It was far from the worst news Donald Trump has faced this week, but the Republican nominee has taken some flak for promoting a Pat Buchanan column touting his performance in the second presidential debate.
Not only did Buchanan recognize Trump’s long odds toward the end of the column, an observation repeated in the campaign’s press release. Seventeen years ago, Trump attacked Buchanan as “close to the lunatic fringe,” a “fan” of Adolf Hitler, someone who “has written too many inflammatory, outrageous, and controversial things to ever be elected president.”
Mother Jones’ paraphrased Trump as describing Buchanan as “a Hitler-loving, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynistic, racist right-wing extremist.”
What is more interesting, however, is these context of these comments. In 1999, Trump was then Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura’s recruit to not only stop Buchanan from winning the Reform Party presidential nomination but to take the party away from its founder, another wealthy businessman, two-time presidential candidate Ross Perot.
That’s a pretty big chance, since Politico ran a story headlined “Trump is Pat Buchanan with better timing” last month. Tom Piatak, Buchanan’s Ohio state chairman in 1996 and 2000, noted the similarity in the paleoconservative magazine Chronicles when Trump was considering a GOP presidential bid back in 2011.
It seems like ancient history now, but the Reform Party once had an opportunity to become a centrist third-party alternative to the liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. It grew out of Perot’s two presidential campaigns — the Texas billionaire won 8 percent of the vote running under its banner in 1996 — but in 1998, Ventura became its highest-ranking elected official when he beat Norm Coleman and Hubert Humphrey’s son to win Minnesota’s governorship.
While the Perot-Ventura grudge match was mostly about ego, it did have an ideological component. Perot was an economic nationalist who worried about illegal immigration and the “giant sucking sound” of American jobs going overseas, having taken the anti-NAFTA side in a nationally televised debate with Al Gore.
Ventura shared Perot’s concern about budget deficits and social moderation, though he was even more secular (Perot was no religious conservative but he was respectful of faith while Ventura once dismissed organized religion as a “crutch”). But he was for freer trade and more open immigration.
Trump’s 2016 positions are much closer to Perot’s. But it was Buchanan, who worked with the Texan in the fights against NAFTA and GATT, who initially aligned with the Perot faction of the Reform Party against Ventura. Trump was Ventura’s choice to take on Buchanan and Perot.
Both Trump and Buchanan left the Republican Party to go Reform in October 1999. It was during this time period Trump took many of the positions that vexed him during the Republican primaries this year.
On abortion, Trump told Tim Russert he was “very pro-choice” in contrast with the staunchly pro-life Buchanan. The Reform Party had traditionally been pro-choice and uninterested in culture war issues. “I believe it is a personal decision that should be left to the women and their doctors,” Trump said in December 1999.
Trump originally opposed even a ban on partial-birth abortion, although he revised that position by July 2000. “When Tim Russert asked me on Meet the Press if I would ban partial-birth abortion, my pro-choice instincts led me to say no,” he wrote in “The America We Deserve.” “After the show, I consulted two doctors I respect and, upon learning more about this procedure, I have concluded that I would support a ban.”
It was in the same book that Trump tried to triangulate between Democrats and Republicans on gun control. “It’s often argued that the American murder rate is high because guns are more available here than in other countries,” he wrote. “Democrats want to confiscate all guns, which is a dumb idea because only the law-abiding citizens would turn in their guns and the bad guys would be the only ones left armed. The Republicans walk the NRA line and refuse even limited restrictions.”
“I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun,” Trump concluded. “With today’s Internet technology we should be able to tell within 72-hours if a potential gun owner has a record.”
Also during this short-lived campaign, Trump proposed a one-time 14.25 percent wealth tax, arguing he could raise $5.7 trillion from rich Americans’ net worth. Buchanan remained a supply-sider while Perot cared more about balanced budgets than keeping taxes low.
Trump ultimately didn’t run for the Reform Party’s nomination because Buchanan had a better political organization, which he was deploying at the party’s state conventions. Perot double-crossed the last major political figure he had wooed into the Reform Party, Democratic former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, and beat him for the nomination, so Buchanan wanted to be prepared.
As it turned out, Perot did indeed turn on Buchanan after Ventura and Trump left the Reform Party. Sixteen years later, Trump still lacked much of a campaign organization but it was no obstacle to winning the Republican presidential nomination.
But the most important thing is that in 1999, Trump was supposed to stop the Reform Party from becoming a populist, nationalist party with a social conservative component. In 2016, he is reshaping the Republican Party in that image.
Today Perot is retired, Ventura is a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, Buchanan is a Trump supporter, the Reform Party barely exists — and Trump is the Republican presidential nominee.