Steve Kornacki When Trump ran against Trump-ism: The 1990s and the birth of political tribalism in America
The version of Trump who dipped his toe into the presidential ring almost two decades ago was a jarringly different man ideologically.
Donald Trump is seen outside the Federal Courthouse in Newark, N.J., with Roger Stone, the director of Trump's presidential exploratory committee, for the swearing-in of Trump's sister as a federal appeals court judge on Oct. 25, 1999.Daniel Hulshizer / AP file
By Steve Kornacki, National political correspondent, NBC News and MSNBC
He wanted a wall along the entire southern border and a pause on all immigration. He vowed to rip up trade deals and revive manufacturing. He hated political correctness and warned of the decline Western culture. He railed against a “rigged” system and fomented a populist uprising that terrified the Republican Party’s leaders. He was endorsed by David Duke. And he was denounced and labeled a racist — by Donald Trump.
His name was Pat Buchanan, and when he set out in 1999 on his third presidential campaign of the decade, it was under a new banner: The Reform Party, which had just been built from the remnants of Ross Perot’s two independent White House bids. But Buchanan encountered unexpected competition from Trump, a bombastic New Yorker who turned the race for the Reform nomination into an insult-heavy pop culture spectacle. In style and tactic, this Trump was indistinguishable from the man the world knows today. But on substance, he was jarringly different man, running against a worldview he would a few years later embrace.
This was the first time that Buchanan came to a presidential campaign as a powerhouse. In 1992 and 1996, the surprise had been his strength against the establishment. When he announced this time around, it was assumed he’d give Bush a serious run. “With this campaign,” Buchanan declared in March 1999, “I intend to redefine what it means to be a conservative in America — to reshape our party into the natural home for the men and women who work in this country.” But Bush was putting something together that was much stronger than what Buchanan had run against before. The game, he became convinced, was being rigged against him.
He had three options. He could quit, like the others. He could stick around and wage a doomed but principled battle against Bush. Or he could join up with America’s newest third party. That would be the Reform Party. Perot had followed through with his threat and launched it after his Dallas convention, using the new party as the vehicle for his 1996 presidential campaign, which proved a bitterly disappointing experience for him. Shut out of the debates and given short shrift by the press, Perot won just 8 percent of the vote. Still, that was enough to guarantee the Reform Party ballot access for 2000 in a bunch of states. More importantly, based on the Federal Election Commission’s formula, it would mean $12.6 million in campaign funds for the next Reform nominee — enough to run a real campaign.
Perot wasn’t running again, at least it didn’t seem that way, and Buchanan found himself tempted. The nomination would be winnable, and he knew the language of the Perot voter. The free money was alluring, too. No one had yet harnessed the Internet to finance a campaign. As the Reform nominee, he’d be a player in the general election. Polls already showed him creeping into double digits in a race with Bush and Gore. If he could get into the fall debates, who knows what might happen?
That’s what was making the Bush campaign so nervous. Buchanan’s appeal wasn’t confined to the Republican Party, but it seemed unquestionable he’d draw more votes from Bush than from Gore — a lot more. Buchanan’s dance away from the GOP played out in slow motion, and through it all, Bush treated him with kid gloves, hoping he might yet reconsider. The effort was in vain, and on October 25, Buchanan bolted.
“The day of the outsider is over in the Beltway parties,” he said. "The money men have seen to that. Never again will our political establishment permit a dissident to come as close to capturing a nomination as we did in 1996. They have rearranged the primary schedules and rigged the game to protect the party favorites.”
Within the Bush family, it was an article of faith that Perot had cost the father his reelection; was Perot’s new party now going to thwart the son?
First, Buchanan would have to secure the Reform nomination. On paper, he was a good fit, but the party was in turmoil. It lacked a coherent infrastructure and faced an identity crisis at the very top. Perot regarded the party as his baby and expected to keep calling the shots, even from behind the scenes. But now he had competition, from the Reform Party’s biggest — and only — success story.
The year before, Jesse Ventura, known as “The Body” in his former career as a flamboyant professional wrestler, had run under the party’s banner for governor of Minnesota. He caught fire late in the race and won in an upset. Now he was the only Reform Party member in the nation holding a major office. His platform was vaguely libertarian and his blunt blow-up-the-system rhetoric made him a hit with the Perotistas, who urged him to run for president. He didn’t want to do that, but he did want to control the party.
The Ventura and Perot forces collided in July 1999, at the convention to elect a new party chairman. Perot put up a candidate, but Ventura objected. “It is time for him to step aside,” he said of the founder. Ventura had his own candidate: Jack Gargan, the retiree who’d helped ignite the Perot phenomenon all those years earlier with his Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out (THRO) campaign. Gargan prevailed in the vote.
