By Peter Fenn | Opinion Contributor USNews & World Report
Feb. 24, 2017, at 12:00 p.m.
I have been thinking about this for quite some time – before November actually. What is the best way to characterize this unusual presidential election cycle?
The conclusion that I have reached is that 2016 might be called the Jesse Ventura/Pat Buchanan election. Jesse “The Body” Ventura, of course, was the professional wrestler elected as governor of Minnesota in 1998. Pat Buchanan worked in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan White Houses and ran for president several times as a populist conservative.
The bottom line is that the Trump victory was a triumph for an anti-politics, entertainer/outsider (Ventura), who also railed against immigration, “unfair” trade deals and a social and cultural elite (Buchanan).
Clearly, the high negatives of both Trump and Clinton played heavily as did the Russian, Comey and Wikileaks factors. But rather than dissect the back and forth, which has been discussed fully since November, I’ll stick to a more thematic explanation for 2016.
When it comes to Jesse Ventura, I remember well my Minnesota friends calling me on election day 1998 and telling me they were seeing a lot of voters showing up at their polling places whom they had never seen before. Riding in on motorcycles, lots of tattoos, many who were taking advantage of the “same day” voter registration law in Minnesota. These were not traditional voters who favored Ventura’s opponents, the Democratic attorney general, Skip Humphrey, or the Republican St. Paul Mayor, Norm Coleman. These were voters who were responding to Ventura’s rallying cry: “Don’t vote for politics as usual!” Ventura never led in the polls until election day – sound familiar?
Jesse Ventura (real name: James George Janos) was well-known as a “bad boy” professional wrestler, radio talk show host and elected mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. He was famous for wearing a feather boa, and his slogan in the World Wrestling Federation ring of “win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat” defined his role as an entertainer. But his ads for governor and his role in the debates characterized him as a candidate not afraid to take on the status quo, garner large amounts of free press and provide an alternative to the traditional two parties. One ad showed him as Rodin’s “The Thinker,” poking fun at himself and the system.
Jesse Ventura was a lot like Donald Trump – loud, outspoken, often outrageous, easy to mock and criticize, but always giving the press good copy. Also, Ventura tended to suck all the oxygen out of the room in the debates.
We will see when the final turnout and voter registration numbers are in this summer for 2016, but Trump may have not only communicated well with disaffected voters but may have brought new ones to the polls. According to a study by Ohio State University researchers Dean Lacy and Quin Monson, Minnesota turnout as a percentage of voting-age population was 60 percent in 1998 compared to 53 percent in 1994. In addition, 15 percent of voters registered on election day in 1998 compared to 10 percent in 1994. It is also important to note that there weren’t any Senate or presidential contests on the ballot in 1998, so the turnout of 2.1 million votes was a high-water mark given that the governor’s race was the main game in town. It may well be that we will find that turnout of new voters or less likely voters was critical for Donald Trump in the key battleground states.
But there is no question about it, Donald Trump was a Jesse Ventura-type of candidate, certainly in style.
Trump’s inaugural address indicates that his presidency will be just like his campaign.
Having spent nearly a decade going back and forth with Pat Buchanan on Saturday mornings on MSNBC, I can attest to the similarities between his views and Donald Trump’s. For over two decades Pat has hit the theme of America First. In his campaigns for president, in his books, in his speeches, he has been clear about his opposition to trade deals, his fight for workers in the Rust Belt, his opposition to immigration, his anger at the establishment. Way back in November of 1993, his column was entitled “America First, NAFTA Never.” His sub headline was “It’s not about free trade – It’s about our way of life.” Pat Buchanan has been consistent.
In his famous speech at the Republican Convention in 1992 he talked about a culture war. In many respects the Trump campaign tapped into those same concerns about a society that was leaving what they termed “traditional America” behind. Here is what Pat Buchanan said in 1992 and has reinforced ever since:
“Friends, this is radical feminism. The agenda Clinton & Clinton would impose on America – abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat–that’s change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs. And it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God’s country.”
Pat Buchanan’s hard rhetoric, in many respects, became Trump’s 25 years later. Some of it was nuanced for the times, but the sense that America was no longer first, that it was no longer “God’s country,” that the world that they grew up in was just changing too fast, that they were powerless and left behind – that penetrated in 2016 with a certain key, white segment of the electorate. Rural America and those highlighted in J.D. Vance’s book “Hillbilly Elegy” flocked to Trump in record numbers. The Buchanan Brigade of the 1990s was back with a vengeance.
It seems that Democrats should come to better understand the convergence of these two men, Jesse Ventura and Pat Buchanan, in style and substance, if they are going to understand not just the election of 2016 but where a segment of America is coming from with their political choices.