The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
Both men would resent the comparison, but before Donald Trump’s run for the White House came the candidacy of Ross Perot, who has died at age 89.
Both ran as outsiders, brash insurgents and “populists,” promising to restore America to a supposedly better past.
Trump vowed to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C.
Perot, running in 1992, said the nation’s capital “has become a town with sound bites, shell games, handlers, media stuntmen who posture, create images, talk, shoot off Roman candles, but don’t ever accomplish anything. We need deeds, not words, in this city.”
Importantly, both men convinced large numbers of Americans that it was better to have a successful business executive to solve the nation’s problems. Their pitch was that experience in the law, statecraft, diplomacy and government were irrelevant to seeking the highest office in the land — indeed such qualifications were corrupting.
Perot won 19% of the popular vote in 1992, the best showing of a third-party candidate since 1912, when former President Theodore Roosevelt ran as a Progressive (Bull Moose). Perot might have done even better if he hadn’t dropped out, then re-entered the race.
Trump, sweeping established Republican opponents in the primaries, won the nomination. Thanks to 78,000 votes in three critical states, he won the presidency in the Electoral College.
The differences between the two are also important.
Trump plays on reality television a character that Ross Perot embodied in real life: The self-made tycoon who created a successful company and earned his billions by pluck and hard work.
A New York Times investigation showed how Donald Trump’s wealth was seeded by his father. The president was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and with bone spurs that kept him out of the military. Trump presided over a string of business failures.
Perot was born amid relatively modest means in Texarkana, Texas. His entrepreneurial spirit came early, selling garden seeds door-to-door at age 7, then building a successful newspaper route in the poor part of town.
Unlike Trump, Perot was in the military, graduating from the Naval Academy in 1953 and serving aboard an aircraft carrier and destroyer. (Perot was also a prude; Trump, no).
At first, Perot was popular with his folksy charm and outspokenness, charts about the deficit and government, and his penchant for equating citizens of the United States to shareholders in a company.
The problem, of course, is that being chief executive of the federal government has little in common with the business world.
Separation of powers, the courts, professional civil servants and the rule of law prevent any president from acting as an authoritarian CEO (so far), as Trump has discovered to his twittering frustration.
We will never know how a Perot presidency would have turned out. With the Cold War over, many Americans seemed willing to throw the dice, especially during Perot’s most popular months before he dropped out. By the time he returned to the campaign, he came off to many as a crank and gadfly, hardly presidential material.
Trump might win reelection, if the economy remains strong and the Democrats form a circular firing squad.
But the idea of business executive as magical president of the United States — first burnished by Perot — will surely be tarnished. And rightly so.