Within the Bush family, it was an article of faith that Perot had cost the father his reelection; was Perot’s new party now going to thwart the son?
With his chairman in place, Ventura moved to find a presidential candidate. He wanted Lowell Weicker, who’d been a liberal Republican senator before winning election as Connecticut’s governor as an Independent in 1990. Weicker, now 68, had left office after a single term but remained a vocal participant in national politics. He began exploring a campaign.
That possibility seemed to provoke an old Weicker nemesis. Six years earlier, Donald J. Trump had sought to expand his casino empire from Atlantic City into Connecticut, where the Mashantucket Pequot Indian tribe had capitalized on a Supreme Court ruling to build a gaming resort on its reservation land. The Foxwoods casino was an instant hit and Trump wanted in on the action, appealing to Connecticut lawmakers to authorize casinos on nonreservation land. Governor Weicker opposed him and it got personal. When Trump claimed the leaders of the Pequots “don’t look like Indians to me,” Weicker called him a bigot and a “dirtbag.”
“My opposition to casinos isn’t just casinos,” he explained. “It’s opposition to Donald Trump.” Trump replied that Weicker was “a fat slob” who should “concentrate on losing 125 pounds.” Weicker ended up getting his way, but now, as he flirted with a presidential bid, Trump began intimating his own interest. He issued a statement: “If the Reform Party nominated me, I would probably run and probably win.”
At the July convention, some delegates distributed homemade literature promoting Trump. A straw poll tested possible presidential candidates. Perot came in first with 22 percent. Trump was second with 17. Weicker was back in single digits. “I don’t know anything about what’s happening,” Trump responded. “But I’m nevertheless greatly honored by all the hoopla for Trump.”
Weicker backed away and Ventura grew smitten with Trump. There was common ground in their styles and personalities (“He and I think a lot alike”), but Ventura was also alarmed by Buchanan, who now looked likely to jump in the race. “He has social issues that he puts very strongly on the front burner, and we in the Reform Party tend to leave social issues aside,” he said.
Ventura began wooing Trump, who sounded like he was warming to the idea. “When he asks me to look at something, I’m going to consider it,” Trump said. Like Ventura, he also pronounced himself opposed to Buchanan: “I think his views are prehistoric.”
Trump had flirted with a presidential campaign once before, delivering a high-profile speech in New Hampshire in the run-up to the 1988 campaign.
Fleetingly, Trump had flirted with a presidential campaign once before, delivering a high-profile speech in New Hampshire in the run-up to the 1988 campaign. His remarks played on the theme of America being kicked around and “ripped off” by foreign governments. He proposed attacking Iran, a menace to Washington since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and seizing its oil fields.
He’d been an icon of the go-go eighties back then, an audacious Manhattan developer with an abundance of self-regard and a playboy lifestyle that made him a tabloid fixture. The nineties had brought hard luck, though. Trump overextended himself and watched his fortune crumble into bankruptcy, only to refashion his name into a personal brand and bounce back. He’d topped the bestseller list in 1987 with "The Art of the Deal." A decade later, he made it back again with "The Art of the Comeback."
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Nominally, he was a Republican, but politics had nothing to do with the Trump image. He’d donated almost equally to Democrats and Republicans and expressed sympathy for Bill Clinton during the impeachment drama. Sensing a publicity stunt, the media treated the Trump rumblings skeptically. Then, he saw a chance to raise the stakes.
Buchanan’s new book was stirring up a hornet’s nest. "A Republic, Not an Empire" amounted to a treatise against foreign intervention. He made his case by reviewing past military campaigns and challenging their necessity — including World War II.
Hitler, Buchanan wrote, even after gobbling up large chunks of Europe in the late 1930s, had made “no overt move to threaten U.S. vital interests” and posed “no physical threat” to America. In essence, he was arguing that America allowed itself to be pulled into a confrontational posture, prompting Hitler to respond in kind and setting o a war that could have been avoided.
This was, needless to say, white-hot stuff. Many of the Republicans who’d been treating Buchanan delicately now called for him to go ahead and leave their party. John McCain called his analysis “so far outside of the philosophy of what America is all about that it’s unacceptable.”
On Sunday, September 19, Buchanan was a guest on CBS’s "Face the Nation." An hour before the show, Trump faxed a statement in to the producers:
Pat Buchanan’s stated view that we should not have stopped Adolph [sic] Hitler is repugnant. Hitler was a monster, and it was essential for the Allies to crush Nazism. Buchanan denigrates the memory of those Americans who gave their lives in the Second World War in the effort to stop Hitler. I am proud of the vital role that the United States played in stopping Hitler. I think it is essential that someone challenge these extreme and outrageous views by Pat Buchanan.
