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

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tags: election 2016, Trump



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.

“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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