Trump’s Forgotten Antecedents
Many an article has been written about the historical figures who presaged Donald Trump. Figures like Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, William Jennings Bryan, Democrat Jim Traficant (probably the closest politician to Steve Bannon’s worldview), and George Wallace all come to mind. The media has driven home these names, but a few other Republicans who ran for President in recent elections share notable parallels with the current President, some in style, some on the issues, and some on both counts. Of course, I could have gone back farther in time to list members of the 19th century Know-Nothing Party, but understanding more recent Trump analogs is essential to understanding what a post-Trump Republican Party might look like. If the President influences the style and positioning of the party, perhaps we’ll see more voices like the ones I list here. Who these messengers might be, I don’t know, but we can look to history for clues about what they might look like.
Morry Taylor — The Trumpy Businessman
Morry Taylor is one of the most obscure names on this list. Mention his name and few people are likely to know who he is, unless they paid very close attention to the 1996 Republican primary or read Losers by Michael Lewis (which I do recommend). The 1996 primary was chock-full of interesting characters, from Paleoconservative Pat Buchanan to hardline social conservative Alan Keyes to former Democrat Phil Gramm. While the clear policy-level Trump figure was Pat Buchanan, who there’s been extensive discussion about, Morry Taylor stylistically resembled the current President. But, you’re still probably asking: who the hell was Morry Taylor?
My first few lines are sure to conjure more modern images. Morry Taylor was the “bold, brash CEO” of Titan International, a tire company. Known to be “ tell-it-like-it-is” and speak in a “[not] necessarily elegant … real, in-the-moment” fashion, Taylor ran for President in 1996 but didn’t get far. His three best finishes were an unimpressive 1.43% in Iowa, 1.41% in New Hampshire, and 1.10% in Rhode Island. This off-the-cuff business magnate self-funded his rather eclectic (campaign rallies included cash drawings, TV giveaways, and beer) bid. Ostensibly, his business acumen was to make him a good President. The message sounds familiar to modern ears. “I’m not a politician. I’m not a lawyer. I’m from the business side”, he proclaimed in a 1995 CSPAN interview. Indeed, as the owner of a large tire company, Taylor was a businessman at heart. Lest we forget, his business record was marred by controversy. In Morry’s case, a decaying factory formerly owned by his company became the subject of litigation and a Superfund cleanup site. During the campaign, he claimed to speak for workers but had in fact cut their wages at his factories. More recently, when the acquisition of a French company fell through, Taylor attacked the French people’s work ethic. Financially successful but morally dubious, a combination I wish was less common.
Compare that to our current President, with his business record of bankruptcies, turning Atlantic City into a ghost town, a refusal to make public tax returns, and the hiring undocumented immigrants despite his own vocal denunciations of that practice. The hypocrisy and unethical practices embodied by Morry Taylor map well onto President Trump.
The tire-maker also hawked bold ideas from an angry outsider position. Like Trump, he served as a supposed Republican sage of the working class, frequently drawing contrasts with more established candidates like Bob Dole (who he later endorsed), Richard Lugar, and Lamar Alexander. He didn’t care much about social issues, opposed foreign interventions, and railed against free trade. In 2016, the President claimed to support Planned Parenthood, assailed foreign intervention, and attacked unencumbered free trade. Some of Taylor’s ideas were vague but fit the candidate’s populist discourse. For instance, he promised to cut the federal workforce by a third and deliver a balanced budget in 18 months. Unrealistic but bold, this brings to mind Trump’s similarly ambitious promises to destroy ISIS in 30 days without revealing any plan, or his unfounded claim that he could make Mexico pay for a border wall. Politics might be filled with mendacious promises, but not every candidate goes so far.
More importantly, their style was almost exactly the same. Like Trump, Taylor was described as “contradictory, brash, boastful, but likable ‘blue-collar guy in a white-collar job’”. Trump has never really been a blue-collar guy, as the son of a wealthy mogul. Then again, so was Morry Taylor, whose dad ran a steel plant with multimillion-dollar government contracts. But both share a sense of alienation from the more urbane business elite. Trump, for what it’s worth, never quite fit into the cosmopolitan New York City bubble. He thrives on repudiating the elite that he’s always had one foot in, while representing an aesthetic of “goony shit-posting and ceremonial bloat and gaudy luxury” according to David Roth. Early in his business career, Taylor was described as wearing “suit coats [that] came down to his fingers.” Unfashionable yet unnecessarily ostentatious was the Taylor brand. He kicked off his campaign by purchasing six massive and expensive RVs emblazoned with gaudy campaign graphics. As president, Donald Trump wastefully redesigned Air Force One to his taste, displaying a similar flair for traveling in (un)-style. Back in 1996, journalist Michael Lewis asked if Taylor had played sports, prompting the retort, “I am the biggest jock who ever ran for president. I can beat you in anything.” Oh, and just like the similarly braggadocious golfer-in-chief today, Taylor had a penchant for the sport as the only 1996 Republican who avidly partook.
