The similarities don’t end there. Like Trump, Perot was a media innovator. He announced his presidential bid on Larry King Live, a CNN talk show in the days when CNN was America’s only 24-hour cable news station. His independent candidacy was built on rambling infomercials in which he sat at a desk with cardboard charts and a slim metal pointer to talk about balanced budgets and trade deficit.
He was not particularly telegenic, and his reedy Southern twang could be hard on the ears. But that fed his appeal: in an era in which Bill Clinton was being attacked as “Slick Willy”, the candidate who would tell you what you wanted to hear and do it with an easy smile and flirtatious wink, the rough-around-the-edges Perot campaign read not as amateur but as authentic.
And as with Trump, it worked. In June 1992, a Gallup polled showed Perot at 39 per cent, Bush at 31, and Clinton at 25. A Time magazine poll put him at 37 per cent with Bush and Clinton tied at 24. In a nation in which the two-party system appears impregnable, these were gobsmacking numbers.
Perot would drop out of the race the next month, citing fears that his candidacy would deadlock the election (if no candidate gets the majority of the Electoral College votes, the election gets thrown to the House of Representatives), though he re-entered the race in October. Americans didn’t love this wishy-washy approach to campaigning, yet still rewarded him with 19 per cent of the vote on election day.
Though Perot fumbled in 1992, his surprising candidacy highlighted the uncertainty burbling through the electorate that year. The Cold War, the defining fact of American politics for nearly 50 years, had come to an end. The nation was shuddering through another sharp recession after a decade in which economic prosperity had primarily enriched the rich and left the rest behind. And as the country diversified and began to realise the gains of the rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, a backlash was brewing among white Americans who sought to counter policies that protected women and minorities.
Perot was the candidate for that moment. He opposed NAFTA, which had been negotiated under the Bush administration and signed into law under Clinton. He would not accept donations over $5, which allowed the billionaire to claim the mantle of populism. Though he was dovish on foreign policy, he spoke of veterans in a way that shored up his patriotic appeal. (And was, in fact, a lifelong supporter of veterans and those in the service.)
Of course, Perot ultimately lost, as did a long line of outsider candidates prior to Donald Trump.
But it would be wrong to make too much of the parallels between the two men, even if they both appealed to similar types of voters and concerns. Perot adhered to a strict moralism: he was married to the same woman for 62 years and wrote a fidelity clause into his employees’ contracts. He could be temperamental, but was not known for his brutality (though his desire to escalate the war on drugs suggested there were limits to his libertarian streak). He supported abortion rights and seemed mostly uninterested in catering to the religious right.
What Perot showed us was that Americans in the early 1990s were uneasy with the changes around them and looking for alternatives to a political scene that felt too packaged and slick, and even at times too bipartisan. The anti-elitist strain that has run through all of American politics found a voice in Perot, who made clear as Steve Forbes and later Donald Trump would that even billionaires could claim to be the voice of people.
And Perot showed how deep the sense of alienation and dislocation in American society ran. Though the decade that followed was known as one of peace and prosperity, it was also one of fracture and uncertainty: problems that were papered over but never solved, and which led American politics to their current crisis point.
Nicole Hemmer is a regular columnist based in the United States.
Nicole is a research affiliate at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and a visiting research associate at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.