Inequality and the Rise of the “Forgotten America”: An Oral History

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January 13, 2020

Income inequality in the U.S. today is the highest in recorded history. Despite an unprecedented economic expansion over the past 10 years, millions of Americans have seen little improvement in their daily lives. Frustration and anxiety about being left behind has fueled grassroots anger on both sides of the political divide.

But the discontent began much earlier. When Sarah Palin first emerged on the national stage in 2008, she tapped into a stream of disaffected, mainly white voters. Their anger also played a key role in the birth of the Tea Party, fueled growing disdain for globalization and so-called “global elites,” and powered Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again.”

This oral history focuses on the rage — and voting power — of what some have called a “forgotten America”: mainly white, working-class Americans who feel abandoned by their political leaders. These FRONTLINE interviews, drawn from America’s Great Divide and Divided States of America, chronicle Palin’s meteoric rise, the legacy of the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent Wall Street bailouts, and ultimately the ascendance of President Trump. It includes accounts from current and former Trump confidantes, GOP and Democratic strategists and a cadre of Washington journalists, pollsters and political commentators.

Note: The following interviews have been edited for clarity and length and have been drawn from FRONTLINE’s Transparency Project.

Sarah Palin and the “Forgotten America”

Anthony Scaramucci former White House communications director
The iconic forgotten man, or the forgotten man and woman, is somebody that’s been left out of the system. In the case of America over the last 30 years, there’s been a vacuum of advocacy for those people. Democrats focused on issues — social progress, issues related to racial equality and sexual-preference equality. Republicans were probably focusing more on their corporate donors and some of the well-heeled donors that are high-net-worth individuals. But there was probably a three-decade vacuum of advocacy for the forgotten man and woman.

Robert Reich former U.S. secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration
Sarah Palin understood that there were a lot of people out there who felt that the game was rigged against them. They were angry; they felt they were being left behind; that there was a kind of ruling or leadership class, mostly well-educated and coastal, that had contempt for average working people. She tapped into that anger. She tapped into that feeling of bitterness, and it was real, genuine bitterness.

The forgotten Americans are real. The median wage has gone almost nowhere since the late ’70s, early 1980s. Most Americans have not seen any gain in their own economic lives, even though the national economy is two to three times bigger than it was… People aren’t stupid. The game is rigged.

Wesley Lowery political correspondent, The Washington Post
Sarah Palin comes onto the scene and has the ability to just electrify these crowds. She’s someone who almost no one had really heard of before. It’s unclear if even McCain’s closest advisers had heard of her before she was selected. And yet, when she spoke, when she stood at those podiums, you could see in the eyes of the people listening to her, they were identifying with her in a way that they weren’t when John McCain was speaking.

Steve Bannon former chief strategist in the Trump White House
People forget, Palin came with such force out of that thing for the first two weeks before she started to be destroyed, [she and John McCain] were on fire.

Ben Rhodes former Deputy National Security Advisor for the Obama administration
Palin comes onto the ticket, and almost immediately she’s giving voice to an enormous sense of grievance about Obama’s ascent… The selection of Sarah Palin mainstreamed a sense of grievance and racism that was within that party, that was underneath a lid, that was kind of boiling over. And it never got put back in the box. Once that genie was out of the bottle, it was out, and you weren’t going to put it back in, because Palin emboldened everybody on the right — Fox [News], talk radio. Suddenly we can say out loud all the things that we say to each other on email.

Steve Schmidt political strategist for George W. Bush and the John McCain presidential campaign
I think she didn’t have a deliberate strategy as much as she was an intuitive performer who loved the spotlight, who was able to sense the crowd, and she tapped into the grievance. She was of those people. Her husband had a union card. …

When we picked Sarah Palin, one of the things that I thought was virtuous was that this was a person who had put herself through school; that she had gone to five different colleges paying her way through. She was mocked; she was disdained by the news media for that. And I think that when you see people like you being mocked, people translate it as “They’re laughing at me.”

Yamiche Alcindor White House correspondent, PBS NewsHour
It’s interesting who Sarah Palin is appealing to. I can’t say if she’s appealing to all white Americans or kind of a large swath of white Americans, but maybe who she’s appealing to are people who are tired of politicians, people who are tired of eloquently spoken people who are making statements in a way that sounds like they know more than them. She’s talking to a part of America that wants to be out hunting, who wants people running the country who feel like them, who aren’t interested in politicians who maybe have gone to Ivy League schools.

