Here’s a quote from a contender for the Republican nomination: ‘One of the major reasons that we cannot take care of our domestic problems is all that money spent on foreign aid. It is time to let the foreigners take care of themselves while we take care of our own. And, for good measure, let us build a big ditch between the United States and Mexico’. Ditch? Shouldn’t that be Donald Trump’s great, big, beautiful wall?
Actually no. This is a quote from the 1992 election campaign, as reported in The World Today at the time. Pat Buchanan, a journalist and speech-writer, was running for the Republican ticket on a conservative, nativist, America-first ticket. Buchanan’s candidacy came out of the blue, and his isolationist views provoked a wave of angst abroad about American turning inward.
Buchanan didn’t win the nomination – that went to the incumbent, President George H W Bush, who went to on lose the presidency to the Democrat, Bill Clinton.
The author of the 1992 article, Olin Robison, advised European readers not to take US parties too seriously. US elections were ‘a process dominated by personalities with political labels which give the parties definition at any given moment.’ He was right about the personality aspect – the charismatic Clinton trounced Bush, one of America’s ablest practitioners in foreign affairs.
What does this tell us about this year’s presidential election? First, there is nothing new under the sun. As Charles P Pierce of Esquire magazine @ESQPolitics writes in our latest issue, mud-slinging has been a feature of US elections since the founding fathers. For all their disdain of ‘faction’, when it came to the big prize in 1800, it was a no-holds-barred fight.
Second, what’s changed is that the Republican establishment has failed to beat off the insurgent as it did with Buchanan in 1992. This year, Trump is forcing the party to endorse him, after he squashed all other pretenders. Pierce explains how this came about. The Grand Old Party is not what it was. It has declined over 40 years to become a place where ‘intolerance and ignorance’ are dressed up as ‘movement conservatism.’
As for the personality aspect, Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic candidate, cannot be unaware how in 1992 ability and experience were no match for a candidate with a connection to the people.