On the night of 15 October 1992, I watched a live telecast of the second presidential debate between George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot. As I watched three men in business suits–walking back and forth on a ‘town-hall’ stage–explain how they would run the nation, manage its economy, and conduct its international affairs, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that were was something of the salesman to all of them. In the case of Ross Perot, that feeling was even more accentuated. Indeed, it was with some incredulity that I watched him go on to earn the vote of almost twenty million Americans in the general election that followed. (Perot earned precisely zero electoral votes for his efforts, a bizarre side-effect of the US’ bizarre electoral system.) Perot was almost universally mocked and reviled by the national press, but he still managed to convince almost half as many Americans who voted for George Bush Sr. to vote for him. This despite being a short man with an almost comical speaking style–his incipient populism and his claims to bring his background in business management to the running of the presidency were enough. His candidacy sparked a very uncomfortable thought: what if some billionaire with adequate money to blow on an election, someone with more charisma and style than Perot, decided to run and buy himself a presidency?
Some twenty-four years later, we have the answer. As a New York Times/CBS poll reports, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are now in a virtual tie nationwide. And we have confirmation of that ghastly suspicion: the American electoral system is a mark, ripe for exploitation by a conman. The ‘right’ economic conditions–it is instructive to return to 1992 and see how many of the current worries about rising inequality and the losses of jobs to overseas manufacturing were present even then–are at hand, media coverage has sunk to new lows of superficiality and vacuousness, and a weak opposition cannot get its campaigning act together.
Ross Perot did not stay on message; he did not tone down his ridiculousness; he paid for it. Donald Trump seems to have learned the right lessons from his campaign: go full-bore populist, mark yourself as an outsider, brag about your business acumen, strut your patriotism. And avoid Perot’s mistakes: get disciplined; provide your supporters a fig-leaf for their commitment to you. As the New York Times reports:
Mr. Trump hired new campaign leadership in mid-August and has been more disciplined in his public statements. His poll numbers have been steadily rising.
It had always seemed that if Donald Trump ever toned down his act a bit, he’d become a genuine threat at the polls; it would allow ostensibly nose-holding Republicans to vote for him. He seems to have imbibed this lesson: say what you want to say, cloak it artfully; drop the megaphone, pick up the dog-whistle. And of course, be blessed with an opposition candidate like Hillary Clinton who is not a very good politician, has been weakened by a stream of political attacks over the years, and cannot trust her supposed electoral base enough to give them–even if only in promises–what they really want.
We live in interesting times.