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Frank Barry

Before Trump, There Was Jesse Jackson

How the GOP's front-runner has followed the most unlikely trailblazer.
Photograph: The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Photograph: The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Americans have never seen a candidate like Donald Trump before. He’s been compared to Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, but none are perfect fits. The best way to understand him may be to see him as the Republican version of Jesse Jackson in 1988. Within their parties, they are strikingly similar figures, and while Trump may yet prove more successful at the polls, he’s unlikely to match Jackson’s long-term impact on his party.  

Through much of 1987, Rev. Jackson led in most national polls, as Trump has done this year. Like Trump, he was a populist outsider with no political experience who faced questions about his readiness for high office. He ran a campaign based more on free media than paid commercials. His strongest support came from those with no college diploma. His offensive comments about a minority group inflamed tensions. His appeal rested on giving voice to those who felt they were taken for granted and losing ground. And he terrified party leaders who saw him as extreme and unelectable.