Two decades ago, in the spring of 1996, Newsweek magazine described a group of voters it called the “radical middle.” Formerly known as the Silent Majority, then the Reagan Democrats, these voters had supported Ross Perot in 1992, and were hoping the Texas billionaire would run again. Voters in the radical middle, Newsweek wrote, “see the traditional political system itself as the country’s chief problem.”
The radical middle is attracted to populists, outsiders, businessmen such as Perot and Lee Iacocca who have never held office, and to anyone, according to Newsweek, who is the “tribune of anti-insider discontent.” Newt Gingrich rallied the radical middle in 1994—year of the Angry White Male—but his Republican Revolution sputtered to a halt after the government shut down over Medicare in 1995. Once more the radical middle had become estranged from the GOP. “If Perot gets in the race,” a Dole aide told Newsweek, “it will guarantee Clinton’s reelection.”
Well, here we are again, at the beginning of a presidential campaign in which the Republican Party, having lost its hold on the radical middle, is terrified of the electoral consequences. The supporters of Reagan and Perot, of Gingrich and Pat Buchanan, have found another aging billionaire in whom to place their fears and anxieties, their nostalgia and love of country, their disgust with the political and cultural elite, their trepidation at what our nation is becoming.