On the air, Gloria Borger, who was joining host Bob Schieffer in the questioning, read some of the statement to Buchanan. “Well, that’s a silly and false caricature of my position,” he replied. “Hitler declared war on the United States. We had no alternative but to fight him.”
“Well, sure. Of course. Hitler declared war on the United States December 11th, 1941. What alternative does Donald Trump suggest?” Now Trump was part of the story. “Pat says Hitler had no malicious intent toward the United States,” he told the New York Times. “Well, Hitler killed six million Jews and millions of others. Don’t you think it was only a question of time before he got to us? He tackled Europe first and we were next. Pat’s amazing.”
“Asked whether he had read the book,” the paper noted, “Mr. Trump said, ‘I’ve seen the phrases we’re dealing with.’”
There was at least some resistance to Buchanan within the Reform Party, but who would give it voice? Trump seemed to relish the role. Now the press was getting interested. To the New York Daily News, he pronounced himself “very serious” about running. In 1999, CNN remained the undisputed cable news leader. It still had the biggest audience, and even for other media professionals, it was the go-to source for breaking developments throughout the day. Trump recognized this, and on October 7, he demonstrated he knew how to exploit it, too.
He started the day by taping an interview with Larry King, to air on his show at nine o’clock that night. Trump came equipped with a nugget of news. He was forming a presidential exploratory committee. “The polls have been unbelievable,” he told King. “So I am going to form a presidential exploratory committee. I might as well announce that on your show. Everyone else does.”
Practically speaking, the move had little significance, but it sounded very official. Now, CNN had “breaking news” that it could build its programming around for the rest of the day.
There was at least some resistance to Buchanan within the Reform Party, but who would give it voice? Trump seemed to relish the role. Now the press was getting interested.
It wasn’t just CNN. Trump was turning himself into a content machine for every outlet. On NBC’s Today, he rebutted the suggestion that he lagged in the polls by pointing to a survey from the National Enquirer. He told the Washington Times he’d love to have Oprah Winfrey as a running mate: “If she’d do it, she’d be fantastic. I mean, she’s popular, she’s brilliant, she’s a wonderful woman.” On the newsmagazine Dateline, he said he’d spend “as much as necessary for me to at least have a shot. If it took twenty or thirty or forty million dollars, I’d be willing to spend it.” The Wall Street Journal offered him space for an op-ed. “I believe non-politicians represent the wave of the future,” he wrote. Saturday Night Live imagined a strategy meeting with Perot, Buchanan and Trump.
His strength was hard to measure. Forty-seven percent of Americans had a negative view of Trump, according to one poll, although that was actually better than the numbers for Buchanan and Perot. In matchups with Gore and Bush, he was sitting around 10 percent, essentially the same level as Buchanan.
Within the Reform Party, things were even blurrier. The party was promoting what would be the first-ever online vote for a nominee, but who would comprise the electorate was unknown. Each candidate was supposed to mount a petition campaign to help the party qualify for the ballot in the states where it didn’t have automatic access.
Anyone signing a petition accepted by state officials would then be eligible to vote in the nomination race, along with every voter already registered with the Reform Party.
But fault lines were coming into focus. Perot’s running mate from 1996, Pat Choate, endorsed Buchanan. A sign of where the founder was casting his lot? Perot refused to say, but his loyalists were now maneuvering to regain control of the party. They controlled a majority of the executive committee, a check on the power of Gargan, the Ventura-aligned chairman. Disputes were breaking out; the schism at the top was deepening.
On October 24, Trump went on "Meet the Press" with more news to make. He was leaving the Republican Party and filing paperwork to join the Reform Party. Host Tim Russert asked why. “I really believe the Republicans are just too crazy right,” Trump replied. The same description, he went on to say, applied to Pat Buchanan: “He’s a Hitler lover. I guess he’s an anti-Semite. He doesn’t like the blacks, he doesn’t like the gays.”
“It’s just incredible,” Trump said, “that anybody could embrace this guy. And maybe he’ll get four or five percent of the vote, and it’ll be a really staunch right wacko vote. I’m not even sure if it’s right. It’s just a wacko vote. And I just can’t imagine that anybody can take him seriously.”
The bluster and bravado; easy disparagement of critics and rivals; constant references to dubious polls: so many of the traits Americans would confront a generation later were on display as Trump explored a 2000 bid.
The bluster and bravado; easy disparagement of critics and rivals; constant references to dubious polls: so many of the traits Americans would confront a generation later were on display as Trump explored a 2000 bid. But the content of his message differed dramatically from the Trumpism that would later emerge.
