So, why did Trump succeed in leading a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, when Buchanan’s efforts came up so short in 1992? One overriding reason is that the times have indeed changed. When Buchanan warned of globalism and intervention, the successful Gulf War and the Christmas Day 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union weakened that argument. If there really was a “new world order,” America was unquestionably in charge. Today, with memories of the disastrous second Iraq War, China rising and Russia asserting itself again, anti-interventionism is a lot stronger argument. Immigration, too, is an issue far more powerful today. “Back then, there were maybe 3-4 million illegal immigrants,” Buchanan says. “Today, there are maybe 12 million.”
Perhaps the most startling parallel between Buchanan and Trump is the argument of bipartisan betrayal: They both used their pulpit to excoriate elites in both parties for leaving more vulnerable, working-class Americans behind. And on that front, the country has changed profoundly. The central American promise—that our children would live better than we live—has been thrown into grave doubt, at least for those who are part of “the white working class.” Some 5 million manufacturing jobs have been lost since the start of the millennium; incomes for the average factory worker have been stagnant for just about all of the 21st century.
“Those issues started maturing,” Buchanan now says. “Now we’ve lost 55,000 factories. … When those consequences came rolling in, all of a sudden you’ve got an angry country. We were out there warning what was coming. Now, on trade and intervention, America sees what’s come.”
But there’s one other major change that has made Trump’s message far more potent than Buchanan’s: the speed at which a powerful, even divisive idea can travel from one like-minded individual to another. “If Buchanan had had social media he might have done a lot better,” argues Ron Kaufman, a longtime ally of the Bush family, who has spent a lifetime as a Republican operative. “Back then in ’92, people wouldn’t have been hearing about it every 15 minutes. There was no Breitbart, no Politico.”
The rise of talk radio, cable networks and an online echo chamber for political discourse has changed the game for people with an outsider message, whether on the left or the right. Longtime Democratic operative Joe Trippi, who turned the Howard Dean campaign into an online fundraising behemoth in 2004, says: “I think one of the things we have all underestimated is how connected underground networks are these days—from Occupy Wall Street to white supremacists to conspiracy aficionados. … So if a Pat Buchanan came along today, it’s much easier to roll over a party.”