'The Forgotten' by Ben Bradlee Jr.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In this RealClearBooks series, RealClear Book of the Week, we highlight recent nonfiction books from across the political spectrum. This week’s book is Ben Bradlee Jr.’s “The Forgotten: How the People of One Pennsylvania County Elected Donald Trump and Changed America,” which will be published this week by Little, Brown.
At one point in “The Forgotten,” a new book on the 2016 election as it played out in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, Ben Bradlee Jr. recounts a text-message conversation carried out the day after Trump’s victory. A grandmother who supported Trump messages her college-age grandson to say how happy she is. “Hopefully I’ll be going to the inauguration,” she writes. Her grandson is appalled. “[Trump] and his supporters should be ashamed of themselves,” he responds, “but it’s evident they lack the self-reflective capacities to do so.” She replies: “Till the day I die I will stand by my decision to work for and help elect Donald Trump.” He writes in his final message, “Your party has become party of KKK and neo-Nazis, and if you’re too blind to see that I feel sorry for you.” The woman, Lynette Villano, has since fallen out of touch with her grandson (though, Bradlee mentions, she served as a co-signer on a loan for him after he graduated college).
Trump’s disruptive election and its aftershocks — the ongoing Kavanaugh ordeal is perhaps the biggest yet — seem to have hallowed out the political center and instigated something of a “Cold Civil War,” exacerbating divides and even pitting family and friends against each other. Bradlee zeroes in on Luzerne County because it figured prominently in Trump’s slim 40,000-vote victory in Pennsylvania, which in turn fueled his electoral college win. Obama won Luzerne comfortably in 2008 and 2012, but Clinton fell to Trump there in a landslide, losing by 20 percent and over 25,000 votes.
Bradlee’s book primarily takes the form of interviews with “the forgotten”: including Obama voters fed up with the decades-long economic decline in county seat Wilkes-Barre, disaffected union members desparate for an outsider in the White House, residents of Hazleton alarmed by rapid immigration and rising crime rates in the small city, evangelicals, and a white nationalist, Steve Smith, who managed to get himself on the Luzerne County Republican Committee.
The book makes it clear that the line dividing the forgotten from the forgetters is far more cultural than ideological. What unites the Trump voters in Luzerne is a negative: They don’t feel as if there is a place for them in the world being of liberal elites and they don’t want one. How they characterize this world depends on how exactly they feel excluded from it, but the complaints are familiar: elite condescension, political correctness, assumptions of rampant racism, disdain for traditional values, and favoritism to foreigners with victim cachet over fellow Americans. Feelings of economic abandonment play a significant role too of course. Interviewees complain of trade policy advanced by both Republicans and Democrats that decimated manufacturing jobs. And they reject social programs perceived to generate dependency and lock in community decline.
It remains to be seen to what extent this divide exploited and exacerbated by Trump can generate more populist-conservative victories. But Bradlee counsels that the Democrats should “curb the tendency […] to paint most Trump voters as bigots” and start treating their discontent seriously. Along with other books in the “what-happened” genre, Bradlee’s offers a valuable glimpse into the communities where Trump’s candidacy resonated and where his presidency continues to unite those who feel shut out.
Alexander Stern is deputy editor of RealClearPolicy.