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Donald Trump and History’s Competing Visions of America’s ‘Forgotten Man’

6 minute read

“The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” Donald Trump proclaimed in his victory speech in the early morning hours following Tuesday’s election. With his finger instinctively, almost unconsciously, on the pulse of America, he invoked a key phrase in American politics with a long and turbulent history.

What he may have meant by “forgotten” Americans can suggest a great deal about what the future will bring under a Trump presidency.

Franklin D. Roosevelt most famously invoked “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid” in a 1932 campaign radio address that went on to be known simply as his “The Forgotten Man” speech. His words shocked many in his party because of their suggestion of class conflict in America. He came to believe that his party’s future had to be reconfigured so that it rested on “the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power” found in the American working class.

Few today know, but FDR had cleverly turned a pre-existing “forgotten man” on his head. Up until then, the most famous invocation belonged to William Graham Sumner—a social Darwinist, part of the movement espousing the belief that survival of the fittest ought to apply to society as well as biology. In an 1883 address also titled “The Forgotten Man,” Sumner declared that all the hard-working common man longed for was to be liberated from the nagging needs of the undeserving poor.

Only by separating the noble “forgotten man” from the burdens of the “nasty, shiftless, criminal, whining, crawling, and good-for-nothing people,” Sumner believed, could “true liberty” be achieved. “It is clear now,” Sumner concluded, “that the interest of the Forgotten Man and the interest of the ‘the poor,’ ‘the weak,’ and the other petted classes are in antagonism.”

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Roosevelt had made a tactically brilliant rhetorical move. His inversion meant inclusion rather than exclusion. His forgotten man was expansive, with the promise of placing all in the collective economic security of the New Deal including those Sumner deemed unworthy.

Roosevelt’s was a new kind of liberty. Rather than freedom from constraints, this promised a type of freedom that can only come from being economically in control of one’s own life.

Political philosophers often play with what Isaiah Berlin called “Two Concepts of Liberty.” One, called “negative,” is familiar to all—the freedom from limits on action, thought and speech. That is to say, the cherished tradition of freedom from coercion. The other liberty is the lost soul of American politics: “Positive” liberty, which for Roosevelt was a set of tools that would provide citizens with what he later called “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear.” Economic safety and stability would provide a new lease on working class life. Rather than the freedom from, this was the freedom to do and become.

Almost two generations of bipartisan efforts to build economic security in the post World War II era was the result. It is often invoked as a golden age—for some because it was before the challenge of civil rights and women’s rights movements to their sense of privilege. For others, it glowed gold because hard work paid off in an expansive and more equitable political economy. Wages went up and inequality went down. Economic security proved so powerful, it even helped to spawn the freedom movements of the 1960s. Even when limited, the model proved beneficial for everyone.

Richard Nixon, accepting the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1968, invoked yet another incarnation of “the forgotten” Americans” (a precursor to his more famous “silent majority”). One of the great dividers in American political history, Nixon sought to seduce the blue-collar vote away from the Democrats and to the Republican cause. His incarnation harked back to Sumner’s, seeking to liberate the white working class from the demands of those below him on the economic ladder. Since then, from Reagan’s “welfare queen” to Clinton’s “end of big government,” American politics has continued to put the forgotten man in a muted version of Sumner’s world, where the worker and the undeserving poor are fundamentally different and separate.

The demographic breakdowns of the votes that produce an astounding victory for Donald Trump appear to indicate that the nation has doubled down on William Graham Sumner’s vision of the forgotten man: Trump’s rhetoric appeals to a white, native-born working class whose see their interests as different from others at the foundation of the economic pyramid.

There is, however, another path. Trump, the “blue collar billionaire,” has always been more opportunistic than conservative, and he might just find his way toward being the force for unification that he promised the morning after the election. That would require much more than the rhetoric of recognition. It would mean bold moves toward economic security—some of which he has already promised, especially with regard to building public infrastructure and rejiggering the way global trade works.

If he wants to be the hero badly enough, he might end the savage social Darwinism on which he campaigned. Perhaps he might become a populist for all. It’s a long shot. But pushing for a revival of an inclusive vision of the forgotten Americans, the lost version once inherent in the promise of FDR’s version, may be our only hope.

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Jefferson Cowie is the James G. Stahlman Professor of history at Vanderbilt University. His most recent book is The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics.

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