“I’m abrasive because I want to get the job done … The politicians — they all want you to like them. I don’t care if people like me. I just want them to say, ‘I respect that guy because he got the job done.’”
Donald Trump similarly campaigned on running America like a business and littered his campaign speeches with anti-politician pronouncements similar to Morry’s. Take this zinger from his interview with Bob Woodward: “I know politicians. I know them all. They’re only talented at one thing: getting elected.” From day one, he came out swinging against adversaries ranging from Megyn Kelly to Rosie O’Donnell to former Mexican President Vicente Fox. For that matter, his language is often even more colorful than Taylor’s. Indeed, curse-word filled speeches cement his image as a fighter for the common man; studies show a relationship between perceived credibility and use of foul language.
Oh, and on the topic of language, Taylor habitually referred to himself in the third person, calling himself “The Grizz”. Boy, even the weird third-person language is familiar when you think about it…
Unlike for Morry, the zany bombast worked for Trump. Maybe it was the national mood. Maybe Buchanan sapped the energy for a populist businessman’s bid. But in 2016, the story was different. Something made the year amenable to the unhinged rhetorical bomb-thrower. Trump’s attacks on political correctness might have primed the issue, further feeding his support. 24 years ago, Taylor drew his inspiration from Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign, seeking out the same “Middle-American Radical” [MAR] support that led to Perot’s 1992 success, fuelled Buchanan in 1992 and 1996, and later propelled Trump. The MARs resent globalism and dislike the ruling classes. It’s easy to see how strongman populism imbued with gaudy aesthetics played to this coalition. As of 2012, Morry Taylor felt that no candidate running properly represented his views. But by 2016 Taylor fittingly supported a Trump-Fiorina ticket, because a “filthy rich” candidate is “the only way you’ll ever have a people’s candidate”. On-brand indeed. He felt the need to pepper that same interview with disjointed praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin and questions about Sikh soldiers’ allegiance to America. Yep, Trump might just be the second coming of “the Grizz”.
Tom Tancredo — The Immigration Hardliner
Tom Tancredo was just a Congressman from Colorado’s 6th District, seemingly a longshot for the Presidential nomination in 2008. Today, he’s probably celebrating the entrenchment of his rhetoric in the White House. Indeed, his time in Congress and 2008 Presidential campaign built his reputation as a hardcore xenophobe. In 2005, a full 10 years before Donald Trump’s campaign, Tancredo was clear in his demand for a wall on the Southern border. His 2008 campaign announcement speech immediately pivoted to the reason I included him:
The crisis of illegal immigration threatens not only our economy and our security, but our very identity — the idea of America is under attack … Nearly 20 million illegal aliens are living in the United States today … Illegal immigrants wait in no lines, pay no dues, and thus assume no responsibility for or devotion to America’s founding ideals and traditional values. They enter illegally, demand social services, refuse our language, and take our jobs, asking not what they can do for their country, only what our country can do for them.
That’s not a far cry (just slightly more eloquent) from “When Mexico sends its people … they’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” The real kicker? Tancredo’s low-budget 2008 commercials, including one pictured, used the exact same language of drugs and rape that Donald Trump employed to much avail 8 years later. Tancredo was prescient when it came to virulent anti-immigrant sentiment. He opposed birthright citizenship on the House floor, presaging Donald Trump’s wish to eliminate it. He also called for militarizing the border, a wish that came true when President Trump sent National Guard troops to the US-Mexico line.
Beyond policy, both engage in rhetorical firefights on the issue. In late 2007, Tancredo boycotted a Univison debate, calling the Spanish-language fixture “un-American”. In 2016, Trump similarly declared war on the Spanish-language station, reprimanding reporter Jorge Ramos to “sit down” and “Go back to Univision”. Additionally, like Trump, who went so far as to question a judge’s credentials because of his Mexican heritage, Tancredo was especially aggressive. During Congressional debate on the DREAM Act’s, he horrifyingly called for ICE to detain undocumented students attending Illinois Senator Dick Durbin’s press conference. The image of ICE agents descending on and rounding up students in the capital is a horrifying one. Sadly, reality has fulfilled this nightmare, as we see gut-wrenching images of children in cages on the Southern border today.
