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Donald Trump learned overt nativism from losing his first campaign to Pat Buchanan

Pat Buchanan, who won the Reform Party nomination in 2000, speaks with independent candidate Ralph Nader on Meet the Press.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Donald Trump has earned six times the media coverage of any other Republican candidate, so it might seem that there are no stories left to be told about his presidential campaign. But one fact has gone surprisingly ignored: Trump lost his first presidential campaign to Pat Buchanan — and learned to copy Buchanan's nativist appeal in the process.

Trump voiced interest in the Reform Party nomination starting in July 1999 and did not bow out until February 2000. In the fall, he announced a presidential exploratory committee, appeared on talk shows, filed for state ballot access, and re-registered as a member of the Independence Party (the Reform Party's New York affiliate). He released policy proposals, announced potential running mates and Cabinet secretaries, threatened litigation to appear in debates, maneuvered to change Reform Party procedures, and appeared at campaign events in Florida and California.

By January 2000, he released a campaign book, The America We Deserve, campaigned in Minnesota, and brought 170 party activists to his Mar-a-Lago complex. He later received more than 17,000 votes in two non-binding state primaries. Although he never officially entered the race, he went through all the motions of a traditional campaign.

But Buchanan beat Trump from start to finish, consistently leading Trump in polls and securing far more support from party leaders and activists. When then-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura (Trump's main supporter) left the Reform Party because he was convinced Buchanan would win the nomination, Trump ended his campaign rather than face certain defeat.

Several aspects of Trump's first campaign would be familiar to viewers of this campaign cycle. He committed to self-funding, complained of foreign countries ripping off the United States, and told reporters, "The only strategy is I'll be on television a lot."

But one aspect of his first campaign was decidedly different: He declined to pursue a nativist appeal. In fact, he repeatedly accused Buchanan of racism, calling him a "neo-Nazi" and "Hitler lover" with "prehistoric" views allied with the "lunatic fringe," citing his support from former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke. He told Meet the Press that Buchanan "doesn't like the blacks, he doesn't like the gays." His book reported that "Buchanan has written too many inflammatory, outrageous, and controversial things" and "has systematically bashed Blacks, Mexicans, and Gays." Buchanan's 2000 general election campaign indeed focused on opposition to immigration and support for English under the banner of "America First."

What did Trump learn from his first presidential campaign? In an op-ed following his withdrawal, Trump touted his campaign as "the greatest civics lesson that a private citizen can have" but also said he "saw the underside of the Reform Party." He mentioned meeting earnest reformers as well as a host of odd conspiracy theorists.

By the time he announced for president in 2015, Trump had become the most prominent spokesperson for these conspiracy theorists with his long push for Obama's birth certificate. His new campaign retained his anti-trade and anti-elitist message but added Buchanan's warnings of losing the country to ethnic and religious minorities. He lashed out against undocumented Mexican immigrants in his announcement speech and made opposition to Muslim immigration the centerpiece of his winter campaign, earning the support of Buchanan and Duke. He even resurrected Richard Nixon's "silent majority" rhetoric, phrasing suggested to Nixon by Buchanan.

In retrospect, the changed approach does not seem like an accident. Trump draws from a history of presidential aspirants focused on immigration and international trade. In 1992, Buchanan challenged President George H.W. Bush in the Republican race, running on a Trump-style platform that eschewed internationalism and blamed immigrants and trade for economic woes. Later that year, Ross Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote running as an independent on his business record and on a similar mix of populist positions (spreading his message through cable news shows).

Both Buchanan and Perot ran again in 1996, with Buchanan winning the New Hampshire primary and Perot winning 8 percent of the popular vote under the banner of the new Reform Party.

These candidates directly led the way to Trump's first campaign. Perot's electoral performance made the 2000 nominee of the Reform Party eligible for $12.5 million in federal matching funds, prompting Buchanan and Trump to seek the nomination. Ventura, a former professional wrestler who had won the Minnesota gubernatorial election in 1998 as a Reform Party candidate, had sought out Trump to block Buchanan.

After beating Trump, Buchanan won only 0.4 percent of the general election vote in 2000. His constituency turned out to be mostly Republican voters. Reform Party supporters fit uneasily within the GOP but were less willing to leave Republicans in a close national election without Perot on the ballot. Political science studies of callers to Perot's volunteer hotline confirm that most Reform Party members were originally Republicans who later returned to become more active participants in Republican politics.

Trump's new campaign draws from these supporters and other disaffected Republicans, but it now has better timing. Under the first black president, citizens with racist views have moved toward Republican identification. Increases in campus unrest and racial protest over police brutality have intensified racial views. Ethnic diversification has increased anti-immigration attitudes. Trump has united the overlapping nativist constituency of Buchanan and the anti-elitist constituency of Perot, and may be expanding both in the process. While he sat out three presidential cycles (after considering runs in 2004 and 2012), both constituencies became more Republican and the power of white grievance politics grew.

Trump's rise is, of course, multifaceted. His unique celebrity and overwhelming media coverage, his luck having opponents who long attacked one another rather than him, and his effective use of social media all played a role. But one striking difference between his first campaign and this year's variety deserves further scrutiny: his overt nativism, honed over years of birther publicity and grievance activation.

Trump still faces significant challenges within the Republican Party, which has long been dominated at the activist level by conservative ideologues. His abrasive nationalism draws on a long history within Republican politics, but he has angered activists by challenging other party orthodoxies. Because Republican voters are united by symbolic and abstract values rather than consistent policy opinions, some can be poached by candidates who scorn liberals and embrace a few right-wing positions without endorsing the full Republican policy menu. Trump also benefited from years of support within the conservative media universe that Republicans trust, but could be vulnerable as they turn against him.

Many political candidates learn from their first loss, sometimes overcompensating in an effort to remedy their biggest difficulty from the prior campaign. In losing to Buchanan, Trump learned that many disaffected anti-establishment voters shared Buchanan's ethnocentric views. In his first campaign, he avoided nativism and never led. This time, he began with Buchanan's message and led from the beginning. Perhaps losing to Buchanan taught Trump some new tricks.

Matt Grossmann is the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research and associate professor of political science at Michigan State University. He is the author of The Not-So-Special Interests and Artists of the Possible.