Remember the Forgotten Man?

Illustration: Chad Crowe

After the initial shock of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory wore off, a few thoughtful people across the ideological spectrum attempted to wrap their heads around what happened. How did a brash, sometimes crude political neophyte beat everyone from Jeb Bush to Hillary Clinton at their own game on the world’s largest stage? Those more prone to introspection and self-awareness than denial and vindictiveness came to the conclusion that the country’s political and media elites had forgotten about the plight of the “average” American—the so-called Forgotten Man.

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The term, first coined by Yale social scientist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), was used to describe the American who, too poor to have political influence and too rich to be considered worthy of a helping hand, was often taken for granted by the political classes. As Sumner so aptly noted, “he works, he votes, generally he prays—but he always pays.”

There was a post-2016 awakening among those who realized they had ignored a big part of the country—the one that lives far from the corridors of power and the bright lights of cable television studios. Those who hadn’t read J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” before the election rushed to buy a copy. For a while, everyone seemed to understand the hidden pain of those in the so-called Rust Belt of the American Midwest who had paid the highest price for 50 years of social engineering at home and abroad.

The costs of trade and immigration policies that favored big business were most often felt by the working class in “flyover country.” These policy changes came at a pace so rapid that people had little chance to adapt. Those same families sent their sons and daughters to fight in far off wars with few obvious connections to the national interest.

Those who complained were either ignored or deemed xenophobic racists and “deplorables.” How dare they question the collective wisdom of highly educated experts? Never mind that those experts bore almost no consequences for the disastrous effects of their policies. To my knowledge, no politician, university professor, news anchor, military officer, or Wall Street titan has ever seen his job outsourced to a foreign land.

For a while, the coastal elites made some attempt to empathize with those who don’t define themselves primarily as victims. But the effort to understand how and why President Trump won didn’t last very long. They may have died the day Mr. Trump fired James Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation—a direct hit on an established and entrenched political elite. Mr. Comey’s abrupt dismissal seemed to represent an existential threat to the order of things in Washington and New York. Instantly, the validity of Mr. Trump’s arguments on major issues like trade, immigration and foreign entanglements took a back seat to efforts to destroy him. The Forgotten Man was forgotten again, almost as quickly as he had been remembered.

Four years later we are in the midst of a global pandemic that has reordered society again to the detriment of the little guy. Small businesses and their employees must follow the diktats of state and local governments without any assurances about their economic future. Those who can’t work from home see the pandemic as far more than an inconvenience. Debates over trade and immigration have been sidelined in favor of debates over lockdowns and masks, yet Democrats and Republicans alike are finally starting to realize that China was never the good-faith economic partner it was supposed to become when it was granted membership in the World Trade Organization.

Many more forgotten men and women are also wondering about the costs of lockdowns imposed by a political elite largely insulated from their consequences. The lockdowns’ loudest cheerleaders work in jobs that are easily done from the safety and comfort of home. Pundits and politicians are unlikely ever to need unemployment benefits, or to watch a family business built over generations get wiped out in a matter of months. The forgotten men and women are also wondering why they get so little respect, as customers, from wealthy athletes, television commentators and celebrities who are quick to lecture them about their alleged moral failings, sometimes ascribed to them simply because of the color of their skin.

As Henry David Thoreau wrote, most men lead lives of quiet desperation. We worry about paying our bills, keeping our kids happy and out of trouble, preserving our property, and protecting our families. Most of us don’t have ambitions greater than living free from want and fear. Most don’t want a European vacation or an apartment in San Francisco. We just want the freedom to say what we think and to worship as we choose. It is remarkable how many in power have forgotten the lessons of the upset of 2016, and the people who made it possible.

Mr. Trennert is chairman of Strategas, an investment-strategy, economic and policy research firm.

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