Tom Tancredo didn’t just screech his ferocious anti-immigrant positions from the outside, but tangibly influenced the Republican Party’s direction. He raised the profile of the border issue and took positions that would resurface later. By 2005, the Colorado Congressman had gone from a marginal figure to a restrictionist influencer, spearheading the inclusion of language about a border barrier in the GOP’s reform proposal. By the time he dropped out of the Presidential race in late 2007, Tancredo claimed victory despite utterly marginal polling. As far back as 2005, Tancredo began to prepare for a Presidential bid, making early state visits. His rallies, much like Trump’s, were marked by xenophobic sentiment and large counter-protests. While the rallies were contentious, the issue stuck. Illegal immigration became important in the primary, leading other major candidates to adopt more nativist positions. Bay Buchanan, Pat’s sister, chaired the Tancredo campaign. She stated, “We had immigration. Then everyone realized the majority of people agree with us.” As an example, Tancredo’s attacks on sanctuary cities (sounds familiar, huh?) became normalized, even by candidates who supported sanctuary cities earlier in their career. This was his goal all along, and he claimed at one debate that everybody else was trying to “out-Tancredo Tancredo”. Polling didn’t reveal the real strength of his campaign.
Besides the immigration schtick, his pièce de résistance, Tancredo showed no love for Muslim-Americans. In 2007, he let slip to a group of Iowans that he would think about bombing Mecca and other Muslim holy sites to deter terrorism. It’s hard to overstate how extreme this is. And yet, the scariest part is how Donald Trump parroted similar points. During his campaign, Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric birthed (no pun intended) all sorts of extremist pronouncements, from closing mosques to tracking Muslim-Americans to killing the families of suspected terrorists. To boot, this year, Trump mentioned bombing Iranian cultural sites! Like Tancredo, he casually proposed violating international law as retribution for the terror he maliciously, incorrectly attributed to all Muslims, as opposed to the fringe Wahhabist sects who actually believe in violence. Not to be cabinet, Tancredo even proposed a virtually-unsupported link between Islamist terrorism and illegal immigration, claiming the border as a battle in the “clash of civilizations”. Amazingly (frighteningly), Trump resurrected this framing by taking action to pursue a “ total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”.
By 2016, the Republican Party elevated somebody with Tancredo’s egregious history of xenophobia and Islamophobia to the White House. Tancredo himself was viewed more like a Steve King while in Congress, but today, his once-radical ideas are at the forefront of the Republican Party. While Tancredo lost a 2010 third-party Gubernatorial bid and the 2014 Colorado GOP Gubernatorial Primary, he ended up right where you’d expect, as a Trump cheerleader. In 2015, while calling for Trump to be more “artful”, he said “God yes” when asked to comment on the candidate’s immigration platform. Predictably, in 2019, Tancredo took a leadership position in a nonprofit seeking to build Donald Trump’s promised wall on the southern border. To modify a common-but-true cliche, what goes around comes around, just with greater sticking power.
Duncan L. Hunter — The Trade Warrior
Contrary to what you might think at first, Duncan L. Hunter is not the scandal-ridden, prison-bound, in-committee-vaping Congressman (among Trump’s first Congressional endorsements), but actually his father, who represented California’s 52nd, 45th, and 42nd Districts for 30 years beginning in 1980. Duncan L. Hunter was a protectionist Republican, a vocal anti-trade voice in what was largely a neoliberal GOP. Donald Trump similarly fashioned heterodox trade policies as a club which he used to bash establishment Republican elites in his quest for the working class.
Namely, Hunter was one of the foremost Congressional Republican opponents of NAFTA. In fact, throughout the negotiation process, his office hosted two of the most prominent NAFTA opponents, 1992 Presidential candidate Ross Perot and economist Pat Choate (who became Perot’s 1996 running mate). WIth them, Hunter strategies on how to defeat the deal. While a number of GOPers voted against ratification, Hunter was just one of two Republicans to attend a Perot anti-NAFTA rally on Capitol Hill. The anti-NAFTA coalition, mind you, was a motley assortment that included voices from Jesse Jackson on the left to Pat Buchanan on the right. Hunter’s criticism back in the day was twofold. He intertwined job concerns, claiming to have “seen the physical movement of plants and equipment to Mexico” and fears of excessive migration, stating, “many members think it will exacerbate illegal immigration”. In 1996, he parlayed these positions into open support for the Trumpite Pat Buchanan, who found little backing in Congress otherwise.
