Trump’s Appeal to the Forgotten Man

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Briar Woods High School, Tuesday, August 2, 2016, in Ashburn, Virginia. 

It’s hard to keep track of Donald Trump’s outrages, as he careens from one to the next: Gold Star families, prominent Republicans, crying babies. Trump calls to mind the line of the early 1960s comic and satirist Mort Sahl, who invariably paused mid-routine to ask, “Is there anyone I haven’t offended?”

Still, before Trump’s Republican Convention speech fades into the mists of time, I’d like to revisit one particularly troubling passage. No, not the one where he said that he “alone” could fix our problems—a passage that has since garnered a fair share of attention, since it suggests a conception of the office of president that doesn’t leave much room for the other branches of government, or more broadly, for American citizens to play a role in steering the country.

It’s a kindred passage from his speech that I want to return to. This one: “These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but who no longer have a voice. I AM YOUR VOICE.” (The all-caps were in the printed version of the speech Trump’s campaign released.)

There’s nothing new, or exceptionable, in referring to the forgotten man. Franklin Roosevelt introduced the term into our political lexicon when he ran for president in 1932, calling for policies to assist “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” Nor is there anything novel about extolling hard-working people who don’t raise much of a ruckus. Richard Nixon proclaimed himself the candidate of the “silent majority” when he sought the presidency in 1968, a time of notoriously noisy antiwar protests and big-city riots.

And there’s certainly nothing wrong in appealing to the white workers, found disproportionately in the Rust Belt states, who lost decent manufacturing jobs as their employers offshored their factories and failed to find comparable employment. This key Trump constituency hasn’t had much in the way of effective political advocacy. For every Sherrod Brown, the progressive Democrat who represents Ohio in the Senate and who has been the most relentless opponent of bad trade deals and proponent of smart jobs programs, there have been a dozen indifferent public policy-makers who’ve offered little to nothing to those workers left behind.

What’s wrong with Trump’s formulation isn’t the set-up but the pay-off: I am your voice. Like his declaration that he “alone” can fix our ills, the idea that we are voiceless and should let him be our speaker doesn’t give much of a political role to anyone but him.

Trump is not the only figure on the right, however, to make such pronouncements. While driving across a Midwestern state some years ago, with the radio tuned to Rush Limbaugh, I heard Limbaugh deliver a similar assessment of himself and his public. After mis-explaining some development in the news, Rush paused to observe: “That’s why I was born to talk—and you were born to listen.”

There is in Trump, Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and their kind a need both to assert their own authority and to assume a certain passivity in their audience. This assumption certainly bolsters their own sense of indispensability, and reinforces their image (and self-image) as the leader of a distinct tribe, or the unchallengeable head of a docile family. Just how voiceless, docile, and passive that family may actually be is open to some question: Surely, the Tea Party has been making plenty of noise over the past six years.

But one of things I suspect draws certain people to become a Limbaugh “ditto-head” or an O’Reilly acolyte is that their respective cult leader assumes the role of the head of a traditional, “father knows best and takes no shit” family. They may even acknowledge the father in question may not always know best—there’s ample evidence that Trump supporters understand he’s at minimum a serial exaggerator—but his assumption of the role of tough, judgmental father is what really appeals to them.

In a survey released in January, political scientist and consultant Matthew MacWilliams found that the one attribute most closely correlated with support for Trump was a preference for paternal authority, as measured by several questions on family roles and child-rearing. Other polls found an even stronger correlation of these preferences with support for Ted Cruz.

It may be (this is my speculation, not the surveys’) that the declining status and income of many white working-class men impels some of them to embrace all the more those leaders who embody the waning ideal of white, paternal authority, particularly when wielded against those “others” (liberals, women, minorities, gays, etc.) who’ve supposedly or actually eroded it. Indeed, the sheer arbitrariness and impulsiveness of Trump’s attacks suggest a father uncowed not just by “political correctness,” but also by any challenge to his sovereign authority, no matter how appalling his response may be.

Which has plenty of appeal to some. And plenty to repel most others—including, I suspect, a majority of the American electorate. We’ll know that soon enough.

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