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.