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The Forgotten Man Rises Again–But Which One? (Forbes.com) November 9, 2016

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.

In his first tweet as president-elect, Donald Trump promised that “the forgotten man and woman will never be forgotten again.” Indeed, the forgotten man and woman were recurring characters in Trump’s flurry of campaign rally speeches on Monday, the day before the election. In Sarasota, Florida for example, he said, “We are going to massively cut taxes for the middle class…who I call the forgotten people.” These “forgotten men and women” are the ones who “built our country.” He made similar references to this key constituency at pre-election rallies in Raleigh, N.C. and Grand Rapids, MI.

But this begs an interesting question: Who are Trump’s “forgotten man and woman?” Are they related to Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “forgotten man” around whom he built his New Deal in the 1930s? And, going even further back in history in order to come back to a deeper understanding today, what was the origin of the term? What we find is a flexible expression that has varied widely in its meaning, a character that Donald Trump resurrected and reinvented to fuel his political victory.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s “forgotten man” became the centerpiece of his New Deal policies and political constituency. Blaming Herbert Hoover’s “rugged individualism” policies for the Great Depression, Roosevelt said that he would focus government’s efforts instead on “the forgotten man.” When Roosevelt incorporated the term in his fireside radio chat—the 20th century Twitter—on April 7, 1932, the new president said: “These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power for plans…that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”

Roosevelt’s forgotten man would become the object of government policy not only during the New Deal, but arguably for the next 84 years and still counting. The welfare state that Roosevelt began to construct with social security, and which President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society expanded with Medicaid and Medicare, and to which President Barack Obama added “Obamacare” has all been carried out in the name of the forgotten man. And Roosevelt’s implementation tool was bigger government, especially the executive branch of the federal government, and more central planning and control. It was, in today’s parlance, the elites holding the reins of power in the name of helping the forgotten man.

But the origin of the forgotten man held a different meaning still. A Yale professor, William Graham Sumner, coined the term to describe the man who pays for someone else’s reforms that, in turn, benefit yet another person. In some ways he sounds more like Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” than Roosevelt’s forgotten man. Sumner said, “The forgotten man…works, votes, generally he prays—but he always pays.” Indeed, Trump did appeal to a silent majority, even a politically disengaged population, who are frustrated that they always pay for more and more government, but feel like they gain nothing from it.

Perhaps Trump brings together both the original Sumner and the revised Roosevelt understandings of the forgotten man. By winning the largest share of white working class men than any presidential candidate since World War II, and also winning white working class women at high levels, Trump has reached down to the lower rungs of the economic pyramid, as Roosevelt put it. Like many victims of the Great Depression of the 1930s, many of these are unemployed or underemployed. But they are not impressed by what big government has done for them. They seem to want more of the American dream rather than more government welfare.

The important question now is: What can Trump, what will Trump do for the forgotten men and women? He says he will cut their taxes. Of course he alone cannot accomplish that, but with a Republican congress, perhaps tax reform is possible. It seems that the rest of his solutions are more like Hoover than Roosevelt, more about building walls and rebuilding the economy, allowing them to create more jobs, rather than providing more government welfare or control.

So the forgotten man and woman rise again. Each president who embraces them sees them a bit differently, but they have become a convenient political appeal and a way to structure domestic policy.

To view the column at Forbes.com:

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