Ross Perot died today, and there is no doubt that he changed the course of modern American history. In 1991, at the end of the Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush had stratospheric approval ratings and seemed a shoo-in for reelection. Perot had opposed the Iraq War, and his subsequent run for the presidency contributed heavily to Bush’s defeat.
Perot ran against the developing consensus politics of Washington, D.C., in 1992 and 1996 just as that consensus was becoming aware of itself. In some ways, he was running against the consensus of mass democracies. He ran on raising taxes and lowering spending. He ran against waste. He opposed NAFTA, memorably describing “the giant sucking sound” of American jobs moving to Mexico.
With Perot running outside the two-party system, his candidacies became the repository of frustrations from every corner of American life. “I don’t have any experience in running up a $4 trillion debt. I don’t have any experience in gridlock government, where nobody takes responsibility for anything and everybody blames everybody else,” he said in a debate. The U.S. debt is now over $22 trillion.
Although maybe he did have some experience in creating that debt. Perot also ran against his own way of doing business. Perot was an astonishingly successful businessman, a major force in the sales growth of IBM during the early 1960s, before starting his own companies: Electronic Data Systems, and later Perot Industries. These technology companies tended to have governments and their militaries as their lucrative clients. On the campaign trail he detested lobbyists and special carve-outs, but he did his own share of lobbying and benefited from carve-outs himself.
Perot cultivated an image as a Texas cowboy capitalist, a “doer.” Perot’s company EDS developed an information system for Iran’s security programs in the 1970s. As the Iranian revolution proceeded, Perot sent his own employees on an incredible undercover mission to rescue EDS employees trapped in Iran, after they had been trained by a retired Army colonel at Perot’s weekend house. Perot commissioned Ken Follett to write the novel-like version of these events, On Wings of Eagles, which helped to make Perot into an American legend.
When you look closely at Perot’s campaigns, you see his influence everywhere ever since. His populist attitude against Washington informed the Gingrich-led Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. His fondness for plain-spoken fiscal rectitude popped up again in Al Gore’s Social Security “lock box” and later in the Tea Party.
And of course, Perot now looks like the Morning Star of Trumpism. Running into the 2000 campaign, Perot fought with Donald Trump and Pat Buchanan over the remnants of the Reform party that Perot had created in 1996. It had a secularist tilt and it had something of Perot’s conspiratorial mindset. Jesse Ventura, the action-film star, professional wrestler, and conspiracy peddler, became the governor of Minnesota running as a member of the Reform party in 1998, though he left it as Buchanan threatened to take over. Buchanan eventually won the Reform party’s nomination, but his poor campaign in 2000 made it a useless political vehicle thereafter.
Like Perot, President Trump is also a billionaire populist and a trade protectionist. Trump appeals to the same secular, nationalist voters that were Perot’s base. But Trump also appealed to and made pacts with all the factions of the Republican party. Of its billionaire populists, America chose the reality-TV show star and New York real-estate figure over the Texas naval veteran and entrepreneur.
Perot’s death was greeted with well-wishing and statements of admiration from his former political rivals. In his final public interview, Perot was asked to sum up his legacy. He replied “Texas born. Texas bred. When I die, I’ll be Texas dead. Ha!”