The “Forgotten Man” from Roosevelt to Trump.
Amity Shlaes, as usual, has gotten it right.
Ms. Shlaes is author of a terrific book I read several years back titled The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression and is now a presidential scholar at King’s College.
In listening to Donald Trump’s acceptance speech, Shlaes, writing in the Wall Street Journal, picked up on the same thing I did — this passage of the Trump speech, bold print for emphasis:
I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country.
While I don’t have the Shlaes book at hand here in Philadelphia, she does a great job of summarizing the point of her book, so this excerpt from her column:
The forgotten man emerged in the 1880s in the lectures of a Yale professor named William Graham Sumner. A Thomas Piketty in reverse, Sumner abhorred efforts to equalize society and offered an elegant equation: “As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X or, in the better case, what A, B and C shall do for X.
“C” is the forgotten man, declared Sumner, a kind of everyman who falls into no category: “He works, he votes, generally he prays—but he always pays—yes, above all, he pays.”
Sumner, a classical liberal, believed that strong commerce helped the poor better than the best government benefit. “If you do anything for the Forgotten Man, you must secure him his earnings and savings, that is, you legislate for the security of capital and for its free employment,” Sumner wrote.
… The forgotten man FDR sketched was not the universal “C” but “X,” the man, as Roosevelt put it, “at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” The key difference was that Roosevelt would single out specific groups, starting with the poor.
FDR’s forgotten man was the opposite of Sumner’s. Roosevelt’s predecessor as the Democrats’ presidential nominee, Al Smith, objected to the switch. Smith, himself from the humblest of backgrounds, warned that highlighting class distinctions divided the country when it needed to pull together. “The Forgotten Man is a myth,” Smith said, “and the sooner he disappears from the campaign the better it will be for the country.”
Shlaes is right. She is especially correct in noting that when FDR changed the Forgotten Man in this equation from “C” — the man who pays — to “X” — the guy who got government benefits parceled out to him — FDR’s economy cratered. “The forgotten footnote is that the economic outcome of FDR’s program vindicated Sumner. Remembering so many forgotten men meant forgetting the average worker. The slump that followed FDR’s spending blitz drove unemployment back into the high teens.”
Exactly. So which “Forgotten Man” is Trump speaking of? I would suggest, based on his record as a capitalist, Trump is true to the vision of William Graham Sumner — and “C.” His running mate, Governor Mike Pence, delivered a eulogy for the late Jack Kemp on the floor of the House at Kemp’s death. Said Pence: “I will always say that I am, first and foremost, a “Jack Kemp Republican.” He also said this:
As a legislator and a thought leader, Jack Kemp shaped a rising generation of leaders in both parties with his ideas about entrepreneurial capitalism, enterprise zones and equality. Those ideas were the driving force behind the economic policies of President Ronald Reagan and the welfare reform of the Republican Congress.
His optimistic belief in the American dream — in the power of free markets and entrepreneurial capitalism — was a lodestar to millions of Americans. His devotion to ensuring equality of opportunity for every American regardless of race, creed or color helped ground the Republican Party in the true ideals of Lincoln.
Add into the presence of Pence the support of ex-Reagan aide and economist Lawrence Kudlow, who says this in praising Pence’s selection:
Down through the years, as a leader of the conservative House Republican Study Committee and later as the third-ranking member of the House Republican leadership team, he stood firm as a genuine and consistent conservative. On economic policy Pence has held to the key building block of growth. He is a budget hawk who voted against President George W. Bush’s fiscally bloated No Child Left Behind education bill and hyper-expensive Medicare prescription-drug bill. He said he would not support new middle-class entitlements. He was consistent.
Just over ten years ago, Pence was voted conservative man of the year by Human Events. I did the interview and subsequent write-up. Pence described himself as “an unregenerate supply-sider” whose central aim is to marry supply-side tax cuts with strict spending restraint to expand the economy and get the budget into balance. A few years ago, Pence spoke to the Detroit Economic Club. He called for sound monetary reform, tax relief, access to American energy, regulatory reform, and trade. New York Sun editor Seth Lipsky reminds us that Trump has stood for a stable and reliable dollar, including a standard to back it up. Pence stands for these same things.
In other words? Mike Pence — like Donald Trump — sees the Forgotten Man as “C” — the man who pays, believing with Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan that as Sumner said: “If you do anything for the Forgotten Man, you must secure him his earnings and savings, that is, you legislate for the security of capital and for its free employment.”
Without doubt the Forgotten Man is a centerpiece of the Trump campaign and would most assuredly be the focus of a Trump presidency. Which is another way of saying that Donald Trump may in fact turn out to be not another Reagan — but the conservative version of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
As Democrats fight in Philadelphia with a bitter fury, casting themselves adrift from America in a convention that seeks repeatedly to keep dividing the country by class, race, and now gender and age, the GOP is in the process of discovering that with the nomination of Donald Trump — to borrow from FDR’s famous theme song — Happy Days Are Here Again.