Ross Perot, Populist Harbinger

Ross Perot, Populist Harbinger

Views that were fringe in Perot’s day have taken center stage in national politics.

Ross Perot speaks at a press conference in the U.S. Capitol in 1993. (Maureen Keating via Library of Congress)

The late Ross Perot was called many things in the course of his 1992 run for president. Vice President Dan Quayle called him a “temperamental tycoon,” Karl Rove called him an “untested wild man,” and editorials dismissed him as an “infantile” narcissist and a “billionaire-bore.” To some, Perot, who passed away on July 9 at the age of eighty-nine, was a quack and crackpot; to others, he was a trailblazing businessman and plainspoken leader. In hindsight, he appears as a Cassandra whose flawed appeal to economic alienation pointed to growing cracks in the political establishment.

His contradictions were many: he was, as one Perot biographer put it, an “Antigovernment patriot, antiunion populist, antimanagement capitalist,” and a “billionaire defender of the underdog.” The issue that most defined Perot during his public life throughout the early 1990s was his steadfast campaign against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In his appearances on Larry King Live, he memorably deplored “the giant sucking sound” of jobs fleeing southward. He disrupted the bipartisan consensus surrounding free trade by clamoring for another way.

In the figure of Perot, for a time electoral politics’ greatest gadfly, we can now see the key economic compromises that Democrats made in this era. Perot matters not just because his economic populism presaged our current autarkic president. He matters because his improbable success hinted at the limitations of the Democratic Party’s pursuit of the ever-elusive economic centrist.

Voters saw Perot, who built his reputation attacking the twin evils of the federal deficit and trade deficit, as a rare dissenter from the orthodoxy that trade liberalization uniformly benefitted American workers. Of course, dissent also emanated from other quarters—most significantly from organized labor, increasingly under siege. Yet by the 1990s, a decade so defined by its economic optimism and euphoria about the end of history, protectionism had been eclipsed in the mainstream of both political parties. Perot’s platform was also a harbinger for the future of both left and right populism. Views that were fringe in Perot’s day were, by 2016, once again front and center.

Perot reduced an arcane technical agreement about quotas, tariffs, and regulation down to a simple truth: the corrupted Beltway elite, beholden to multinational corporations seeking to cut labor costs, threatened U.S. economic independence. He famously used charts, graphs, and infomercials to make these points, but he also expressed a folksy wisdom, saying of NAFTA, “I decided I was dumb and didn’t understand it so I called the Who’s Who of the folks who’ve been around it.” This anti-technocratic streak and earnest attempt at spelling out complex phenomena were part of Perot’s charm.

Like Trump, Perot harkened back to a golden age of U.S. industrial manufacturing. To Perot, the transition to the service economy was not a structural inevitability of global markets and technological change, but a choice that policymakers made intentionally. Despite his own high-tech fortunes, Perot’s message hinged on the need to shore up manufacturing jobs. Testifying before Congress in 1992, he declared that “Bubble jobs are one-time jobs that come and go. Build a factory in a community, make great products, ship them all over the world, and you have a growing industrial base in that community that will provide jobs for several decades at a minimum.”

In his 1993 book, Save Your Job, Save Our Country: Why NAFTA Must Be Stopped Now, Perot broadcast the threat of layoffs for U.S. workers in labor-intensive industries like textiles, electronics manufacturing, and agriculture. He focused on the contradictory promises of an opened Mexican consumer market and the illogical premise that Mexican workers earning poverty wages could ever bolster U.S. manufacturing by buying U.S.-made goods that, under NAFTA, could enter Mexico tariff-free.

The flip-side to Perot’s concerns for the working-class, however, was sentimental nationalism. Perot opposed supranational institutions on the grounds that they undermined American self-sufficiency. Though he avoided outright xenophobia, a foreign menace lurked in his rhetoric praising the glory of old-fashioned American capitalism and entrepreneurship.

Unlike his third-party predecessors, Perot’s support was geographically diffuse. Other campaigners outside the main two parties, like Robert LaFollette in 1924, Strom Thurmond in 1948, and George Wallace in 1968, had all, unlike Perot, received a plurality in at least one state and disproportionate support in one region. But they all garnered less of the popular vote than Perot, who received support from one of every five voting Americans. Perot did well in rural America and performed terribly in cities. He did well in culturally moderate places and not as well in the Bible Belt Deep South. Crucially, Perot performed best in economically distressed places inhabited by white people. He received support from 20 percent of white voters, in contrast to 7 percent of African-American voters. Though Perot—unlike George H. W. Bush in 1988—did not engage in explicit race-baiting, he received strong support in places outside of the South that had supported George Wallace decades earlier.

