'Yes, You Remembered Me' (The Forgotten Man). Cartoon, 1936, by Clarence D. Batchelor, Stock Photo
"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.”
—Donald Trump, July 21, 2016
This year’s Republican presidential nominee is not the first politician to utter the phrase “forgotten man.” The term has periodically surfaced since the late 19th century, when voters learned that the forgotten man opposed the Dingley Tariff. Yet it still resonates today. Two years ago Sarah Palin told the Western Conservative Summit that “what the forgotten man has is belief in this exceptional nation.”
But what do politicians mean by the forgotten man? Two opposing definitions predominate. Which of these Mr. Trump chooses will tell us the kind of president he might make.
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.
“Jobbery,” as Sumner called it, also wounded the forgotten man. In the 1870s and 1880s, the era of Tweed and Tammany, municipal and county governments joined private contractors to build public structures. Sumner skewered such projects: “They are carried out, not because they are needed in themselves, but because they will serve the turn of some private interest.” He added that “the biggest job of all is a protective tariff,” which generates forgotten men and forgotten costs to consumers.
Sumner’s forgotten man was a political phenomenon, a warning that supplied arguments for reformers of both parties. His chum William Whitney helped lead anti-Tammany Democrats and served in Grover Cleveland’s cabinet.
That we know so little about Sumner, who died in 1910, is evidence of the thoroughness of the progressive takeover of academic culture. By the early 1930s and the Great Depression, a different forgotten man had stepped onto the political stage. Raymond Moley, campaign adviser to New York’s Gov. Franklin Roosevelt, was drafting a speech that the presidential candidate was to give on the Lucky Strike Radio Hour. “I scraped from my memory an old phrase, ‘The Forgotten Man,’ which has haunted me for years,” Moley later explained.
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.”
FDR’s forgotten man carried him to victory in 1932 and defined the platform of his subsequent presidential campaign. As the 1936 election neared, Roosevelt identified and rewarded one group of “forgottens” after another.
Unions received the Wagner Act, the right to bargain collectively. Senior citizens received Social Security. Municipal lobbies got billions for “jobbery.” The unemployed received payments or make-work jobs. At Howard University, Roosevelt thundered that “there should be no forgotten men and no forgotten races.”
This interest-group strategy netted FDR a stunning victory in 1936—46 of 48 states—and provided a template that has since served not only his party but also Latin American governments. 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.
Hoisting FDR by his own rhetoric, an Indiana paper asked: “Who is the forgotten man in Muncie? I know him as intimately as my own undershirt. He is the fellow that is trying to get along without public relief.”
More recent sightings include Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, when he spoke of “the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans—the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators.”
And where stands Mr. Trump? With Sumner’s anonymous crowd, or Roosevelt’s specific groups? That Mr. Trump is by temperament a man of deals suggests he will be inclined toward FDR’s way of thinking. Mr. Trump’s Atlantic City projects fit perfectly into the Sumneresque definition of “jobbery.” Mr. Trump’s unabashed protectionism does not recall Roosevelt, an exception as a free trader, but it does recall the Democratic Party.
But Mr. Trump does not pit rich against poor. He may end up standing more for the universal than the individual.
We’re told this election is “different.” Perhaps different enough that we will get a real discussion of the consequences of rewarding groups. Sumner’s distinction between “jobbery” and true capitalism is one that many voters would be thrilled to see Mr. Trump recognize. And how fabulous it would be if Hillary Clinton took on Mr. Trump over trade with the vigor of a Sumner. Here’s an opening question for the first Trump-Clinton debate: “Who is the forgotten man?”
Miss Shlaes, author of “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression” (Harper, 2007), is a presidential scholar at King’s College.