By Michael Johns
On February 14, 2017, national Tea Party co-founder and leader Michael Johns spoke to the Cornell Political Union at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, on the promise of Donald Trump’s Presidency. His lecture, “Trumpism Can Make America Great Again,” follows:
Last time I was here was over a year ago when my son Michael was looking at Cornell. He loves this school and this organization—and anything he loves, I do too. So thanks to all of you for the work you do, the discussion you facilitate, and the important contribution you make to this great institution. Cornell is one of the world’s premier universities, and your intellectual curiosity and search for answers to our world’s and nation’s problems are a big contribution to that greatness.
On the drive up here tonight, I happened to see how this university describes itself on its Twitter feed. It’s a great description: “Teaching tomorrow’s thought leaders to think otherwise and create knowledge with a public purpose.” Tonight I’m going to do exactly that: I’m going to try to get you to think a little differently—to see what over 60 million Americans saw when they voted for Trump, and we’ll do all of this with the spirit that we’ll use this knowledge to serve the higher public purpose of enhancing the greatness of our nation, which requires of each subsequent American generation that they defend and continually improve it for all Americans.
We have just undergone the closest thing to a revolution in American politics as one can have in our Constitutional Republic, and tonight I will attempt to explain it objectively. I will speak tonight not to the few of you here who may already support Trump, nor those of you who consider yourselves conservatives or Republicans, but to the vast majority here tonight that I’m sure do not. These are the facts and sentiments that led to an electoral outcome you no doubt did not want and did not predict—but I’m convinced need to understand.
I come tonight not to defend Trumpism, even though you will find no more passionate advocate for it. Literally since his announcement on June 16, 2015, I defended him consistently on television, radio and in many forums—and I sought to defend or at least explain him to those prone not to hear or process his important message.
So I come to Cornell tonight not to defend Trumpism but to explain it.
For eight years and maybe longer—the totality of your adult lives, in fact, this nation was headed in a decidedly left of center and globalist direction. Under this recent administration, we saw the problems of other countries as inherently ones we were obligated to solve. In many cases, we even wrongly blamed ourselves for these problems. We entered into trade agreements that worked well for other nations but failed the American worker. We opened our nation to legal and illegal immigrants—and bent over backward to accommodate their needs, desires and cultures but never considered the impact we were having on our citizens.
This created what Trump correctly labeled in his Republican Convention acceptance speech “the forgotten man and woman”—the working American whose economic plight worsened on the watch of Obama and whose country became less identifiable to him and her. And this past November 8, the “forgotten man and woman” had seen enough—and their voice was heard loudly.
What inspired all this passion in these forgotten men and women?
Let me deal tonight with facts:
Employment: All of you have probably heard and followed the employment trends announced each month and quarter by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. You heard, for instance, that unemployment under Obama seemed to be stagnant, or even reduced. And it was always reported in single digits. In the final month of Obama’s presidency—December 2016—it was reportedly 4.9 percent, which seems not unreasonable.
But these numbers excluded the biggest story of American unemployment—the long-term unemployed and those who’d simply given up looking for work. While the short-term unemployment came down, it was only because many of those short-term unemployed Americans moved into the long-term category and ceased being reported in the primary BLS monthly survey number, which is really just a poll subject to all the inaccuracies one might see in any poll.
The employment reality in the country is actually much worse than reported. In fact, there has really been essentially zero job creation for native American citizens since 2000. The total number of Americans holding a job increased 5.7 percent from 2000 to 2014. But if you back out jobs taken by legal and illegal immigrants, the number of Americans holding jobs actually decreased 17 million between 2000 and 2014. When the longer-term unemployed are included, the number of jobless Americans is not 4.9 percent. It’s at least almost twice that—9.5 percent, and some believe considerably higher than even that.
