When I learned the two-time presidential candidate died after battling cancer, I searched his name to see how people were handling his legacy. One of the top results was a boilerplate obituary topped by the headline “Ross Perot was Trumpy Years Before Trump.”
Aside from a lede equating Perot’s NAFTA criticism with Trump’s ongoing trade wars, the article doesn’t explain how Perot was “Trumpy.” But I could see how a broad case could be made. Both were outsider presidential candidates who opposed global free trade. But they way they truly relate to each other is very different: Perot tried to warn us of the conditions that would enable Trump. And he wasn’t merely ignored, but made a laughingstock.
The 1992 presidential debates were unique for our two-party political system. Three men stood onstage: soon to be former president George H.W. Bush, president-to-be Bill Clinton and Texas billionaire Ross Perot. Perot was center stage, flanked by Bush and Clinton. The five foot five independent candidate seemed dwarfed by Bush, an elder statesman who’d comfortably scowled America’s halls of power for decades, Clinton, a baby boomer upstart with a morning talk show host’s emotional acuity.
The media held Perot in contempt. They liked Clinton, the young, cool centrist who seemed like be a splashy change after 12 years of Reagan/Bush White House politics. Perot was old and goofy looking. He had a funny voice and accent. He was a third party candidate running on a single, unglamorous issue: opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
And 27 years on, it’s clear Perot was right on NAFTA. He warned that NAFTA would create a “giant sucking sound” of jobs draining from the United States to low wage centers in Mexico and was ridiculed. But by 2001, seven years after NAFTA’s implementation, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute found that NAFTA eliminated 766,000 American job opportunities, primarily in manufacturing. And as American labor suffered, Mexican workers suffered along with them; EPI found that pay and working conditions for most Mexican workers deteriorated after NAFTA. At the same time, NAFTA made imported corn too cheap for farming Mexican corn to be economically viable.
As a result, NAFTA increased Mexican immigration to the United States, driving down wages and fueling nativism and racism. American workers lost jobs but gained a brown-skinned scapegoat. Democrats bet that getting cheaper consumer goods would outweigh the loss of manufacturing jobs. Mainstream Republicans delighted in NAFTA’s benefits to investors. Trump’s not a smart guy, but you don’t need to be smart to see the opportunity.
We wouldn’t have Trump if we listened to Perot. He wasn’t the rough draft of Trump. He was the guy trying to prevent Trump from ever being necessary.