Remember when Donald Trump left the Republican Party?
The first time, that is, not when he stormed out of the GOP again in late 2011.
In late October 1999, Trump announced he was quitting the Republicans to consider running for the Reform Party’s presidential nomination. “I really believe the Republicans are just too crazy right,” he said.
Trump was especially interested in derailing — and smearing — Pat Buchanan, who was making the same party switch that day. Unlike Trump, Buchanan was actually a conservative — or, in Trump’s telling, a representative of the “really staunch right wacko vote.”
“Look, he’s a Hitler lover,” Trump said of Buchanan. “I guess he’s an anti-Semite. He doesn’t like the blacks, he doesn’t like the gays.”
It’s unlikely that Trump ever read any of Buchanan’s books, or even looked at the pictures. Perhaps he once colored one in, trying very hard to stay inside the lines. Buchanan was then three years removed from winning the New Hampshire primary and some 3 million Republican votes.
Back in 1999, years before BuzzFeed‘s McKay Coppins ate bison or Breitbart‘s Matt Boyle ate liberals, Trump wasn’t trying to rally conservatives. He was pro-choice, though conflicted about it: “I’m totally pro-choice. I hate it and I hate saying it. And I’m almost ashamed to say that I’m pro-choice, but I am pro-choice because I think we have no choice.”
Trump also favored a one-time 14.25 percent wealth tax on the super-rich to pay down the national debt. “The economy would boom,” he vowed. “We’d have no debt. Hey, I know about debt probably as much as anybody.”
“I can’t think of a better idea to cause capital flight out of the United States,” Buchanan told the New York Times.
This was Trump’s greatest presidential campaign. He was the candidate of Jesse “The Body” Ventura. Today Ventura is a washed-up former professional wrestler who occasionally turns up in public badly dressed and muttering 9/11 conspiracy theories. But back then, he was governor of Minnesota. As the Reform Party’s most senior elected official, he was the country’s best shot for creating a viable third party.
So naturally Reform Party founder Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire and two-time presidential candidate, wanted to kick Ventura and his supporters out of the party. They had some differences of opinion about trade and immigration, and also vastly different styles.
Mostly, Perot just wanted to run the political party instead of Ventura. Since he had no apparent desire to ever run for president again, it wasn’t really clear what he wanted to do with this political party. But when you are a billionaire, you get used to having whatever you want without having to really justify it to anybody.
It was Perot’s people who convinced Buchanan the water was fine in the Reform Party and he should dive right in. They believed the combined forces of the Perotistas and the Buchanan brigades could defeat the Ventura faction. If Buchanan agreed to leave control of the party to the Perot people, they promised to hand him the presidential nomination.
Trump was supposed to be Ventura’s wrestling move to make sure this didn’t happen. He would run against Buchanan, keeping the Reform Party socially liberal and more in line with Ventura’s image.
The Donald ditched his Republican registration and became a member of New York’s Independence Party, the state Reform Party affiliate that was under the sway of Marxist Lenora Fulani. Fulani didn’t support Trump, however. She briefly endorsed Buchanan, even serving as co-chair of his campaign.
Buchanan vs. Trump. Perot vs. Ventura. That would have easily made the Reform Party nomination fight as exciting as the Republican primaries featuring George W. Bush and John McCain. It was certainly better than anything that happened in the Democratic race between Al Gore and Bill Bradley.
Unfortunately, it never really got off the ground.
Trump ultimately decided not to run. The Buchanan and Perot supporters voted the Ventura-backed Reform Party chairman out of office. Ventura quit the party. Deprived of a common enemy, the Perotistas quickly turned on Buchanan, unsuccessfully supporting a candidate who believed he could fly instead.
The whole thing was wonderfully dysfunctional. But the moral of the story is that Trump didn’t run, a continuing trait that leads many to doubt the sincerity of his push to become a major Republican player — a candidate for office, even — today.
After all, if Trump wasn’t going to duke it out with Pat Buchanan for the nomination of a dying Reform Party, is he really going to want to square off against Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio?
Donald Trump’s most exciting campaign ended without him getting a single vote.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the recently released book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.