Americans have never seen a candidate like Donald Trump. He’s been compared to Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, but none is a perfect fit.
The best comparison may be to Jesse Jackson in 1988. Within their parties, they are strikingly similar figures but while Trump may yet prove more successful at the polls, he’s unlikely to match Jackson’s long-term impact on his party.
Through much of 1987, Jackson led in most national polls, as Trump has this year. Like Trump, he was a populist outsider with no political experience who faced questions about his readiness for high office. He ran a campaign based more on free media than paid commercials. His strongest support came from those with no college diploma.
His offensive comments about a minority group inflamed tensions. His appeal rested on giving voice to those who felt they were taken for granted and losing ground. And he terrified party leaders who saw him as extreme and unelectable.
Personally and politically the two are opposites: Jackson was born into poverty, Trump into privilege. Jackson appealed to hope; Trump, fear. Jackson sought a more inclusive society, Trump a more exclusive one. Jackson’s base was dominated by blacks. Trump’s is white.
Yet Trump and Jackson are two sides of the same coin. Like Jackson’s shortcomings, Trump’s will probably keep him from the nomination. But here’s the difference: Unlike Trump’s campaign, Jackson’s represented a newly ascendant wing of the party, even though it took decades to take flight.
After1988, Democratic Party elites concluded that their nominee, Michael Dukakis, had been too liberal. Democratic voters seemed to accept this view, nominating Bill Clinton in 1992. The truth is more complicated: The rank-and-file may well have opted for Mario Cuomo, the nation’s leading liberal, had he run. Eight years of Clintonian moderation only increased their appetite for a more aggressively liberal agenda.
The centrist tenets of the defunct Democratic Leadership Council that Clinton embodied – free trade, balanced budgets, tougher crime laws, charter schools, welfare restrictions — have fallen out of favor with Democratic primary voters. Today, Hillary Clinton is running to her husband’s left — and her chief rival says she’s not far left enough. In many ways, the Democratic Party is now closer to Jesse Jackson’s platform than Bill Clinton’s.
In two or three decades, will the Republican platform similarly resemble Trump’s? Not likely. In fact, it may be the opposite result: failure in the short-run, success in the long-run.
In 2013, the Republican National Committee produced a report that was a mirror image of the 1988 Democratic postmortem: The party needed to broaden its base, by attracting more immigrants, minorities, gays and working stiffs. Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition has not only become the heart of the Democratic Party, but also the envy of the RNC.
Unlike Clinton in 1992, the 2016 Republican candidates who wish to heed the RNC’s advice are overshadowed by a candidate who is calling the campaign’s tune with a dog whistle.
To undo the damage that’s doing, the Republican nominee will have to channel Bill Clinton’s repudiation of Sister Souljah and his criticism of Jackson’s organization for supporting her. It was a gutsy decision that risked alienating African-American voters, but it demonstrated he had the mettle to stand up to racially divisive rhetoric.
Whether or not the Republican nominee can overcome the primary’s hostile tone toward major voting blocs, divisiveness is not a sustainable philosophy. As demographic and generational trends create a more ethnically diverse and tolerant society, the cost of an us-versus-them message will grow with each election.
Jackson was the riding the crest of a growing political wave. Trump is trying to keep the tide from coming in, but there’s no wall big enough to stop it. Sooner or later, Republicans will have to reckon with that fact. Until then, big-tent Republicans: Keep hope alive.