The long history and hazy future of Donald Trump’s Forgotten Man

Posted on November 18, 2016

Practically the first reference out of the mouth of President-elect Donald Trump was to “the forgotten men and women of our country”. Since then, television hosts have hammered on the Forgotten Man theme.

The phrase in the president-elect’s acceptance speech is itself old and capacious enough to cover several conflicting meanings. The best-known Forgotten Man in the US currently is the corollary to “Brexit Man” in Britain, the disillusioned voter — the figure left out by the elites, in what for the US has been a disappointing economic recovery.

Two other Forgotten Men loom in US history: one favoured in the 1930s by Franklin Roosevelt and the other popular more than a century ago. Which Forgotten Man Mr Trump makes his own will determine how well he serves the country.

The Forgotten Man first popped up in the 1880s, in the lectures of an egregiously popular Yale sociologist named William Graham Sumner. Sumner worried that progressive spending programmes would darken the American entrepreneurial spirit and slow economic growth. He formulated a little algebra to capture his Forgotten Man and pounded it into the brains of several generations of undergraduates: “A”, the man at the top, said Sumner, wants to help “X”, the man at the bottom, the poor man. That is fine as far as it goes. “A” may join a wealthy colleague, “B”, so they can work together. But there comes a problem, Sumner posited, when “A” and “B” coerce “C,” an innocent and anonymous third party, into co-funding their perhaps dubious project for “X”.

“C”, wrote Sumner, was the Forgotten Man, the anonymous silhouette who does not happen to fall into a specific social class or interest group: “the man who pays, the man who prays, the man who is not thought of”.

When the progressive Roosevelt ran for president in 1932, he put another spin on the Forgotten Man term. Then New York governor, he promised the national government would help “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid”. That was the poor man, Sumner’s “X”. The key distinction between Sumner’s Forgotten Man and Roosevelt’s was that Sumner spoke generally and Roosevelt targeted a specific constituent for aid.

As president, Roosevelt systematically moved to target not one but multiple specific groups. His New Deal first served “the man at the bottom of the economic pyramid” with job programmes. Then the president and his party, the Democrats, gave the forgotten grandparent Social Security, the federal pension programme. Next, the forgotten industrial worker received the Wagner Act, a tiger of labour law that makes current statute look like a neutered pussycat. At historically black Howard University, Roosevelt thundered that “there are no forgotten men and no forgotten races”.

To thank Roosevelt for these gifts, a coalition of recipients came together in 1936 and returned the incumbent to office in a landslide so historic that Democrats have been following Roosevelt’s playbook ever since. But the general economy failed to return to pre-Depression levels. Unemployment remained in the double digits. Roosevelt’s costly programmes and his high-wage rules burdened employers. Companies hesitated to hire or rehire. To pay for it all, Roosevelt taxed business until it swooned. In remembering one Forgotten Man, Roosevelt forgot another.

The same choice between the general welfare and individual groups confronts Mr Trump today — in the area of trade, for example. He might choose to serve the general Forgotten Man and opt for free-trade agreements, or even (OK, one can dream) unilateral free trade. But Mr Trump has gone the other way, claiming trade liberalisation works “against the American worker”. It’s obvious why. There is an asymmetry between the benefits of free trade, which show up in lower prices (small, universal and diffuse benefits), and the dramatic snapshot of the loss of an individual factory worker’s job. Over time, however, and with education, freer trade provides more jobs than protectionism.

Another example is the minimum wage. If Mr Trump supports a minimum wage, he will certainly be helping those who currently have jobs where a floor on wages is required. But he will disadvantage a greater, albeit anonymous, group who might be hired were wages lower. So far, the president-elect has flip-flopped between his Forgotten Men.

Politically oriented spending may not help Mr Trump’s popularity. After all, since Roosevelt, group rewards have been the Democrats’ trademark. As a member of the supposedly more frugal Republican party, and with Republicans in Congress to constrain him, Mr Trump can offer only Democrat Lite.

What’s more, as in the 1930s, politically oriented spending will not serve the economy well because it favours pork over productivity. If, however, Mr Trump favours more general measures he will remember not only a Forgotten Man but a forgotten economy.

The writer chairs the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation and is author of ‘The Forgotten Man’

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