Seldom reported in these routine “official” employment statistics was the fact that, under Obama, the number of Americans not in the labor force kept creeping upward. In December 2016, this number of Americans not in the labor force reached an all-time high: 95,102,000. That’s nearly thirty percent of our entire nation. On Obama’s watch, it’s a fact that a bad employment situation got even worse and that the “forgotten man and woman” has been hurt and is hurting.
Economic growth: We first began formally recording the most important economic growth metric—gross domestic product growth—in the early 1930s. In the time since, every President until Obama had at least one year under their leadership where the country’s GDP grew by at least three percent. But in eight fiscal years under his management, Obama was the first president since GDP was first recorded to not have even one year of three percent growth or higher. On economic growth, as with jobs, Washington has been failing the “forgotten man and woman.”
Debt: On Obama’s watch, our national debt doubled from $10 trillion to $20 trillion. This incremental, additional $10 trillion in debt that Obama added literally exceeds the cumulative debt total of every U.S. President from Washington through George W. Bush. In his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama famously said that George W. Bush’s contribution to the public debt was literally “unpatriotic” in his words. But Obama then went on to double it—all without ever retracting his “unpatriotic” comment about Bush or questioning his own patriotism.
Taxes: Under Obama, our corporate tax rate was—and still is–the highest in the developed world, which has made the U.S. an increasingly uncompetitive location to do business—and it showed as company after company left during his and previous administrations. And despite Obama’s campaign promise that he would only raise taxes on the rich, he increased them substantially on working Americans too, including with taxes associated with Obamacare and the penalty for non-enrollment. In fact, despite his campaign pledge, Obama increased over 20 different taxes that specifically penalized and harmed the poor and working class American. On taxes too, the “forgotten man and woman” was both betrayed and forgotten.
Poverty: Obama ran for election in 2008 promising to lift up the nation’s poor, and that’s a goal we conservatives share too. It was a centerpiece of his campaign. Yet here too, he failed by every significant metric. The nation’s poverty rate was higher on Obama’s departure than it was upon his arrival, increasing roughly 3.5 percent on his watch. Real household income decreased 2.3 percent during his presidency. And under Obama, Americans’ dependence on food stamps rose considerably—to an all-time high of 47 million Americans, or 13 million more than before Obama took office. Great lip service was paid to addressing poverty, but here too the “forgotten man and woman” was left worse off.
Regulatory costs: Regulations too were no friend to the “forgotten man and woman.” Obama imposed over 20,000 new regulations on the American economy—many of them offering negligible value and all of them weighing heavily on working Americans, whose employers were forced to absorb over an astounding $700 billion in costs associated with these regulations, which harmed employment, harmed wages, made America less competitive, and ultimately harmed the “forgotten man and woman” considerably.
Home ownership: Home ownership admittedly might be exaggerated as an indicator of a nation’s economic healthiness but it’s certainly a metric that most want to see increasing. But like just about every other indicator under Obama, it moved in the wrong direction on Obama’s watch, falling 5.6 percent during his eight years in the White House.
Wages: One of the most important metrics to the “forgotten man and woman,” wages did not come even close to keeping pace with inflation under Obama, especially in such important sectors such as housing, food and tuition. In fact, for roughly 35 years, as we ignored the “forgotten man and woman,” wages in this nation have been outpaced by inflation, contributing to economic despair and anxieties for the “forgotten man and woman.”
Healthcare: When Obama ran for president in 2008, he told us over and over again about the 42 million Americans without health insurance—and also about how he would fix this problem. And don’t worry, he famously and repeatedly promised, “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. And if you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance.”
But eight years later, there are still tens of millions of Americans without any health insurance—and for those who enrolled in the Obamacare plan, which had to be passed, Nancy Pelosi said, so we could know what was in it, it turned out to be a vast expansion of federal intrusion into Americans’ healthcare and a program that offered little real value to most since both its premiums and deductibles were cost prohibitive.
