Trump’s Reform Party Run Reveals Political Opportunism, Public Fragmentation
IN the summer of 1999, Donald Trump announced he would “probably run and probably win” if the Reform Party selected him as its presidential nominee, prompting its chairman Russ Verney to ask a Washington Post reporter “Is this a joke?”
Verney presumably knew a thing or two about political humor. His party was founded in 1995 by eccentric Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who famously took a three-month pout break after a wave of negative press in the middle of his 1992 presidential campaign, only to return to the trail in October with a series of nationally broadcast political infomercials with names like “Deep Voodoo, Chicken Feathers and The American Dream,” and declared the Patsy Cline song “Crazy” his campaign anthem.
With Perot declining to run a third time, the Reform Party’s long-term viability depended on finding a candidate capable of pulling five percent of the popular vote, the minimum required for federal election funding. The party’s rising star was former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, who had just been elected governor of Minnesota in 1998 and who was busy reshaping the party in his own image–“fiscally conservative but socially liberal”–with an eye toward a 2004 presidential run, after his term as governor had ended. Ventura’s rise, which included a controversial Playboy interview in which he called organized religion a “sham and a crutch for weak-minded people” and expressed his wish to be reincarnated as a “38 double-D bra,” sparked tensions with the party’s old guard. By the fall of 1999, an internecine battle between Perot-aligned and Ventura-aligned party members manifested publicly as a proxy campaign between Pat Buchanan (the eventual nominee) and Donald Trump (a stand-in for Ventura).
Trump’s seven-month flirtation with the Reform Party may seem like a trial run. After all, in nominating the unabashed white nationalist Buchanan as its standard bearer, the 2000 Reform Party became synonymous with the exact sort of trade protectionism and xenophobia that has fueled Trump’s current campaign. (Buchanan even commented, recently, that Trump stole his 2000 campaign playbook, and encouraged him to “Never retreat. Never explain. Get it done and let them howl.”)
But curiously enough, Trump campaigned in 2000 as the tolerant, anti-racist alternative to Buchanan, not only airing Buchanan’s long history of bigoted viewpoints–denouncing him as a Hitler apologist and holocaust revisionist–but taking him to task for his homophobic response to the AIDS crisis and for his support of South African apartheid. In his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, Trump excoriated Buchanan, writing: “He has systematically bashed Blacks, Mexicans, and Gays.”
In fact, explaining his decision to withdraw his name from consideration for the Reform Party nod in February 2000, one week after Ventura’s own resignation from the party, Trump expressed his unwillingness to be associated with any party that claimed Buchanan and notorious Klansman David Duke as members. In a New York Times op-ed, in fact, Trump bemoaned the “fringe element” he saw taking over the party:
“When I held a reception for Reform Party leaders in California, the room was crowded with Elvis look-alikes, resplendent in various campaign buttons and anxious to give me a pamphlet explaining the Swiss-Zionist conspiracy to control America.”
Sixteen years later, the conspiracy theorists and fascists that ruined the Reform Party for Trump have carried him through his hostile takeover of the Republican Party in 2016.
How did we get here?
Of course, denouncing Buchanan and Duke did not make Trump any less a proponent of racist policies; even then, his core campaign issues, as outlined in The America We Deserve, included a full embrace on the tough-on-crime ideology that characterized Rudy Giuliani’s mayoralty. Trump even called “broken windows” policing architect James Q. Wilson, “my favorite crime expert” and bragged about his call to execute the (now exonerated) Central Park Five. But his Reform Party bid was always, first and foremost, a proxy for Jesse Ventura’s candidacy-in-waiting. Trump first met Ventura while hosting “monster wrestling” events in Atlantic City–when Ventura was wrestling under the stage name “The Body”–and the two recognized each other as kindred spirits. Trump respected Ventura for his reputation as a “straight shooter,” and as a path-breaker for “nonpolitician” candidates like himself; for his part, Ventura saw the pro-choice Trump as a placeholder, with enough public name recognition to keep the Reform Party from taking a rightward turn on “social issues.”
In September of 1999, when Buchanan began signaling his intention to seek the Reform nomination, Ventura publicly expressed his displeasure: “He has social issues that he puts very strongly on the front burner,” Ventura told the Times, adding “we in the Reform Party tend to leave social issues aside.” Behind the scenes, Ventura encouraged Trump to join the Reform Party to oppose Buchanan. Trump obliged with relish, announcing his own resignation from the Republican Party, and declaring his intentions to seek the Reform nomination on Oct. 24, 1999 — the day before Buchanan’s own scheduled announcement.
