letters that called the agents “jack-booted government thugs.” (After the Oklahoma City bombing, George H. W. Bush resigned from the NRA in response to those comments.)

On other issues, too, the party lurched to the right. Republicans and Democrats both took a hard turn toward restricting immigration, opening the door for Buchananite calls to build a border wall, end birthright citizenship, restrict nonwhite immigration, and cut off nearly all nonemergency public services, including education, to undocumented migrants. And although the party had been moving toward a more hard-line position on abortion for two decades, there still seemed to be room to maneuver: After a significant number of Republicans voted for Perot, they then briefly flocked to Colin Powell, who also supported abortion rights, in the lead-up to the 1996 presidential primaries. But the party ultimately chose a hardline position on reproductive rights.

On issue after issue, the right developed a politics of resentment. Feminism was to blame for flooding the workplace with women who not only competed for wages but raised complaints about harassment and unequal treatment. Immigrants were to blame for overcrowded schools, high housing costs, and lower wages. Government agents were coming for your guns, your land, your money, and your rights, using immigration policy and affirmative action to ensure that white men would not have the resources or the power they once enjoyed.

These were not popular politics in the 1990s. Outsider candidates such as Perot and even Clinton offered an alternative vision to the exclusionary populism of Buchanan. But voters who subscribed to these politics were always there, and the party chose them and cultivated them, slowly over the next decade and then very quickly once Barack Obama took office. That choice gave us the politics of white-male resentment and the new generation of pundit-politicians we have today.

In that sense, the party had been preparing for a quarter century for a figure like Donald Trump: a bombastic television personality whose solutions to voter frustrations involved pointing at the very same groups that Buchanan once had. Trump was not an exception; he was simply the next step on a path the right had started down almost three decades before.