In 1992, the United States was externally at its most powerful and domineering in history. But at the same time, a so-called “jobless recovery” after the early 1990s recession left many ordinary Americans feeling as though their best days were behind them. Into this void stepped the politically inexperienced but outspoken businessman Ross Perot. Perot famously warned that the NAFTA agreement favoured both by then incumbent President George H.W. Bush and his main rival Bill Clinton would cause even further job losses. Perot stated that one would hear a “giant sucking sound” of jobs and the social prosperity they bring draining away from the ordinary American worker if NAFTA was signed (as it was in 1994).
At first Perot’s 1992 campaign was light on policy but this changed when Perot bought lengthy periods of television time to explain his proposals for balancing the budget, fixing the trade deficit, relieving financial pressures on the American worker whilst investing the proceeds of public money into substantial infrastructural renewal. By the standards of the pre-internet age, Perot’s television heavy campaigning style was itself revolutionary.
In the 1990s, a combination of American libertarians like Dr. Ron Paul, traditional conservatives like Pat Buchanan, populists like Ross Perot and even some moderate Democrats all spoke of the virtues of balancing the budget and ending a growing cycle of debt. Since the Great Recession of 2008, hardly anyone in front-line US politics speaks about fiscal responsibility – not Donald Trump and not his leftist opponents. But in other areas, Ross Perot did in fact pave the way for the Trump phenomenon of 2016.
Like Trump, Perot was a political outsider from the world of big business. Also like Trump, Perot ran a campaign which centred around the fact that the ordinary working man was getting a raw deal and that trade agreements like NAFTA were only going to make things worse. At a time when the Republicans of Bush represented the interests of middle management and above and at a time when Clinton’s Democratic party was on the verge of taking an economically globalist order much further than even George H.W. Bush might have done, Perot’s words made a major impact on American politics.
In an age long before the internet/social media revolution, Perot often struggled to be taken seriously by the mainstream media of his day, but even so, his message resonated loudly enough to make him the most successful third party candidate in modern American history.
Whilst Trump is generally thought of as a right wing populist with some centrist tendencies on economic issues such as working class jobs, Perot was a quintessential centrist-populist. He was in favour of enterprise but felt that the tax burden should be shifted back to the super-rich and off the backs of working class and middle class Americans. On social issues Perot was largely libertarian at a time when the Republican party was firmly in the grip of the authoritarian religious fundamentalist right whilst the Democrats were quietly inching towards the extremist liberal identity politics of the 21st century. In terms of investing into infrastructure rather than into globalist projects, Perot was very much a man ahead of his time in spite of the fact that even in the 1990s he was considered the “old man” in terms of his personal characteristics.
And yet Perot resonated among the young and the old, among the left and the right and among those who felt that after the retirement of Ronald Reagan, front-line American politics was beginning to look and sound like a charisma free zone. Had the internet and social media existed in 1992 in the way that it did in 2016, Perot may well have been able to “pull a Trump” and win the presidency. Certainly Perot’s message of America falling behind its Asian and European competitors through a combination of resting on past laurels and poorly structured investment into working people would have been popular in a rust belt that is even more rusty in 2019 than it was in 1992.
Above all, Perot was a jobs and industry man who was willing to do whatever it took to make sure that America’s budget was balanced and that its workers were employed. Rejecting post-Bretton Woods money printing mania, Perot was not afraid to say that some taxes needed to be raised whilst he balanced this by saying that others needed to be lowered. In an age where taxation is used as a social weapon by both the right and left, Perot’s views on taxation as a strictly fiscal instrument are deeply refreshing with the benefit of hindsight. In this sense, there was even a touch of current presidential candidate Andrew Yang to Ross Perot.
Although to the economic left of monetary and fiscal libertarians and although to the right of tax and spend liberals, Perot was a man who was ultimately defined by his ability to propose solutions rather than pontificate about problems.
Although Perot challenged Bill Clinton in 1996, he had lost some of his steam vis-a-vis his initial 1992 run. This was the case not least because by 1996, the mainstream media had more or less openly conspired to give him far less airtime than he received in 1992.
By the year 2000, Perot had all but abandoned the Reform Party that he founded in 1995. Reform’s former Republican stalwart Pat Buchanan shared some of Perot’s economic principles but on social issues they tended to drift apart by the turn of the 21st century.
Perot’s rapid withdrawal from the political limelight was itself symptomatic of a man who sought office without seeking fame. Today by contrast, many people in the US and elsewhere stand for public office knowing that they will lose but knowing also that as a result of a failed campaign they will attain fortune and fame elsewhere.
Ross Perot was a true American original who rose to prominence in a 1990s when America was losing much of its erstwhile originality and descending into the globalist banality that defined the country in the years of Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
It is impossible to know just how much Perot paved the way for Trump and in many ways the fiscally responsible Perot would not approve of many of Trump’s policies. But the fact that Perot wanted to completely change politics in the 1990s will certainly resonate with a generation accustomed to politics being dominated by the likes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders whilst Bill Clinton and George Bush look increasingly like relics of a globalist past that Perot sought to end before it fully began. In this sense, Perot is more relevant today than the style of politics that he ultimately failed to challenge in the 1990s.
RIP Henry Ross Perot