Donald Trump isn’t the first right wing populist to take the Republican Party by storm, but he’s the first to truly give them everything they want. Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, even John McCain and Newt Gingrich all pushed moderated versions of the Donald Trump message.
The biggest difference? Donald Trump goes where the disenfranchised white working class voter wanted his predecessors to go. Political correctness, tradition, and niceties are all off the table; Donald Trump is giving the Washington establishment the big middle finger these voters have been trying to raise for decades.
Pat Buchanan and the Paleoconservatives
In 1992 Pat Buchanan ran the first of his three presidential bids, and his campaign was a signal to savvy political observers of the day that showed just how powerful the ideas underlying the Donald Trump campaign might someday become.
Buchanan targeted the Republican Party just as viciously as he attacked the Democrats, and blamed them both for what he saw as both the literal and metaphorical selling out of Middle America. Trade deals shipped American jobs overseas, sending the economic security of millions of working class people with them. Furthermore, Republican candidates frequently campaigned as social hardliners and then made those social issues the first point of concession in any negotiation, a fact Buchanan would not let them forget.
In a 1992 speech Pat Buchanan claimed “George Bush is just as big a part of the problem as Bill Clinton” and that “if the establishment won’t represent the people I don’t want anything to do with it.”
For Buchanan, trade deals shipped valuable jobs overseas and in a 1996 speech he likened them to trading “1,000 family farms with 100 hogs” to “one big monster with 100,000 hogs.” The social issues Republican leaders traded their economic reforms for were also more than political bargaining chips for Buchanan and his supporters.
In short, Buchanan represented the branch of conservatives who felt the Republican Party had left them behind. The economic policies pushed by modern Republicans actively hurt their livelihood, but the social issues which kept them from joining the left kept them in the party, yet their politicians consistently failed to deliver results on that front as well.
On some level Buchanan also represented the disdain for shifting demographics that Donald Trump has made the highlight of his campaign, but the religious component overshadowed the racially charged language Trump now utilizes. Buchanan represented a certain type of disenfranchised voter, related to the Trump voter of today, but the Trump voter also draws on another politician of Buchanan’s day, Ross Perot.
Ross Perot and Business Acumen
Ross Perot has some fairly obvious parallels with both Buchanan and Trump. Namely he is a staunch economic populist. Like Trump, he too is an eccentric billionaire and vowed to turn that business success into political realization. If Buchanan represented the coming social woes which now fuel the Trump campaign, then Perot represented loud and clear the economic forces Trump has railed against. Perot heard “the sucking sound of American jobs leaving” with NAFTA before almost anyone else and he motivated the people against the Washington establishment in a less ideological way than Buchanan.
Perot took on what he perceived as the waste and fraud of both parties. His independent movement allowed people with disdain for the political order of each party to flock to his mantel. His message was vague and fairly moderate, which is seemingly true of Trump’s ideals as well. When Trump isn’t playing with racial unrest his actual policies are vague and in some sense can be interpreted as moderate.
Trump has melded the anti-elite message of both candidates. He has taken Perot’s economic message and business expertise, combining it with the shifting social demographics which motivated many Buchanan voters and have only continued in the same direction many of them viewed as the wrong one decades ago. Donald Trump isn’t a new phenomenon in American politics, he’s simply built a bridge across a divide within the American electorate and has successfully melded two movements that have been waiting for an amplified political voice for decades.