The Forgotten: How the People of One Pennsylvania County Elected Donald Trump and Changed America by Ben Bradlee, Jr.
Little, Brown and Co. 304 pp.
By Jim Swearingen
Deplorable or disenfranchised? Rubes or reformers? Should the left seek to understand the grievances of rabid Trumpites who support an obvious incompetent in his attacks on our democracy? Or should they take the Lincolnesque path of reconciliation with disillusioned heartlanders for the partial healing of this divided Republic? For the purportedly liberal, bicoastal elites who cannot fathom how a third of the electorate backed a sophomoric lout to become President of the United States, whether to dismiss them or engage them has become an existential question.
In an adroit journalistic enterprise, The Forgotten, Boston Globe editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. chooses engagement as he delves into the question eating at many of us since November 2016: Who are these people so reckless that they would vote to overturn nearly a century of liberal social engineering that ostensibly benefits them most of all?
Recognizing the decades-long trends that have afflicted rural counties across America—the loss of manufacturing jobs and the resulting spikes in unemployment, housing depreciation, crime, opioid addiction, immigrant influx, and resident relocation—Bradlee focuses on the public policy concerns of middle-aged, white Trump voters from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. His interviews with them represent a case study of previously Democratic voting districts that swung for Trump, carrying their states and Electoral College votes with them.
Tired of both parties’ broken political promises and embittered at Democrats characterizing them as uneducated, narrow-minded boobs, these white, blue-collar voters embraced a last-angry-man candidate who insulted establishmentarians to their faces, employed impolitic slurs, and relished a fight with anyone in his path.
Bradlee has documented his own civil conversations with representatives of Trump’s Luzerne coalition: union members, evangelicals, veterans, right-to-lifers, Trump women, cloth-coat supply-siders, and even a white nationalist. These are people who have felt for years—long before Donald Trump began aping their resentment on the campaign trail—that the system is rigged against them, their livelihoods, and their values. Over and over again you hear one subject after another fume that the Democratic Party left their constituency behind years ago.
Throughout many of these interviews runs a traditional, but selective, American libertarianism that allows some others the freedom to be who they wish to be, a privilege denied Bradlee’s subjects, they allege, by meddlesome, dismissive liberals who have coerced them into condoning one objectionable lifestyle or another.
Bradlee captures their anger early in the book, citing an email from a Luzerne Trump supporter, written immediately after the presidential election. Part political anthropology, part ideological screed, the letter catalogues the seething grievances that Trump’s base feels toward the benighted left. Its author tacks responsibility for the populist typhoon on liberals who for years have attacked the Second Amendment, prayer in schools, the American manufacturing base, evangelical Christians, local government, curbs on immigration, the right to life, police officers, the flag, and white men.
Here was a resentful constituency hungry for a revolutionary. The zeal with which Trump disregarded decades of liberal political dogma with a roll of the eyes and a wave of his hands electrified that portion of the American electorate that felt itself marginalized, ridiculed, and left out of the elite banquet that has fed the upwardly mobile professional class for decades, under Democratic and Republican administrations alike.
Flying in the face of every article of liberal faith and relishing the apostasy, Trump fanned their rancor. Did these “deplorables” elect this President all by themselves? That explanation ignores well-educated, well-to-do whites who are sumptuously employed and also backed the Republican candidate.
Meanwhile, the self-righteous indignation of the Democratic establishment toward Trump has not allowed for a serious soul-searching of how their party’s attitudes not only contributed to Donald Trump’s election, but even engineered it. Such a consideration may seem ridiculous to Democrats and therein lies at least part of an explanation for the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. The pace of social change combined with economic hardship have made resentful nativism an invigorating alternative for voters whose only other choice was the cripplingly unpopular Hillary Clinton.
While there have been numerous high-altitude analyses of the debacle, detailed accounts like Bradlee’s that involve listening to Trump voters have been slow in coming, largely drowned out by the din of this administration’s scandals. It would be a mistake, however, to ignore this examination, and others like it, simply because the standard bearer of white, working-class rage turned out to be a Russian mole. The telling irony of a Democratic party apparatus that touts inclusiveness while summarily dismissing large numbers of blue-collar voters for their social views is not lost on Bradlee.
It remains to be seen if the blue wave will ultimately hurl Republicans onto the political shoals in 2020. Given the proven ability of the moneyed class to manipulate unschooled voters, they likely won’t remain aground for long. But whatever the electoral results, Bradlee advises Democrats to heed the complaints of the forgotten middle American voters so we can mend our fractured nation in a post-Trumpian future, whenever that may be. Ben Bradlee’s deeply reported book provides an excellent place to start.
Jim Swearingen is a Minneapolis-based writer.