Wesley Lowery political correspondent, The Washington Post
She was speaking to this kind of forgotten America in a way that they were receptive to, that Sarah Palin sounded like the woman who picks your kids up from soccer practice, like the guy who sits next to you at the bar. And for so many Americans who felt so politically disaffected, that was what they wanted to see. They wanted to be represented by someone like them; that if D.C. was so smart, then why are things so terrible?

Frank Luntz Republican pollster
I don’t know the moment… when a decision was made that it really was better to be governed by the first 100 people in a telephone book than it was by 100 people who were professionally trained and had the experience of governing. What was interesting about Sarah Palin is that, for some people, the less she knew, the better she was.

If you want to pinpoint the moment when the right completely rejected the left, I think it was over the Sarah Palin nomination. And it’s because she was so different. And for one brief, shining moment, the right saw her as everything they were looking for: brash, tough, independent; someone who said what they meant and meant what they said, and wouldn’t edit it for anyone. And the truth is, so much of Donald Trump’s appeal to the right could actually be seen in the appeal of Sarah Palin eight years before.

Charlie Sykes founder and editor-at-large, The Bulwark
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, whether or not if you have to trace back how you got to Donald Trump that you have to go back to Sarah Palin; that Sarah Palin was the proto-Trump; that Sarah Palin represented some of the trends in the Republican Party that were going to culminate in Donald Trump. But I’m not sure the Republican Party understood this. I don’t think they had any idea.

The 2008 Financial Crisis, Obama, and the “Burden of the Bailout”

Dan Balz political correspondent, The Washington Post
Saving the economy was something [President Barack Obama] was forced to do… It was the most important thing he had to deal with, and in some ways the most thankless. I mean, it was something he had to address. They had to stop the bleeding. Unemployment was rising at astronomical rates in that period; jobs were being lost. He had to deal with that.

Steve Bannon former chief strategist in the Trump White House
Every financial crisis, I think, in at least modern history is always followed by some sort of populist [reaction.]… Remember, this is the biggest financial collapse in the country’s history. This is bigger than the Great Depression…

You had so many of the elites making so much money. Then when it collapsed… the Federal Reserve didn’t call all the financial institutions together and corporations and say: “Hey, boys, we’ve got a problem, right? This is a problem, and we need to pass the hat. You’ve got to cough up some cash.”

Frank Luntz Republican pollster
The CEOs of these companies that had failed were all being protected. We were reading about the golden parachutes and the $10 million bonuses while the average individual was losing their jobs, losing the value of their stocks. And then you had people telling them, “Oh, get out of the market.” Well, if you’ve already lost 30% and you got out of the market, you never participated when the market came back. There were tens of millions of people who lost their savings. And yet they were told that their taxes were going to go up to bail out the banks and the various different companies that failed.

David Remnick editor, The New Yorker
It is to Obama’s enormous credit, I think, that he put a stop to the collapse of the American, and by extension international, economic system. I mean, it’s an amazing achievement, and done rather quickly. But people left that experience — voters left that experience resentful of the fact that there was no punishment. And they saw that even when Obama one time rather subtly expressed disgust for Wall Street, Wall Street suddenly thought of Obama as its enemy, even though he had essentially rescued Wall Street. So the lines were cast.

Molly Ball national political correspondent, Time
[The Tea Party] ostensibly came about as a protest of the bailouts, which began under George W. Bush. So it ostensibly was this sort of libertarian, anti-tax, right? “Tea” and “Tea Party” was a reference to the Boston Tea Party, but also it stood for “Taxed Enough Already.” And the idea was that this was primarily a movement of fiscal conservatives who believed that, you know, homeowners shouldn’t be bailed out, the famous Rick Santelli rant, “I don’t want to pay somebody else’s mortgage, and the big banks shouldn’t be bailed out.”

Steve Schmidt political strategist
I think the Tea Party movement is misunderstood if you look at it as a reaction solely to the Obama administration. The Tea Party was as much a reaction to the Bush administration as it was to the Obama administration. What Republican voters saw was a Republican president and a Republican Congress spend recklessly, and at the end, what they saw were $800 billion of bailouts for the banks. And there was a rebellion to it.

