The presidency of George H.W. Bush was in trouble. Headed into the 1992 election year, the glow from the swift and decisive victory in the Gulf War—a victory that had pushed Bush’s approval ratings to 90 percent—had faded. While a recession had technically ended in March of 1991, unemployment was stuck at 7 percent, and the rut was felt deeply in New England. When I went to New Hampshire late that year to cover the presidential race, every store in a once-thriving Manchester shopping mall was shuttered; only the unemployment office and the welfare office were open. The advertisements that filled local newspapers were not for products or stores; they announced foreclosure auctions.
Into this state strode 53-year-old Pat Buchanan, a cheerfully pugnacious conservative who had spent his adult life shuffling between the political world—speechwriter for Richard Nixon, communications director for Ronald Reagan—and the media, where he wrote columns and was a frequent face on TV shows ranging from the McLaughlin Group to Crossfire to The Capital Gang. He came to announce a primary challenge to Bush:
He would take on his own party’s incumbent, attacking from the right. Go back to it now and what’s striking is how much his message, delivered on December 10, 1991, in Concord, offered a remarkable preview not so much of that year’s race, but of what would drive the appeal of Donald Trump in 2016.
Buchanan warned that the United States was losing its stature as the first among nations amid challenges to American economic dominance, a softening of our identity and a growing fondness for multinational institutions. “We must not trade in our sovereignty for a cushioned seat at the head table of anyone’s new world order,” he warned. He questioned whether America should really keep paying for its allies’ defense. He railed against the effects of globalization, proclaiming that “our Western heritage is going to be handed down to future generations, not dumped onto some landfill called multiculturalism.” He called for “a new patriotism, where Americans begin to put the needs of Americans first.” He called for “a new nationalism.”
“When I read the speech recently,” Buchanan told me in an interview, “I was astonished” at the parallels. “There’s just an awful lot there.”
If you’re looking for the roots of Trump’s political message, you can find yourself remembering the story of the blind men who describe what an elephant is like by touching different parts of the beast’s body (“It’s a rope,” “a tree branch,” “a wall.”). There’s a dose of Ross Perot, the billionaire businessman who declared himself free from the taint of elective politics. There’s the anti-elitist scorn of George Wallace, not to mention several spoonfuls of Wallace’s racial and ethnic resentment. There’s the rallying of the forgotten captured by Louisiana’s Huey Long back in the 1930s.
To a remarkable extent, just about all of the themes of Trump’s campaign can be found in Buchanan’s insurgent primary run in 1992.
But to a remarkable extent, just about all of the themes of Trump’s campaign can be found in Buchanan’s insurgent primary run a quarter-century ago: the grievances, legitimate and otherwise; the dark portrait of a nation whose culture and sovereignty are threatened from without and within; the sense that the elites of both parties have turned their backs on hard-working loyal, traditional Americans. The limits of that campaign—and the success of Trump’s, in seizing the nomination of a major political party—are a measure of just how much our politics have changed in the past 25 years.
For those of us covering the New Hampshire primary, most of the focus was on the Democratic side, as Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton built an early lead, and then had to confront charges of draft evasion and extramarital romps. But it gradually became clear that Buchanan’s campaign was catching fire in the economically depressed Granite State. Conservatives who had never forgiven Bush for breaking his “read my lips, no new taxes” promise rallied to Buchanan; reporters would gather in the watering holes in Manchester and exchange stories about the growing size of his crowds. As even People magazine noted, Bush backers soon grew “concerned that the combative Buchanan could embarrass the President just enough to throw their carefully scripted coronation plans into disarray.”
The fears of the Bush camp were well founded. Buchanan didn’t win the primary, and in the end he didn’t come close to winning the race, but his 37 percent of the vote in New Hampshire was enough to give the president a black eye—the New York Times called it “a jarring political message” that carried “many ominous signs for Mr. Bush.” It was enough to give Buchanan a prime-time convention speaking slot. He then used the national stage to warn, ominously, of both a “religious war” raging in America and a “cultural war.” Bush lost in November, but Buchanan stayed in the game as a polemicist-politician. At his high point, four years later, Buchanan would go on to win the New Hampshire primary, albeit with just 27 percent against a divided field. In that campaign, he gleefully identified himself with anti-establishment revolt, proclaiming in Nashua: “They hear the shouts of the peasants from over the hill. All the knights and barons will be riding into the castle pulling up the drawbridge in a minute. All the peasants are coming with pitchforks.” A silver pitchfork, given to him by his campaign aides, still hangs in his office today.
In recalling his New Hampshire visits of 1992, Buchanan today remembers his political appeal in the context of the consequences of hard times that still seems to resonate in this year’s campaign: “Broken families, guys out of work, spousal abuse … you saw all this back then. I was astonished when Trump picked up on this. He’s talking about towns hurt, jobs lost. And he’s running a conservative populist, nationalist, America-first campaign.”
Why did Trump succeed in leading a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, when Buchanan’s efforts came up so short in 1992?
So, why did Trump succeed in leading a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, when Buchanan’s efforts came up so short in 1992? One overriding reason is that the times have indeed changed. When Buchanan warned of globalism and intervention, the successful Gulf War and the Christmas Day 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union weakened that argument. If there really was a “new world order,” America was unquestionably in charge. Today, with memories of the disastrous second Iraq War, China rising and Russia asserting itself again, anti-interventionism is a lot stronger argument. Immigration, too, is an issue far more powerful today. “Back then, there were maybe 3-4 million illegal immigrants,” Buchanan says. “Today, there are maybe 12 million.”
Perhaps the most startling parallel between Buchanan and Trump is the argument of bipartisan betrayal: They both used their pulpit to excoriate elites in both parties for leaving more vulnerable, working-class Americans behind. And on that front, the country has changed profoundly. The central American promise—that our children would live better than we live—has been thrown into grave doubt, at least for those who are part of “the white working class.” Some 5 million manufacturing jobs have been lost since the start of the millennium; incomes for the average factory worker have been stagnant for just about all of the 21st century.
“Those issues started maturing,” Buchanan now says. “Now we’ve lost 55,000 factories. … When those consequences came rolling in, all of a sudden you’ve got an angry country. We were out there warning what was coming. Now, on trade and intervention, America sees what’s come.”
But there’s one other major change that has made Trump’s message far more potent than Buchanan’s: the speed at which a powerful, even divisive idea can travel from one like-minded individual to another. “If Buchanan had had social media he might have done a lot better,” argues Ron Kaufman, a longtime ally of the Bush family, who has spent a lifetime as a Republican operative. “Back then in ’92, people wouldn’t have been hearing about it every 15 minutes. There was no Breitbart, no Politico.”
The rise of talk radio, cable networks and an online echo chamber for political discourse has changed the game for people with an outsider message, whether on the left or the right. Longtime Democratic operative Joe Trippi, who turned the Howard Dean campaign into an online fundraising behemoth in 2004, says: “I think one of the things we have all underestimated is how connected underground networks are these days—from Occupy Wall Street to white supremacists to conspiracy aficionados. … So if a Pat Buchanan came along today, it’s much easier to roll over a party.”
The kinds of attacks Buchanan leveled, alone, at his own Republican Party have become normal political chatter on the right these days, amplified enormously by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and company. Today, an outright majority of Republicans say they believe their leaders have betrayed them, by not fighting harder against President Obama and the left…