If Obamacare costs you roughly $5,000 a year in monthly premiums and the deductible is that or even more, can you really say you’re insured? For most Americans, Obamacare has proven a very costly catastrophic care plan that was nothing as advertised. And contrary to what Obama promised, millions lost their health insurance and lost their doctors as the new coverage mandates forced employers to drop plans, and physicians left insurance plans that were paying lower allowables or proving unduly bureaucratic and time-consuming from a claim filing perspective. Again, the “forgotten man and woman” was betrayed.
Legal and illegal immigration: This is a sensitive topic because we are all correctly taught that we should be inclusive to people, religions and cultures that are different from our own, and I agree that we should.
But it’s also true that the mass legal and illegal immigration of the past few decades has shaken the fabric of many communities. Where English was once spoken universally, it is now spoken less so. I saw one public high school recently where 22 languages were spoken. Accommodating these students who were not fluent in English had become the preoccupation of the school—and at the expense of basic learning.
And of course we have all read of the other changes that have shaken the foundation of traditional American society. The decorated Christmas tree that once stood every December in the public square and was a source of community pride is now deemed offensive to some immigrants who reject Christianity and want its symbolism removed from communities where it is has long stood. “Christmas break” must now be called “winter break.” And the “forgotten man and woman” is deemed “insensitive” if he or she is not welcoming to all aspects of foreign cultures, sometimes up to and including Sharia law that violates the very foundation of the American Constitution.
As millions of immigrants entered the U.S.—both legally and illegally–from seemingly every Third World nation of the world these past few decades, no one paused to ask the “forgotten man and woman” how they felt about it, or whether it was strengthening or dividing their communities and nation. The reality is that this mass immigration has driven up unemployment, driven down wages as the labor pool has expanded but jobs have not, burdened public resources that were already heavily burdened, and been at the core of several brutal terrorist incidents and many, many criminal incidents.
To the “forgotten man and woman,” it’s difficult to understand why we need more people in this nation when we have nearly 100 million Americans not in the labor force; our schools, highways, hospitals, welfare programs and other public resources are increasingly overcrowded or stretched thin, and when these many immigrants have arrived in the U.S. wholly unprepared and sometimes even unwilling to integrate into our nation. And there has been a substantial cost to taxpayers from this mass immigration. As of 2010, the cost per illegal immigrant to American taxpayers was nearly $25,000 per illegal immigrant, including child welfare, education, and public infrastructure costs.
Then there’s the issue of all of the associated crime committed by these illegal immigrants. I often hear that “not all illegal immigrants are criminals,” which of course is untrue. The first thing they did upon entering our nation was break our federal and state laws. But many have gone on to commit still more crimes, and many very serious felonies.
A few years ago, I was one of the first to write of the case of Josh Wilkerson, an 18-year-old Texan who was beaten to death, strangled and set on fire by an illegal immigrant who had many times before been deported. When Josh’s mother Laura buried her son, the mass immigration and open borders advocates were nowhere to be found. She received no letter or condolences from Obama. She was, in so many ways, the quintessential “forgotten American.”
Nor are these one-off cases. In 2014, illegal immigrants were an estimated 3.5 percent of the total U.S. population but comprised 36.7 percent of all federal criminal sentences. That’s an astonishing and alarming statistic—and once again the victim is almost entirely the “forgotten man and woman.” The “forgotten man and woman” was victimized by the crime in most cases. And the “forgotten man and woman” is left with the burden of paying to incarcerate an illegal immigrant who never should have been here in the first place.
And then there is the issue of drugs. The porous southern border has become a primary entry point for some of the country’s most harmful drugs, including heroin, Fentanyl and a wide range of opioids. As the children of the “forgotten man and woman” fell victim to addiction and overdoses, not one singular national political leader took action on the obvious first step in solving the crisis: Closing the open southern border through which most of these illegal drugs were entering our nation. In fact, for thirty years at least, both parties in Washington have talked about securing our southern border, but they never did. It took Trump to answer this call from the “forgotten man and woman” to take the hugely reasonable step of securing it. The chant “build that wall” heard at seemingly every Trump campaign rally in the 2016 presidential campaign was the chant of the “forgotten man and woman” who had witnessed first hand the costs to our nation of inaction on securing our southern border.