Hunter’s Congressional record reveals the depth of his tough-on-trade stances. In 2007–2008 alone, his most recent term, the California Congressman introduced multiple bipartisan bills on trade. For example, H.R.1756, the NAFTA Trucking Safety Act, would bar Mexican truck drivers from operating in the US without meeting certain safety conditions. The Southern California Congressman also sponsored H.R. 3900, the Restore U.S. Manufacturing Act of 2007, to allow tax deductions for manufacturing activities. Farther back in his career, Hunter sponsored bills to inspect all cargo coming into the US, withdraw Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China (joined by progressives like Marcy Kaptur, Pete DeFazio, and Sherrod Brown), and amend patent law to protect US innovation. These admittedly might have some merit (I’m a skeptic of unfettered free trade), but they didn’t go far in a Congress dominated by pro-trade voices. Every one of the aforementioned bills had bipartisan co-sponsors, speaking to the cross-cutting appeal of trade-skepticism.
Donald Trump recognized this potential. He pointed to NAFTA as a job-killer, calling the deal “the worst trade deal in history”, similar to Hunter’s complaints about it. But his opposition to the deal goes much further back. In a 1993 speech in Bakersfield, CA, the then-business mogul railed against NAFTA and in his 2000 Presidential campaign, Trump vehemently opposed the trade deal. In-office, the administration’s USMCA deal that modified NAFTA incorporated Democratic priorities like stronger labor and environmental standards. Free-traders like CATO analyst Dan Ikenson have accused Trump of “co-opt[ing] Democratic trade policy”. The brainchild of advisor Steve Bannon, this strategy upended politics as usual to seek working-class support. Hunter was similarly an outsider in this realm, in turn touting higher ratings from labor unions than many Republicans. Remember, after all, that NAFTA garnered more support from House Republicans than House Democrats in 1993. Duncan L. Hunter, while echoing a Republican history of trade protectionism that stretches to the party’s founding, took a far more aggressive stance than those who simply flirted with the ideas, like George W. Bush’s ill-fated steel tariffs. The fact that Hunter, after such devotion to the cause in Congress, ran for President on the issue, is what makes him noteworthy.
Similarly, on immigration, Hunter sought to pardon Border Patrol agents who shot an unarmed drug smuggler, introducing H.R.569 (joined by a handful of conservative Democrats). Duncan Hunter’s son, the fratty Congressman, actually asked Trump to pardon the same two agents his father attempted to let off.
Hunter’s 2008 (what a year, huh?) Presidential campaign is especially instructive. His platform opposed the UN, supported tariffs on Chinese goods and “fair trade for the American worker”, and emphasized his commitment to building a wall to seal the “porous border susceptible to illegal aliens, drug trafficking and terrorism”. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Trump actually cut back from the UN, passed tariffs on China, and sought to build a wall on the Southern border. It’s little wonder that Pat Buchanan called Hunter “the best one for the Republican Party” in 2007 and gave candidate Trump similarly high praise throughout the 2016 primaries. The similarities are simply uncanny.
Granted, Hunter was a foreign policy hawk, supporting the Iraq War and aggression against Iran. This quasi-clashes with Trump, who rightfully condemned the Iraq occupation (in 2016 but not initially), but called in a strike on an Iranian general. Therefore, Hunter’s position parallels the foreign policy ambiguity in both the Trump administration and the budding National Conservative movement. After all, at the tendency's inaugural conference, super-hawk John Bolton spoke alongside Peter Thiel, who condemned wasted money on foreign wars while taking defense contracts for his firm. This curious mix of aggression and isolation might yet come to define the party.
President Donald Trump and his intellectual acolytes strike a similar tone on free trade and migration, as noted. Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, Josh Hawley called for an exit from the World Trade Organization. These ideas are only growing in prominence. Perhaps Hunter and folks like Buchanan fired the opening salvo in the party’s current battle against globalism.
These next two don't deserve such an in-depth comparison, but both raised a populist approach within the Republican field and gained a decent amount of support. Interestingly, both are major fans of the current administration.
