The Trump phenomenon has been viewed through a particular lens in Minnesota. Voters in the North Star State still remember the unusual third-party gubernatorial victory of Jesse Ventura.
Like Trump, Ventura captured the public’s imagination by flouting convention and dispensing with political niceties. During his 1998 campaign, he called critics names and made grandiose claims. Ventura offered policy proposals that professional consultants would surely advise against, like legalizing prostitution and (ahead of its time) marijuana.
In the end, when the votes were tallied, Ventura came out ahead. His victory remains a beacon held aloft by third-party proponents and rogue activists as evidence of alternative paths to power.
Speaking to George Stephanopoulos about a potential Trump nod on ABC’s This Week, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison (D) echoed a point voiced by many in his state. From the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
“You know, George, we had Jesse Ventura in Minnesota win the governorship,” the representative from Minneapolis said. “Nobody thought he was going to win. I’m telling you, stranger things have happened.”
Most of the time, when pundits reference Ventura in support of an unconventional candidacy, the comparison proves incomplete. Ventura’s victory was a perfect storm. He struck during a drought of interest, running against candidates from the major parties who failed to excite. He leveraged his celebrity, a not insignificant advantage in a realm where name-ID is currency. Perhaps his biggest advantage was a natural capacity to put on a show. He was a performer after all.
These characteristics don’t frequently coalesce in other unconventional candidates. The argument could be made, however, that they coalesce in Trump. Ellison could be right.
But before Trump supporters get excited, it’s worth noting how Ventura’s victory panned out, both for him and the state of Minnesota, as we’ll explore on the next page. Governing is an entirely different beast from campaigning. Ventura found himself a third-party executive without a legislative caucus, a showman without a lick of political capacity in the halls of actual power. With no one to work with him in the state legislature, Ventura ended up governing in a haphazard and ineffective way.
Frankly, Ventura was a disaster. He took the state from a $4 billion surplus to a state contending with a $4.5 billion budget deficit. He gave Minnesotans a massive light-rail boondoggle into which taxpayer money still sinks. Ventura’s own assessment of his legacy after a single four-year term was that he “provok[ed] people out of their apathy,” not that he actually accomplished anything.
Incidentally, the two-party system and politics-as-usual are alive and well in Minnesota.
When people critique Trump as “non-serious,” this may be what they mean. It’s not enough to “shake things up” or “say it like it is.” A political candidate needs to credibly lead from the office they seek. If Ventura stands as a model for Trump, voters should beware.