Even though Perot confounds familiar right-left tropes, his popularity in many ways stemmed from shortcomings of both parties’ positions on foreign trade. After Reagan, many Democrats attempted to reinvent the party, spurning the so-called “special interests” that had defined the New Deal coalition in the wake of the New Left. The so-called “New Democrats” reoriented the party away from its historic base of urban, poor, pro-labor, African-American voters and toward affluent, suburban liberals. Endorsing free trade became one means by which New Democrats could signal to middle-class and white-collar Americans that the high-tech future of globalized commerce could benefit them, too.

Perot tapped into discontent with that strategy. In a two-party system that discourages voting for outlier candidates, Perot’s substantial support hinted at a populace so disillusioned with both Democratic and Republican strategy that they would, essentially, throw away their vote. As the late Alan Brinkley wrote in 1996, “Unlike T.R. or Debs or Wallace, Perot represented a yearning not so much for a new politics as for an end to politics.”

NAFTA was at the center of this political alienation. Perot’s read on NAFTA stood in marked contrast to that of the New Democrats. Democrats and Republicans alike sold NAFTA as a jobs-creation policy. Lloyd Bentsen, then a Democratic Senator from Texas and later Bill Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury, made this argument by inverting Perot’s oft-quoted line, saying: “Ross Perot has a hearing problem. That’s not jobs going south, that’s products.” George Bush’s Labor Secretary Lynn Martin supported NAFTA based on a similar logic, stating that the agreement was “in reality, a jobs bill,” since it would allow nations to maximize their productive capacities. The export market, free trade proponents estimated, would create 200,000 new jobs in the United States (an altogether trifling figure in a nation of over 250 million).

Perot’s push for protectionism also raised difficult questions about the future of organized labor. By the late 1990s, wages had stagnated for a quarter century. At its base, the free trade fight hinged on a disagreement about what type of work Americans should and could undertake: NAFTA supporters conceded that American manufacturing and agricultural workers might lose their jobs in the short term, but that in the long term the pain would be worth the adjustment. Workers facing imminent lay-offs saw such abstract planning as an affront. The jobs that NAFTA proponents claimed would be the future of the country often required advanced training, out of reach for most manufacturing laborers and rural farmworkers. The subtext of the bipartisan optimism on free trade, of course, was that a period of adjustment, of outgrowing industrial sectors, was worth the trade-off. This sort of optimism existed a world apart from Perot’s urgent plea for intervention against economic integration.

Right-wing commentators likewise reviled Perot’s protectionism. Paul Gigot, writing in the Wall Street Journal, referred to Perot’s critique of free trade as “too crabbed, fearful and tribal,” contending that “no avowed protectionist . . . has held the presidency since Taft.” Democrats and Republicans alike thus naturalized free trade, imbuing globalization with a sense of inevitably. To stand athwart free trade was to swim against the tide of history and impede a borderless world economy. As one contemporary observer wrote, “To be ‘for’ or ‘against’ freer trade in North America is like being for or against the weather. With or without NAFTA, the continent’s economic integration was fast becoming a reality.” Free trade advocates, the self-appointed vessels of this this brave new world, had little patience for critics like Perot.

Richard Hofstadter wrote that “Third parties are like bees; once they have stung, they die.” Perot’s sting might have reshaped policy marginally, perhaps contributing to the Clinton administration’s decision to superficially amend NAFTA with side agreements on labor and the environment. The Perot phenomenon itself possessed little influence or staying power: by the time of Perot’s second run in 1996, his support was cut in half, to only 8.4 percent of the vote. More than this, though, Perot provides evidence that polarization and partisan strife worked along a different axis than the red-blue one that is typically assumed to define the last decades of the twentieth century and beyond.

Donald Trump’s paeans to U.S. jobs, his hostility to trade with China, and his tokenistic gestures toward resuscitating U.S. industrial sectors tap into the darkest elements of Perot-style populism. Trump’s protectionism does little to address the pain of economic dislocation, instead using demonization of the nation’s trading partners as a balm. Trump conflates nativism with economic redress. The best pieces of the Perot platform, the ones worth holding onto, were those that did not just harp on walling off the nation, but that conceptualized policy as transnational. His vision for a “social tariff” would have imposed tariffs that decreased as Mexican laborers’ standard of living rose.

Nostalgia alone cannot animate a politics sufficient to address economic affliction. An honest reckoning with the upward redistribution entailed by free trade agreements like NAFTA seems a better starting point.

Jacqueline Brandon is a PhD candidate in history at Princeton University.

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