Who Is the Presidential Candidate of the Forgotten Man?

President Donald Trump greets supporters during a campaign rally at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, January 30, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden can all claim to speak for him—and can all also neglect him.

Donald Trump made his opening reelection pitch during last Sunday’s Super Bowl with two ads. One specifically cited his criminal-justice reform efforts. The other was more general. It created a story about the election and his three years as president. Americans wanted change. And what they got was a country that was “stronger,” “safer,” and “more prosperous.” The ad sold a series of stats that any incumbent would want to run on; namely, rising wages and unemployment at a 49-year low.

For what it’s worth, my theory is that Trump’s reelection hinges on two groups of voters. First, there are the suburban voters who snapped back to the Democrats in the 2018 midterm congressional elections on bread and butter issues. Those voters are reassured by messages like Trump’s more general Super Bowl ad. It’s an ad that seems to say the economy is in good hands, ignore the noise.

But the second group that matters is the “forgotten man” voter. This is the stereotyped “Trump voter” who resonates particularly with Trump’s paeans to American workers and to his culture-war issues on guns and immigration, but who is normally hostile to Republicans on economic issues.

If, as seems likely to me, Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic presidential nomination, the fight for the presidency is going to focus on states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. So we’re going back to talking about “the forgotten man” and what motivated him to vote for Trump four years after he voted for Barack Obama.

We’ve not been allowed to forget about the forgotten man since 2016. You may remember that he was the subject of immense controversy. The social-science probes were plunged in. Was he downwardly mobile, or just living near the downwardly mobile? Terms of art were thrown around. Was he “racially resentful?” Or, in fact, were those voters who expressed warmth toward their white racial in-group no more hostile to members of other races? Much of the commentary seemed to be motivated by two questions: Does the stereotypical Trump voter deserve sympathy or scorn? Does he have real economic problems, or imagined status ones?  (It’s actually pretty funny to think of journalists’ and academics’ pretending to believe social status and economic prospects aren’t deeply connected.)

In any case, I think Trump, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders all have the potential to reach the “forgotten man,” and all of them have the potential to alienate him.

Trump can alienate these voters by stubbornly pretending that his presidency has us well on the way to curing the social crisis that produces forgotten men: chronic joblessness among a cohort of prime-age working men, opioid addictions, and brittle social institutions. He can pose as a man who has lost touch with these core supporters, and merely uses them. He would be extremely vulnerable to Joe Biden’s or Bernie Sanders’s pointing out that the signature economic accomplishment of the administration was a tax cut that heavily benefited corporations and high earners.

But Democrats are in trouble of alienating this same voter as well. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are too polite and too politically savvy to attend a fundraiser and denounce these voters as “bitter” people who “cling to guns or religion,” or as “deplorables.”

But Biden can occasionally slip into acting like he is entitled to their support through some kind of tribal affiliation and assuming that being ethnically white and understanding suffering is enough. This would make him vulnerable to anything that impeaches his membership in the tribe. And Trump has already successfully made the potential nepotism and enrichment of Biden’s children a matter of public controversy. The forgotten men worry about their sons, as Biden does. But they can’t imagine their sons’ getting easy gigs on foreign corporate boards.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders’ vision of democratic socialism is failing with “forgotten men” voters across Europe, and it could fail in America too. Why? Partly because it is joined to a culture war program that de-rationalizes the desires of forgotten men for a “normal life.” But also because it can tend to cast the forgotten men as a source of problems to be solved.

In other words, all three of these candidates can make the mistake of seeing the “forgotten man” vote only as a political resource to be mined: a base, a problem set to be agitated, or an obstacle to be overcome.

If the race comes down to these voters and these candidates, I would place all my money on the one who effectively communicates that the forgotten man isn’t just a victim or a vector of social pathology. He’s a citizen — a brother, an uncle, a father — who is still capable of contributing to his family, his community, to some honest business or great enterprise, and to his country.

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