Charlie Sykes author, How the Right Lost Its Mind
The way it looked from ground level was that the big banks, the people who had created the financial crisis, were being bailed out when the little guy was being screwed, and I think that really fed into the narrative that somehow the federal government and the political class was not working for people like you and I; that they were content to take care of Goldman Sachs, they were content to take care of [AIG]. But when it came to the factory in Flint, Michigan, when it came to a factory in Ohio, they just really didn’t give a damn.

Robert Reich former U.S. secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration
Everybody knew that the bankers got bailed out and no major executive went to jail, and at the same time, homeowners, many of them underwater, owing more on their homes than they could actually get for their homes, they didn’t get help. Millions of people lost their jobs and their savings and, ultimately, their homes. And there was a sense that this was fundamentally unfair.

Frank Luntz Republican pollster
This created a level of anger like I haven’t seen since I got involved in politics in the 1980s: “Why is everyone taking my money to save themselves when I need saving?” And I don’t know if [Obama] understood that. But in the polling and the focus groups that I was doing, this is the first time that people started to cry in the groups. This is the first time I ever met people face to face who lost their homes.

I did a number of sessions in Las Vegas; the entire room would come apart in tears because there would be three or four in a group of 25, I’d have three people in front of me who were homeless or virtually homeless because it had been taken away, been foreclosed on. How can you bail out a bank that just took someone’s home, foreclosed on it, and they’re going to have to pay for it?… People really, really resented this president for siding with, in this case, the rich and the powerful, and forgetting them. That was the onus where the Tea Party was created.

Steve Bannon former chief strategist in the Trump White House
We’ve essentially put the burden of the bailout on the working class and middle class. That’s why nobody owns anything. But the millennials today are nothing but 19th-century Russian serfs. They’re better fed; they’re better clothed; they’re in better shape; they have more information than anybody in the world at any point in time, but they don’t own anything. They’re not going to own anything, OK? And they’re 20% — if you mark in time against their parents, they’re 20% behind in their income, and there’s no pension plan in the future. They’re all gig economy. We’ve literally destroyed the middle class in this country.

Susan Glasser columnist and staff writer, The New Yorker
A key shaping experience for especially the younger generation of people who seemed most enthusiastic about [Bernie] Sanders was this incredible cataclysm of the 2008 financial crisis which had shaped their early adulthood and, in profound ways, that was reshaping American society, and that I think Americans in both parties felt that perhaps the establishment as represented by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was out of touch with, that they didn’t really speak to it in their campaigns in a way that the electorate was hungering for.

Robert Reich former U.S. secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration
That financial crisis was a—not just a wakeup call; it was as if a curtain was opened and everybody could see the true landscape of America, which was a fairly frightening landscape. Most people were not getting anywhere. A small group at the top was basically raking in more and more power and wealth.

Molly Ball national political correspondent, Time
I think what we came to find out, what Obama came to find out, what Sarah Palin successfully recognized, was that there was a part of it that was that, but there was also a big part of it that was just resentment and reaction, right? It was reacting to cultural change and demographic change and political change and social change.

“Drain the Swamp,” and the Ascendance of Donald Trump

Anthony Scaramucci former White House communications director
Whether you like President Trump or dislike him, you have to acknowledge that he saw the angst of that forgotten man and woman… My first campaign rally with him, I remember climbing back onto the campaign plane, looking over to him and said, “Wow, you’re talking to the people I grew up with.” And those were the people, frankly, that I left behind, and I didn’t really understand their angst the way I should have. And so I give him a lot of credit for that.

He saw what that forgotten man and woman was going through in the United States right now, during the age of globalism. And there’s a rejection of elitists and a rejection of intellectuals and certainly a disdain for the media, because those people feel that they’re being looked down upon.

David Axelrod senior adviser in the Obama administration
We heard it in focus groups, some of the sentiments that would bubble to the surface among white working-class voters. And their basic feeling was that, you know, poor people — which, unspoken, but they meant minorities — get handouts, and Wall Street gets bailouts, and they’re stuck in the middle struggling with a collapsing economy, and nobody was riding to their rescue. And it just exacerbated this feeling that they were, you know, that they were losing out, that somehow, you know, the game was rigged against them, the sentiments that Trump so skillfully exploited.

Frank Luntz Republican pollster
What comes after tears is resentment, and that resentment breeds hatred. And the same people who thought that they were punished for their bosses, and they were punished for the politicians, and they were personally punished for what went wrong are the same people who voted for Donald Trump a few years later as a way to get even.