Trade: In the early 1990s, as a foreign policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., I championed the North American Free Agreement, or NAFTA, as a trade agreement that would prove positive for both Mexico and the United States. We got it at least half right. It clearly benefited Mexico, as our trade deficit with Mexico expanded and whole companies picked up and moved there. But the benefit to Americans was not a net positive. And this has been the case with American trade with just about every one of our largest trading partners the past few decades. We have shipped jobs and cash to nations of the world, and they have shipped us goods somewhat cheaper than we may have produced them ourselves. It’s also true that trade does also create American jobs. But on the whole, because our trading partners manipulate their currencies, fail to meet the regulatory standards and costs incurred in the U.S., and pay their workers substantially less, these trade agreements have largely been rigged from the beginning against the “forgotten man and woman.”
Consider the staggering statistics of trade deficits with our largest trading partners:
China: $579 billion trade deficit.
Japan: $69 billion trade deficit.
Mexico: $63 billion trade deficit.
As companies and manufacturers have left communities across this nation—and this is especially true in rust belt states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and others—they left emptiness, hopelessness and desperation in their wake. Laid off by the departure of these companies, the “forgotten man and woman” and their entire communities have never since been quite the same. Drive through these states, and this fact is self-evident—and the “forgotten man and woman” will be more than happy to tell you all about it if you ask.
American strength in world: Most Americans have grown up in a nation where we have been seen globally as the world’s leader. Most saw us win the 45-year-long Cold War without firing a shot. They heard Reagan say “tear down this wall” in 1987 and then watched it fall just a few years later. Most Americans know well of how our engagement in World War II essentially saved the world. It is the view of most Americans that America should not be illogically engaged around the world. Nor can or should we seek to solve every world problem. But American strength to protect itself and address the world’s most serious crises until these past few years has never been much in question.
Over the last eight years, however, the “forgotten man and woman” watched as our military was decimated and dismantled. They saw Obama label ISIS a “JV team,” only to see ISIS go on to expand its reach throughout Iraq, Syria and—through terrorist attacks—into the EU and U.S. itself. They saw Obama declare a “red line” in Syria designed to halt the humanitarian suffering in that region only to do nothing after it was violated. They saw several thousand great Americans come home from Iraq in body bags—sometimes only because their military equipment and manpower deficient for the battlefield. They saw four Americans, including a U.S. ambassador, die brutally and needlessly in Benghazi only because saving them would have proven politically inconvenient to Obama’s 2012 reelection. And they saw our enemies—Iran, North Korea, and to some extent Russia—move aggressively and uncontested to expand their own military might and global reach.
In fact, on Obama’s watch, the American military fell to its weakest state of readiness at any time in history since World War II. Our fighter aircraft are the oldest and our fleet the smallest in a long period of time. For the first time since World War II, there was a period under Obama when we literally had not one naval carrier at sea anywhere in the world. Our ship strength also fell on his watch. And our ability to confront a major threat to American security from a formidable enemy—much less our ability (should the need arise) to fight two conflicts at once—fell to its weakest point since World War II. These were not oversights by Obama; they were part of a calculated policy of weakening America and thus leaving it more vulnerable than ever to aggression, terrorism and other security threats. Instead of building a military force that was best suited to fight and win wars if necessary to defend American security and interests, the “forgotten man and woman” watched on as the singular focus seemed to be turning the American military into a politically correct social experiment.
Energy: At a time when we could and should have been substantially decreasing our dependence on foreign oil we purchase—much of it from nations that don’t particularly like us—Obama refused to develop the Keystone Pipeline, to expand drilling in the U.S. and its waters, and to substantially increase our development of petroleum, natural gas, clean coal and other energy sources in our nation. In the meantime, Obama crippled the American energy sector with extensive and prohibitive regulations that only deepened our reliance on energy resources from countries not so burdened. The “forgotten man and woman” looked on as American energy workers needlessly lost their jobs from these policies and as the inability to utilize our domestic energy resources contributed to ever higher energy prices.
