The once shapeless Republican nomination contest has its plot line as it heads into a new fall season. The theme is political experience: the less, the better, to judge from the enthusiasm (and poll numbers) generated by Donald Trump, Ben Carson and now Carly Fiorina. Not one of the three has previously held elected office, and only one, Fiorina, has even been a candidate.
Upstarts and novices are hardly new in American politics. The Barack Obama years have given us the ophthalmologist Rand Paul, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010 – his first try for office – and is now running for president; Herman Cain, the pizza executive who briefly led the Republican field in 2012; and David Brat, the college professor who upset Eric Cantor, then the House majority leader, in the Virginia Republican primary in 2014. All were unknowns but gained momentum as tribunes of the Tea Party movement, with its rallies and fiercely anti-government message.
In contrast, Trump, Carson and Fiorina are solo acts, public figures who have achieved wealth, fame and experience in areas that are far removed from politics but are more relevant, they have suggested, to solving the pressing issues of the day.
Some of their GOP rivals – Ted Cruz, for one – have complained that these outsiders are only now coming to positions that true believers like themselves have been taking for years. But that approach misreads the moment. Spontaneity is an advantage for the outsider, who seems to go at things his or her own way rather than reeling off items on an ideological check list. And this, in turn, offers the hope of escape from a gridlocked politics.
What, after all, has ideological purity gained for conservatives or the country at large in the Obama years, apart from symbolic “victories” like the government shutdown in 2013, the dozens of dead-on-arrival votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the hollow threats to overturn the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage?
Collectively the three outsiders have less in common with the hardcore insurgents of our age than with non-politicians who captured the public imagination at turning points in our past. Examples that are cited have included Wendell Willkie, the former utilities executive and former Democrat, who blazed from nowhere to win the Republican nomination in 1940, and Ross Perot, the Texas businessman whose third-party candidacy was neither liberal nor conservative, but who gained the status of a citizen-reformer in 1992. Unlike dark horses such as Pat Buchanan and other strongly ideological candidates, outsiders seem to operate outside the bounds of party orthodoxy.
They are also, to a great extent, creations of their moment. In 1940, World War II was under way, but the U.S. was still on the sidelines. Leading Republican voices – like Senators Robert Taft and Arthur Vandenberg – were isolationists. Willkie, who opposed the New Deal policies of President Franklin Roosevelt but also favored intervention in Europe, broke the impasse.
Perot’s candidacy came at another transitional moment. The Cold War had just ended, and a new European union was about to form. Should the U.S. seek to dominate the “new world order” in a “unipolar” world or withdraw and attend to problems at home? Neither party had a clear answer. Perot homed in on a nonpartisan issue, the growing federal deficit, that touched on all aspects of government, from military preparedness to costly entitlements and an imbalanced tax structure.
The quintessential political outsider, though he belongs in a historical category of his own, was Dwight Eisenhower. He had never held elective office before he first ran for president in 1952, and was an ideological blank slate distrusted by many Republicans as the Cold War heated up. “Old Guard” Republicans preferred the demagogue Senator Joseph McCarthy, who claimed to have uncovered treason in high places, and Douglas MacArthur, the “American Caesar,” who had wanted to expand the Korean War into China. Eisenhower was viewed no less contemptuously by pundits and intellectuals, left and right, who mocked his enthusiasm for golf and bridge. But his apparent lack of sophistication, feeding the (false) impression that he was an innocent surrounded by political wolves, endeared him to the public.
Yet no outsider seemed so unlikely a contender as Perot. At first he insisted he didn’t want to run at all, and would do so only if petition drives got under way in all 50 states. He cannily drummed up support in TV interviews with Larry King and Phil Donahue – the second brought in 500,000 phone calls on the 800-number Perot had established. His boast that he could curb the deficit “without breaking a sweat,” outlandish though it was, increased the pressure on the eventual winner, Bill Clinton, to reduce spending and claim “the era of big government is over.”
There may not be a transcendent figure in the current trio of outsiders, but each has defied easy categorization. Trump insults immigrants but has praised single-payer health care and Planned Parenthood, and has tangled with the Club for Growth on tax policy. You don’t know what taboos Trump the political candidate is going to break next. But many voters know him from The Apprentice, in which his persona is that of a sensible executive and “decider” whose critiques of contestants often emphasize teamwork and listening skills.
Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and best-selling memoirist, surprised many in the first debate with his pointedly low-key manner. When he suggested his experience removing half a brain and separating conjoined twins qualified him for office, it was a wry twist on the notion that the presidency isn’t brain surgery. As for Fiorina, the former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard, who currently trails Trump and Carson by a large margin, her Willkie-like ease with abstruse policy arguments and facile turns of phrase has made more experienced rivals seem flat-footed by comparison.
Before long the outsiders will face stiffer challenges and will need to formulate plausible solutions to the problems they say the current political class has caused. But for the time being they have captured the depth of public frustration – not merely with the political establishment, but with the two parties and with politics itself.
Sam Tanenhaus is a columnist for Bloomberg Viewe and author of The Death of Conservatism.