No one shook up the American political world in the early 1990s like Ross Perot, the man who won more votes as an independent candidate for president than anyone since Theodore Roosevelt. Perot died this week at the age of 89, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy that included giving George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton the run of their lives in the 1992 campaign. With his focus on protectionism, the perils of unrestricted free trade, and the cost of playing “world police,” Perot’s insurgent candidacy would, in some ways, pave the path that Donald Trump later took to the White House door.
“If Donald Trump is the Jesus of the disenchanted, displaced non-college white voter, then Perot was the John the Baptist of that sort of movement,” said Clinton political strategist James Carville in 2016.
Perot himself appeared to recognize a little bit of himself in Trump as well. According to a new report, Perot wrote two checks to the Trump campaign this spring, making it his last documented political donation before succumbing to leukemia.
The parallels are hard to miss. Perot didn’t appeal to hardline terrorism/immigration voters the way Trump did, but his populist economic campaign foreshadowed much of what the billionaire New Yorker would bring to the stage in 2016. Perot had a laser-sharp focus on the Washington swamp, a searing distrust of the political establishment, and a familiar weariness about globalism and its eventual effects on the American economy.
“You implement NAFTA, the Mexican trade agreement, where they pay people a dollar an hour and you’re going to hear a giant sucking sound of jobs being pulled out of this country,” Perot said in 1992. “The core problem that faces everybody in manufacturing, it’s that agreement that’s about to be put into practice.”
Things have changed a lot since then, and Perot’s dire predictions for the economy took longer than expected to materialize. But materialize they did, along with a host of other problems created by the same political establishment he sought to take down.
In the meantime, a real estate magnate from Manhattan was watching all of this unfold with a close eye, waiting and biding his time.
The Trump Era is upon us, but perhaps Carville was right: It was presaged by another billionaire – this one from Texas. RIP Ross Perot, you were ahead of your time.