The Original "Forgotten Americans"

Mississippi, United States - January 2, 2016: Donald Trump speaking to the crowd at a campaign rally at the Mississippi Colis
Mississippi, United States - January 2, 2016: Donald Trump speaking to the crowd at a campaign rally at the Mississippi Coliseum in Biloxi.

Redemption. The Silent Majority. Trump. If there has been one clear, repeatable pattern throughout American history, it is that any major instance of African American advancement has always been met with a massive white backlash. From Stephen A. Douglas to Donald Trump, in Middle America this reaction has been validated historically through a language of economic displacement, political voicelessness, and cultural marginalization -- a "war" on "real American" values.

The wake of the American Civil War, like the aftermath of all wars, saw the construction of numerous, often contradictory narratives about why the war began, and how and for what it was fought. Some underscored Southern victimhood and downplayed the role of slavery. Others focused on the centrality of emancipation or the righteousness of the Union cause. Each meta-story privileged some events and actors, and relegated others to the commemorative sideline. As David Blight and other scholars of collective memory have asserted, remembering is a selective act, and it always involves some degree of forgetting.

By 1870 a "Lost Cause" mythology, one which inflated Confederate prowess and downplayed the role of slavery in the Civil War, was taking hold throughout the American South. In New England and the Middle Atlantic states, an Eastern version of the Civil War had emerged that emphasized Antietam, Gettysburg, and the paramountcy of the Army of the Potomac. Urban industrialists and Eastern financiers, meanwhile, by way of newfound political influence, increasingly used speculation, monopoly, and new systems of currency and credit to estrange Western farmers, forcing them to bear the brunt of capitalist development. And Reconstruction, in which recently liberated African Americans looked to secure basic citizenship and voting rights, was being violently pushed back in the South and vocally opposed in the Midwest.

Citizens in rural and small town Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois -- who typically referred to themselves not as "Southerners" or "Northerners," but as "Westerners" -- felt they were being hemmed in on all sides.

It was a familiar fear, and one that the region's Civil War veterans regularly pushed back against. Speaking at the Society of the Army of the Cumberland annual reunion in Indianapolis in the fall of 1870, for instance, General Charles Cruft of Terre Haute, Indiana, insisted that "The Grand Army of the West" was the preeminent fighting force of the late civil war. In similar reunions throughout the late nineteenth-century Midwest, the region's wartime military and political leaders recalled fondly how Westerners-turned-citizens possessed unique traits acquired from honest work and the purity of the Western land. Explaining that Western values were American values, southern Illinois General John A. Logan extolled "the loyal character" derived from "the valleys and prairies of the West -- from farms and workshops -- from the varied vocations of civil life." The implication was that, once again, the West was being overlooked, and Western soldiers were in danger of being written out of the story of the Civil War.

This nineteenth-century cult of the Westerner -- of the white rural and small town citizens from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois who identified neither with minorities, the exotic South, nor the urban East -- was hardly confined to veterans' culture. Again and again in social and political discourse, and in everyday life, landlocked elites repeated the dictum that Westerners were exceptional in their deeds, their customs, and their virtue -- and that they were being wronged by outsiders.

Swaths of the Civil War West had been relatively hostile to Abraham Lincoln's administration, particularly the Emancipation Proclamation, the enlistment of African American soldiers, and the wartime power accrued by Eastern capitalists. As such, Westerners were often -- and overwhelmingly unfairly -- suspected of disloyalty to the Union, owing to their conservative politics. In opposition to newly-empowered African Americans and both culturally alien Easterners and defeated but defiant Southerners -- groups they often defamed as secessionist "fire-eaters" in the South and abolitionist "fanatics" in the industrial North and the urbanizing Great Lakes -- Westerners crafted a victimhood narrative of the late war, rooted in animus toward cultural outsiders and the belief that now-neglected Western soldiers had won the war.

Fast forward nearly 150 years to the Fall of 2016.

We are now in the hangover of a presidential election in which Donald Trump's conception of "forgotten Americans" played a central role. Despite an above average median household income voter base during the Republican primary and a mythical claim to "working class" support during the general election, Trump, aided no doubt by the decision of modern Democrats to move sharply rightward on questions of political economy, claimed to speak for the so-called "forgotten" voters of what outsiders have disparagingly labeled "flyover country."

It worked. Even Charles Cruft's home of Vigo County, Indiana, saw a swing from Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 to Trump in 2016, part of an overall reddening of Middle America.

This appeal to a felt cultural and economic marginalization mirrored a tried-and-true strategy in the American inland. The notion of an especially "real" but "overlooked" bloc in the American interior is an old one, with roots in Thomas Jefferson's agrarian ideal. It was commonplace during the Age of Jackson for white Midwesterners to "normalize" themselves to ward off perceived political and cultural encroachment -- African Americans from the South and "Yankees" from the North and East. They defined themselves as the American default: the "middle," the "border," and the "center," or often as regular "white people." This exclusionary logic continued through the Reconstruction, Populist, New Deal, and Movement Conservative eras, reinforcing the long civil rights opposition of localism and "states' rights" so implicit in Richard Nixon's "silent majority" and Ronald Reagan's "undeserving poor."

Now, although over two and a half million more Americans voted for his opponent, Hillary Clinton, some pundits have cited the decisive role of a "silent majority" in securing Donald Trump's victory (despite the facts that roughly 80% of all Americans live within an hour's drive of the coast). Then as now, the dog whistles and coded appeals to very limited groups of citizens are not subtle. Indeed, Cruft's Westerners and what Sarah Palin once termed "real America" -- "small towns" and "little pockets" of "pro-America" patriots -- have one obvious similarity: their racial uniformity. This "real American" exists in opposition to, well, the "other," ostensibly "not real" America of Barack Obama.

Creators of racist narratives -- even coded ones -- understand the power those narratives vest to those who consume them. Stories we tell about ourselves and about the past reflect and reinforce racial, gender, class, and regional hierarchies. Sometimes such narratives are conscious in the racial exclusivity. Other times, such narratives develop out of nothing more than white people simply pursuing what they perceive as their own best social and economic interests. The not-so-hidden white supremacy behind the suggestion of a more "authentic" or "deserving" American is a byproduct of both. Like its historical forebears, Trump's new "silent majority" is in large part a covert defense against the perceived loss of racial and cultural status -- a resistance in the Heartland that even Charles Cruft would understand.