He presented himself as a social liberal and economic conservative. On abortion, he was “totally for choice — I think you have no alternative.” He said he wanted deep tax cuts, but also called for a onetime 14.25 percent tax on the assets of anyone worth at least ten million dollars. It drove conservatives crazy; they said it would crash the stock market. He said it would pay off the national debt once and for all. He was skeptical of gun control, but also critical of the NRA. On health care, he called himself “liberal” and advocated expanding Medicare to cover the cost of prescription drugs.
There was some overlap with Buchanan. Trump, too, was against NAFTA and spoke of global trade deals as a drain on American jobs. And he was for a strict immigration policy. “We have to take care of the people who are here,” he said. But he drew a bright line when it came to Buchanan’s tone (“He seems to be a racist”) and accused him of cultivating support from the bigoted fringes.
“On slow days,” Trump wrote in an op-ed, “he attacks gays, immigrants, welfare recipients, even Zulus. When cornered, he says he’s misunderstood.”
On a trip to California, between a meeting with Reform activists, a paid speech, and a taping of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," Trump visited the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, which sought to shine a light on racism and injustice around the world. After his tour, Trump told reporters that Buchanan should “come here and have a talk with Rabbi Cooper and his staff and talk things out a bit.”
He added: “We must recognize bigotry and prejudice and defeat it wherever it appears.”
Catching up with him during the California swing, a Los Angeles Times reporter took note of one of the would-be candidate’s fixations:
“I got a call from one of the biggest politicians in New York,” he says during a half-hour interview. “He couldn’t believe he was watching CNN for a whole hour and they kept announcing ‘Donald Trump and the other presidential candidates coming up at 7 o’clock.’
“They use me to announce they’re going to discuss presidential politics,” he brags before conceding that “whether or not TV ratings can transfer into votes is a very interesting question.”
He kept it up into the new year. By now, he was also touting a new book, "The America We Deserve," adding to the debate over whether this was all one big publicity stunt. Trump swore he was serious, but if he was, there were new obstacles now.
The clash at the top of the party was worsening. Perot’s forces were moving to oust Gargan as chairman. A court fight loomed, and it threatened to drag on for months and maybe even tie up the big pile of cash — those $12.6 million in federal matching funds — promised to the winner of the Reform Party nomination.
The new party’s decentralized nature was also making it a magnet for all sorts of niche interests. Lenora Fulani, self-described “black-nationalist Marxist” who’d previously run for president under the New Alliance Party banner, teamed up with Buchanan and was bidding to gain control of the party’s levers in New York. Fulani had been accused of anti-Semitism — “Jews had to sell their souls to acquire Israel,” she’d once said — and Trump condemned her.
David Duke popped up again, too, announcing his interest in joining the party and supporting Buchanan. John Hagelin, previously the candidate of the obscure Natural Law Party, which emphasized “harnessing the body’s natural healing mechanisms,” was now talking about mobilizing his troops to compete for the Reform nomination for himself.
In January, Trump canceled a speech to the Reform Party’s state convention, citing the party’s increasing instability. He wrote a letter to Perot and Ventura encouraging them to bury the hatchet and prevent a “fratricide.” But the Reform Party was plunging into chaos now. Perot’s executive committee voted to expel Gargan, who called the move illegitimate. Then Ventura, enraged by Perot’s maneuvering, threw his hands up and quit the party. Trump said he supported the decision and that it was a “devastating blow” to the Reform Party.
On February 14, Trump himself walked away, claiming the internal discord was rendering the nomination worthless. “The Reform Party now includes a Klansman, Mr. Duke, a neo-Nazi, Mr. Buchanan, and a Communist, Ms. Fulani,” he said. “This is not company I wish to keep.” He elaborated in an op-ed for the New York Times.
“When I held a reception for Reform Party leaders in California, the room was crowded with Elvis look-a-likes, resplendent in various campaign buttons and anxious to give me a pamphlet explaining the Swiss-Zionist conspiracy to control America,” Trump wrote.
Lest anyone think the experience had soured him on politics, he closed the piece by noting that he’d seen Gore on CNN recently with an “obvious look of drudgery” on his face as he campaigned.
“My experience was quite different,” he wrote. “I had enormous fun thinking about a presidential candidacy and count it as one of my great life experiences. Although I must admit that it still doesn’t compare with completing one of the great skyscrapers of Manhattan, I cannot rule out another bid for the presidency in 2004.”
No one put much stock in that. Pat Choate, Perot’s ’96 running mate, said Trump’s campaign had been nothing more than a sham, “a complete hustle of the media, and I think the media should send him a massive bill on it.” On that count, there was wide agreement within the media world.
This is an adapted excerpt from "The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism," by Steve Kornacki. Copyright 2018 by Steve Kornacki. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Steve Kornacki, author of "The Red and the Blue: 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism," is a national political correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC.