Donald Trump, the Anti-FDR

By June Hopkins and Stephen Seufert – 12/25/20

Originally published on The Hill

In April 1932 Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for president when the nation was in the depths of a devastating economic depression. He famously stated, “These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power, for plans… that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.  In an election year 84 years later, Republican Donald Trump confidently promised, “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” Trump knew that phrase still resonated with millions of disillusioned Americans. In fact — from the 2016 campaign to today — Trump has repeated the phrase ‘forgotten men and women’ at least 163 times

FDR and Trump — both New Yorkers from wealthy families — campaigned as populists who spoke of shared prosperity and a return to better days. FDR’s campaign theme song was “Happy Days Are Here Again” while Trump popularized the slogan “Make America Great Again”. 

FDR delivered on many of his key promises to forgotten Americans. His New Deal gave them — and us — Unemployment Insurance, Social Security, a minimum wage, and collective bargaining. Millions of unemployed workers during the Great Depression got government subsidized jobs thanks to the Public Works Administration (PWA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), and the Works Project Administration(WPA). 

Trump — however — turned out to be the anti-FDR. The forgotten men and women at the bottom of the ‘economic pyramid’ remained forgotten. They got little from Trump’s administration. 

Trump has done nothing to ensure that Americans are able to earn a living wage, despite the fact that the federal minimum wage has fallen in real dollars. Trump has threatened the funding that underpins Social Security, a program that ensures a dignified retirement for millions of American seniors. Trump continuously threatened the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Under Trump, ‘repeal and replace’ the ACA soon became just “repeal,” which would have left millions of vulnerable Americans without health insurance.  With COVID-19 decimating the economy, the number of uninsured is now rising. Trump’s inaction in the face of a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, has only added to the ranks of forgotten men and women.

Trump promised a robust investment of $1 trillion to repair and rebuild the nation’s crippled infrastructure. Consequently, blue collar voters — many of whom had remained within the Roosevelt Democratic Coalition — defected to Trump in large enough numbers in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to swing the 2016 election in his favor. But, instead of a benefitting from massive infrastructure programs, blue collar Americans saw Trump launch trade wars that killed jobs and closed factories. And the deteriorating roads, bridges, and tunnels throughout the nation remain as forgotten as the people.

FDR once stated, “Here is my principle: Taxes shall be levied according to ability to pay. That is the only American principle.” But Trump — whose net worth is $2.5 billion, and who paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2017 — added $2.28 trillion to the national debt with a tax cut that gave the wealthiest 20 percent of individuals and corporations 60 percent of the net benefits. FDR said that the test of the progress of a nation “is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” On the other hand, Trump doled out tax cuts to the wealthy and forgot about Americans who, in the midst of a pandemic and an economic depression, found themselves unable to pay for food or rent.

While Trump railed against ‘the swamp’ in Washington D.C., and promised to “drain” it, he proceeded to fill his cabinet and inner circle with billionaires and Wall Street executives. In many cases, Trump went a step further by appointing individuals diametrically opposed to the mission statement of their department or — even worse — were wholly unqualified for the job. Trump the outsider — who unapologetically campaigned on being critical of both Democrats and Republicans — basically became a bombastic puppet for Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and the Republican establishment. 

During the Great Depression and World War II, FDR gave the nation confidence that, under his leadership, we could succeed in the face of the monumental world events playing out in front of the American people. He boldly declared war on the Depression and on Fascism. Throughout his presidency, FDR instilled a sense of shared sacrifice in the American people. Trump, in contrast, has been largely unable to face the serious challenges facing the American people when it comes to COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn. As thousands of our fellow Americans died from COVID-19 each day, Trump — the self-proclaimed ‘wartime president’ — refused to wear a mask (the most basic way to combat COVID-19), mocked those who did wear masks, and held large, maskless indoor events. Instead of instilling shared sacrifice, Trump promoted at best selfishness and at worst callousness.  

Ultimately, the Trump administration has left far too many Americans divided, cynical, and angry with how their government works; or in many cases, does not.

With the Democratic victory in the  2020 election, President-Elect Joe Biden has an opportunity to change the relationship the White House has with the still forgotten men and women of America. Biden will have to immediately address the COVID-19 pandemic, massive unemployment, the catastrophic effects of climate change, and Congress’s continued attempts to undermine the economic security programs that for generations have protected Americans when they most at risk of poverty and illness. He has the opportunity to embody Franklin Roosevelt’s principle of fighting for the interests of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. In doing so, Biden may reignite faith in our great democratic experiment.   

Dr. June Hopkins is the granddaughter of Harry Hopkins, one of FDR’s closest advisors, and author of ‘Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer.’

Stephen Seufert is a Democratic committeeperson in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. 

See other essays by June Hopkins here and here.

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