Trump succeeded where Perot (and Clinton) didn’t

By Brian Knox | Published Saturday, November 19, 2016

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Democrats, and to be quite honest many Republicans, are shocked that Trump won the presidency.

I’m not.

Surprised? Yes. Wary of what might happen in a Trump presidency? Yes.

Shocked? No.

Brian Knox

Brian Knox

I came into political consciousness in the early 1990s. The first presidential election I remember paying attention to was the 1992 race between George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. I wasn’t quite old enough to vote yet, but I remember being fascinated by this Perot fellow both in that election and the one four years later.

Here’s a guy who wanted to shake things up. Get rid of “politics as usual.”

He was a businessman who seemed like he’d be good for the economy.

Perot and Trump were similar in many ways. Both were billionaires who had never held political office before running on a populist platform. Both seized on running against “politics as usual,” with Perot saying, “Our president blames Congress, Congress blames the president, the Democrats and Republicans blame each other. Nobody steps up to the plate and accepts responsibility for anything.”

He said that 24 years ago, but that quote no doubt resonates with the majority of those who voted for Trump this year.

Despite having a large personal wealth, Perot didn’t like to spend money on campaigning or advertising, much like Trump, looking for ways to appear on television shows in place of buying ads.

While Perot was firm about his economic policy issues, he seemed to go back and forth on more social issues, also a Trump trait.

Perot was opposed to NAFTA, famously describing “the giant sucking sound” to describe how American jobs were headed to Mexico. Trump has called NAFTA “the worst trade deal ever.”

The campaign makeup was also similar. Perot was known to resist the advice of his campaign team at times while going with his gut, leading to the departure of his campaign manager. We’ve seen that with Trump’s campaign as well.

While Perot hasn’t demonized the media to the extent Trump has, Perot did complain about “gotcha stories” and what he felt was preferential treatment of other candidates in the race by the media.

Perot liked speaking directly to voters. In his case, he would buy time on network television to show infomercials where he would explain his policies complete with charts and graphs.

And he didn’t talk like politicians, either, preferring to sound more like the “common man” than those in Washington, D.C.

Perot had a very strong showing for a third party candidate, but he didn’t come close to winning the presidency. Perhaps political experts saw that as a sign that a populist message can get you only so far.

But Trump proved that it could get you all the way to the presidency.

Trump had key things working in his favor that Perot did not. Perhaps most importantly, he had social media and particularly Twitter. His ability to reach out to voters on a personal level through social media is something Perot didn’t have.

Candidate Trump also had built-in, brand name, pop-culture recognition from coast to coast that Perot didn’t. Never underestimate how being famous seems to add to a person’s sense of credibility. Like him or not, a lot of people felt like they knew him.

Trump also understood that although he was essentially running as a political outsider, it would be impossible to gain enough votes as a third party candidate like Perot, so he ran as a member of one of the two major parties.

As someone who cast his first presidential vote for Perot when he ran in 1996, I understand why so many people, even young people, dissatisfied with the federal government would vote for a candidate like him. And perhaps like some who voted for Trump, I didn’t expect my candidate to win. But at least I could help send a message.

Bill Clinton, of course, won both elections, with Hillary Clinton serving as first lady.

Which brings us to 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Conservatives have never liked HRC. And she knows that.

But rather than try to reach out to conservatives to win at least a few of their votes, she seemed to turn instead to shoring up her base with liberals and an ever-expanding culturally diverse population. It doesn’t seem like a bad strategy, but for a large part of the population that was tired of hearing about reaching out to diverse groups of people for the past eight years and instead wanted to hear about how their lives in rural America would be made better, they felt ignored.

Clinton’s fatal error, in my opinion, is when she shifted from simply painting her opponent as a bigoted, misogynistic man unprepared to handle the job to focus on his supporters, saying you can put half of them in what she calls a “basket of deplorables.”

That one rather confusing image simply solidified for many what they already suspected about Clinton: she’s an elitist who looks down on us.

The email scandal also fed into that same image of someone who is isolated, secretive and can’t be trusted.

Trump successfully ran on a populist platform while feeding into the fears and beliefs conservatives already had about the Clintons.

But he also said and did things that would have sunk any other candidate who ever ran before, at least according to conventional wisdom.

Rural America may not have seen Trump as the perfect candidate, but he was the one who spoke to them and, more importantly, connected with them.

Millions of Americans disagreed with much of what Trump said in this election and are concerned about how many of his proposed policies will shape our future.

But I know a lot of us in rural America felt the exact same way when Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 while Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.

Trump can find success as president by doing what Hillary Clinton as a candidate could not – reaching out to people who can’t stand you. It’s a tough job, but that’s the only way a populist candidate who lost the popular vote will find success as president.

And the fact Trump looks like he will lose the popular vote by somewhere around 1.4 million votes or more is not insignificant. For perspective, 11 of the 50 states have a total population of less than 1.4 million. Clinton is likely to win the popular vote by more than two Wyomings.

Trump must now deliver on the many promises he made while he was a candidate or face an impatient electorate ready to give someone else a try in four years.

Perhaps Trump may be wise to heed the advice of Perot, who once said, “Talk is cheap. Words are plentiful. Deeds are precious.”

Brian Knox is the Messenger’s special projects manager.

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