Charlie Sykes founder and editor-at-large, The Bulwark
I don’t attribute great strategic thinking to Donald Trump. I think I’ve described him as having reptilian cunning. But I think he had a gut sense of that kind of alienation, and some of the people around him or that he brought around him certainly did.

Cliff Sims former communications aide in the Trump White House
If you are a working-class American, you’re seeing this happen, especially with lower-skilled labor, where you view it as chopping the bottom rungs off of the economic ladder, that you’re trying to climb your way up, and you think you ought to be making 15 bucks an hour, but because the immigrants are coming in and taking these low-skilled jobs, suddenly that job is a $9-an-hour job, or whatever it may be…

All they think is, that person just took my job. That person just took my friend’s job. Or I should be making 15 bucks an hour, but instead I’m making nine bucks an hour. Donald Trump could see that, and it’s kind of shown in the crowds that are out there, that a lot more people are directly impacted negatively, working-class folks.

Victor Davis Hanson senior fellow, Hoover Institution
And the idea that it used to be noble to refine granite for counters or aluminum for refrigerators or wood floors or oil or natural gas, that didn’t change. This elite on the coast still used it; in fact, they were more materialistic than ever. But they just forgot to give tribute or recognition or even thought to the people who produce these goods and services, which their new incomes so readily gobbled up.

Ann Coulter conservative commentator
As we see with the Trump, it’s the industrial Midwest; it is the manufacturing base of America that has been left behind, forgotten, crushed. Their salaries are going down. You know, construction workers in California, they made more, not even counting inflation, they made more 15 years ago than they do today. That’s even skipping inflation. I mean, by like half. And does anybody speak for them? Does anyone care? Oh, yeah, every politician says, “I’m going to — I’ll do something great for the economy,” and then, oh, more spending for government workers.

Anthony Scaramucci former White House communications director
[Trump] was the avatar to express their anger. He was descending into those rural areas, suburban areas, blighted factory towns, and he was representing for them the wrecking ball. He was saying: “Hey, this has been a disaster for you, and jobs have been lost as a result of globalism. Jobs have been lost as a result of uneven or unfair trade. And I’m the avatar of your anger. If you elect me, I’ll literally be an orange wrecking ball at the barricade known as ‘the swamp,’ and I’ll knock that barricade down for you, and I’ll disrupt and change the system.” It’s a very, very powerful message for 62.8 million people.

When I was on the campaign trail with him, and I saw him talking to people I grew up with, I was like: “OK, this is great. His policies are going to help these people. We’re going to be able to rebuild the middle class in America.” While these two tribes have been fighting and beating their brains out on cable television, these people have been left alone in their own economic desperation, their forgotten status, if you will. But we’re now going to champion these people, and that’s going to be very good for America.

Victor Davis Hanson senior fellow, Hoover Institution
People started to say, I’m taking a second look at globalization; I understand what globalization is. It’s two Americas. The people who are involved in insurance, finance, media, entertainment, they have a cachet because their labor can’t be Xeroxed… There was a sense that the government said all of those people who have physical, muscular labor will be replaced, and they’re going to be replaced by cheaper labor in South America, in Asia, in China.

Robert Reich former U.S. secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration
I remember being struck again and again by the fact that when I asked people who they were thinking about for president — and this was before Donald Trump even announced — they would say to me, “Well, somebody like either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump.”

And I remember, I would say back: “What? These people, how can you even put them in the same sentence? They are different species.” But what I got back from people, and this was Wisconsin and Michigan and Ohio and Kentucky and North Carolina, I kept on getting back from people, “Well, they’ll shake things up; they are on our side.”

Victor Davis Hanson senior fellow, Hoover Institution
How did Donald Trump pull that off? Because he is a wealthy, globalized billionaire… He said: “I know them better than you do. I know these bankers; I’ve dealt with them. I know these real estate guys. I know these big corporate people, and they’re a tough bunch. And I was just like them. And they don’t care about you. And I didn’t care about you for a time” — he even said that — “and they’re not nationalists; they’re globalists.”

And all of a sudden people said, “You know, we have one of our guys that knows those guys, and we’re going to take our billionaire, and he’s going to fight because he cares about us.”


Karen Pinchin

Karen Pinchin, Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism Fellowship, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@karenpinchin

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