Infrastructure: And finally, on the issue of our national infrastructure—our airports, train systems, interstate highways—Obama talked a big game about “shovel-ready jobs” and allocated a lot toward these ends. But he has left office with our air, train, highway and other transportation systems in a state of unprecedented disrepair and certainly not competitive with other developed nations of the world. Meanwhile, many American conservatives and Republicans—skeptical of government’s ability to do much of anything well—offered no real solution to the problem. Trump, of course, arose with a $1 trillion infrastructure plan and promised to make our infrastructure cutting edge again and do so in a timely and cost-efficient fashion. It was a promise the “forgotten man and woman” was waiting to hear.
All of this was the background and environment in which the 2016 presidential election took place. One candidate, Hillary Clinton, ran openly as a third term extension of these negative trends. She refused to acknowledge almost any of these as major problems. In fact, she wanted more of it—more refugees, more illegal immigrants, more regulations in our economy, more government intrusion into health care, even higher taxes, more government, and a continuation of a failed national security and foreign policy agenda that emboldened enemies, alienated allies and timidly refused to even utter the name of “radical Islamic terror.”
Additionally, at a moment when Americans were seeking a more harmonious identity, Clinton instead continued the Obama agenda of identity politics. In seemingly every speech, she spoke of the women’s vote. She spoke of the Hispanic vote. She spoke of the African-American vote. And she spoke of the gay vote. But at almost no time did she recognize what the “forgotten man and woman” believe—that the aspirations of Americans really do not vary by gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. We want economic growth, job creation, peace and security, good schools, safe communities. At a moment when the American people wanted a unifying message, Clinton could not bring herself to break with the identity politics on which her Democratic Party increasingly rests.
Trump was much more astute. He saw that the typical American voter had seen enough of business as usual in Washington, D.C. He called out politicians and the dysfunctions they created and offered solutions to the trade, immigration and fiscal policies that were harming the “forgotten man and woman.” He promised a rebuilding of American defenses, support for American law enforcement, tax and regulatory cuts to stimulate our economy, the repeal and replacement of Obamacare, renegotiation of trade agreements in terms that would be fairer to American workers, an end to illegal immigration, and a commitment to protecting an American identity that ultimately defines all of us as Americans.
Some final comments on the significance of all of this: I believe Trump’s election is precisely the sort of historic shift that the Republican Party needed if it were to survive as a national political force. If you look at 2008 and 2012, it was clear that neither McCain nor Romney, nor the messages they communicated, spoke to what the “forgotten man and woman” wanted to hear. Their candidacies were doomed to fail.
But with Trumpism, the Republican Party can once again say that it is in fact the party of working Americans.
And this, I believe, ultimately points to the legacy of Obama—not just that he left the nation worse than he found it, but that on his watch the Democratic Party was reduced to a minor, far-left political party with narrow appeal geographically and demographically.
The ultimate metric of Obama’s legacy is not just all of the statistics I have cited tonight. It’s this number: 1,030. That’s the number of state government, gubernatorial and Congressional seats the Democrats lost on Obama’s watch as he ignored and argued with the “forgotten man and woman.”
It’s true that Trumpism is shunned and misunderstood by mainstream media and at prestigious universities like the one at which we gather tonight. Ultimately these institutions too need to decide whether they wish to participate in the mainstream of American political discourse, or, as was just the case with the Democratic Party, be reduced to a minor sideshow.
What’s not misunderstood, however, is that the “forgotten man and woman” has been heard loud and clear. And should Trump execute on the promises and commitments he’s made, as I believe he will, the Republican Party and indeed this nation are going to be vastly better for it–and America will be great again.
Michael Johns, a former White House speechwriter and Heritage Foundation policy analyst, is a co-founder of the national Tea Party movement and president of Tea Party Community.
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