While Trump’s campaign primarily focused on painting Buchanan as a “Hitler lover,” it also crafted an ideologically incoherent platform designed to ingratiate the sort of “centrist” voters that Ventura envisioned as his ideal national base. Aside from a one-time 14.25 percent tax on individuals and trusts worth more than $10 million, and a hawkish foreign policy (Trump called for putting Fidel Castro on trial for murder and a pre-emptive attack on North Korea’s nuclear facilities), a number of Trump’s policy proposals would enrage his current supporters. Most notably, he described his political philosophy as “conservative but liberal on health care”
For all the contrasts between Trump 2000 and Trump 2016, his opportunism remains constant. Trump’s full-throated embrace of white nationalism and pandering to the alt-right, in the intervening years, does not reflect a shift in Trump’s own moral compass, nor does it reveal the “real” Donald Trump, now freed from serving as Ventura’s surrogate. Instead, we are seeing a shift in how public opinion is organized and mobilized, and the political opportunities that its disaggregation enables.
Since the 1920s and ‘30s, when the modern conception of “public opinion” was first theorized, it has usually been understood as the politically agential amalgamation of the discrete private opinions of individuals. That it reflects discrete opinions is evidenced by the right-wing political tactic of “dog whistling,” which is premised on using publicly acceptable code words to mobilize public opinion in support of policies nevertheless rooted in beliefs that have been rendered unacceptable to utter publicly.
Though Buchanan blamed the “big-money candidacies” of George W. Bush and Steve Forbes, his failure to catch fire with Republican voters was related to his unwillingness to dog whistle. In 2000, the “centrism” that fueled Ventura’s aspirations–as well as the Bush campaign’s successful “compassionate conservative” branding–reflected a general belief in aggregate public opinion and in its normative boundaries. Buchanan’s paltry showing in the 2000 general election, garnering only .42 percent of the national vote, seemed to validate this belief in public opinion’s genteel perimeters.
Today, belief in a normatively-constrained aggregate public opinion is more difficult to sustain. From the declining gatekeeping role of broadcast television and the emergence of politically polarized talk radio and cable news networks to the proliferating echo chambers of social media and residential enclaving according to political party affiliation, “public opinion” is more and more characterized by a fractiously disaggregated array of publics, each with its own normative values and expectations.
Trump is, to some extent, invested in maintaining traditional aggregate public opinion: he obsesses over poll numbers and has spent the last decade, as host of NBC’s The Apprentice, leveraging the popular reality game show genre to launder his tabloid reputation into mainstream celebrity. On the other hand, in using his celebrity to fan the flames of the Obama birther conspiracy, Trump has demonstrated a concern with an alternative conception of “public opinion”: one defined not as an aggregate of the discrete opinions of all individuals, but as the opinions individuals or groups feel comfortable expressing publicly.
The extreme distance between Trump’s attempted centrism in 2000 and his championing of the alt-right in 2016 is a product of a rapid proliferation of publics. He has cobbled together an electoral constituency out of a motley array of groups and individuals, all searching for a safe space to publicly express opinions that have, until recently, been deemed too impolite for a presidential candidate to utter. These opinions have already enjoyed a variety of safe spaces, of course, with varying degrees of publicity: Tea Party meetings, call-in radio shows like Rush Limbaugh, Fox News Channel, or one’s carefully curated community of conservative Facebook friends. Trump is, thus, not creating a new aggregate public opinion, capable of standing in for the whole; he is merely exploiting and amplifying a plurality of already extant publics. In other words: Trump needs Breitbart more than Breitbart needs him.
To say, then, as the Clinton campaign increasingly has, that Trump is “mainstreaming” the alt-right gives him more credit than he deserves while doubling down on the unsustainable belief in a normatively-constrained aggregate public opinion. Trump’s white supremacist utterances on a national stage may draw more attention to the alt-right, but he is incapable of conferring upon it the legitimacy that the term “mainstream” implies. Indeed, Trump’s rise is evidence of the increasing incoherence of what has been traditionally considered mainstream.
New media is irrevocably dismantling the normative parameters for an aggregate public opinion, and there is no point in trying to reassert one. The center cannot hold. In part, it never existed to begin with. But the evolution of the media environment makes it increasingly impossible to imagine that it ever might. The challenge, then, is in understanding, identifying, and exploiting the political opportunities enabled by the rapid proliferation of publics. In this respect, and in only this respect, Trump is no joke.