Mike Huckabee — The GOPer who Addressed Inequality
Mike Huckabee, while in the Evangelical camp of the Republican Party, brought some of Trump’s working-class focus into the GOP in 2008 and tried again in 2016, earning cautious praise from unlikely left-leaning sources. Importantly, Huckabee talked about confronting the “Washington to Wall Street power axis” and criticized rising income inequality, leading journalist Michael Scherer to conclude that “if you close your eyes, you would think a Democrat was speaking —Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton turned Southern Baptist”. Most Republicans avoid the topic of inequality altogether, but it’s more and more difficult to cast aside such a prominent issue. As Governor, he raised taxes, drawing the ire of groups like the Club for Growth, and drew primary endorsements from the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, their first GOP Presidential endorsement in 100 years.
That said, his record on labor was spotty. Huckabee proved a surprisingly formidable opponent to frontrunners Mitt Romney and eventual nominee John McCain, organizing through grassroots social conservative groups outside the GOP establishment and winning numerous southern/midwestern states (278). He ran again in 2016, and his campaign resurrected populist themes like protectionism, although he dropped out early and endorsed Trump. Huckabee curiously melded Evangelical Christianity and economic populism. Unlike Trump, though, he was religious and seen as weak on immigration, attacked by Mitt Romney for providing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Nonetheless, his appeal hinted at what kind of population Trump might reach. Huckabee carried working-class areas like Southern Missouri, Eastern Oklahoma, and portions of Northern Wisconsin. Huckabee waded into issues of inequality, making him a forerunner to the populist Trump that authors like FH Buckley called attention to. One of Donald Trump’s most powerful ads was “Two Americas”, which emphasized Trumpian middle-class prosperity in contrast with Hillary Clinton. Maybe Huckabee low-key kicked off the Republican Workers Party, or at least the rhetoric these commentators point to.
Rick Santorum — Cultural Signalling
In 2012, Rick Santorum mounted a surprisingly strong challenge to frontrunner Mitt Romney on an economic populist, socially conservative message. He addressed the loss of manufacturing jobs while Romney had a record of investing in outsourcing. He attacked Mitt Romney for being in favor of the bank bailouts in 2008. This was a working-class tone, notable in a party normally attuned more to the elite. Even David Brooks noticed, stating that Santorum seemed to attack supply-siders. Regrettably, Santorum’s economic platform was still mostly in line with the libertarian-individualistic right, with tax policies likely to help the richest few and support for cutting spending. However, Santorum’s 2012 campaign conveyed a cultural populism that Donald Trump later successfully wielded. Beyond policy, signaling proved important. Santorum sponsored a NASCAR driver and spent much time discussing his grandfather, a coal miner. A few years later, he stated that the GOP’s future aligned more with Sam’s Club shoppers and less with Whole Foods-shopping craft beer drinkers.
Trump’s platform was decidedly more populist than his actions have been so far, to the chagrin of true populist conservatives. But he also engaged in the cultural signaling that Santorum did, even if less imbued with religious rhetoric. He didn’t sponsor a NASCAR driver, but Donald Trump donned a coal miner’s helmet at a rally in Charleston, WV. His hardcore working-class supporters were responsive to his rhetoric around globalism and “draining the swamp”. Here was a Republican who talked about the hollowing out of post-industrial communities, who addressed “American carnage”.
It’s little wonder that Santorum performed best in places like Appalachian Ohio and Northern Wisconsin, where Donald Trump also won decisively. Journalist E.J. Dionne outlined the importance of the Santorum campaign:
And if they want to maintain the support of middle-income and working-class voters who have been so vital to their victories, conservatives will have to pay heed to the discontent among working-class conservatives with whom Santorum identified (355)
In 2014, Santorum wrote a book about the need for a populist direction in the GOP. This book would become one of the guiding lights for Donald Trump’s 2016 bid; the two met in 2014 to discuss it, which Trump purportedly read and liked. People in 2012 weren’t really thinking about the lasting impacts of Rick Santorum, but 2016 demonstrated how his campaign and ideas informed Trump’s agenda and signaling on the trail and in office. Santorum, for what it’s worth, is now a talking head who contorts himself into defenses of the sitting President.
Donald Trump isn’t new and his ideological imprint on the Republican Party isn’t vanishing anytime soon. The undercurrents that made his rise possible were present in various other GOP Presidential campaigns over the past 25 years, the less-known of which I’ve covered here. Taylor, Tancredo, Hunter, Huckabee, and Santorum all played a part in constructing what we know today as Trumpism, both in style and substance.