In 1945, members of the “Greatest Generation” helped establish Roosevelt University as a place of equality and opportunity. Many of them were white and working class, a demographic that, 70 years later, is being exploited to great effect by Donald Trump, a Republican presidential candidate few would align with Roosevelt’s enduring mission of social justice. How did this happen?
To get to an answer, we have to start by thinking about the generation that fought World War II. A decade before that horrific war, they also endured the Great Depression. The end result of both these battles was the overwhelming belief that they must demand a better life for themselves and their children.
In many ways, Roosevelt University personified the hopes and dreams of those who sacrificed and suffered through hard times. Its earliest faculty, students and supporters believed in Franklin Roosevelt’s vision for a more just world. His coalition was diverse and his voting blocs were not always supportive of each other’s aspirations. But they were united in their support for FDR, who used his political and administrative genius to keep his allies together in peace and war.
One of FDR’s important blocs was made up of “WWCs,” working-class whites, a group that played an important role in the University’s formation and early focus on social justice.
Today, unfortunately, working-class whites appear to make up much of the support base for Trump, who is dominating the 2016 election conversation with outrageous and obnoxious statements that merge easily with his egomania and showmanship. (For the record: I am chairman of the City Club of Chicago and, in that position, moderated Trump’s appearance at the club in June. I can confirm from this experience that there is little difference between Trump’s private and public personas.)
Trump has hit a chord with WWCs who feel bypassed as America moves in new economic directions. The decent-paying jobs at steel mills, stockyards, coal mines—any manufacturing jobs in general—are dwindling to a precious few. As political scientist Robert Putnam has pointed out, education is the new divider in American society between the haves and have nots. Like many other groups, WWCs don’t see themselves as part of this country’s future.
As a result, many latch onto Trump’s mantra that America is being led by a bunch of losers who are allowing other nations to rip us off on trade and immigration and lessen our standing in the world.
Anger is a great political motivator and these individuals are looking for a spokesman to speak to their needs, hopes and dreams. Unfortunately for them, Trump has manipulated their concerns into a brash, cartoonish version of their political views. It must be remembered that these folks have little in common with America’s No. 1 billionaire huckster.
Social justice is an inclusive, not an exclusive, philosophical concept. To me, it represents the idea that individuals should be able to have the dignity of a job, be guaranteed their full rights as citizens and find acceptance in the mainstream of American life. It is not limited by race, gender or sexual orientation.
I hope that soon a candidate, or candidates, will challenge Trump on his alleged championing of white working-class concerns and link them, in a meaningful manner, with other groups seeking social justice in America. As for Roosevelt University, we should continue to be in the forefront on this issue—for this University exists for all people seeking a better way of life. We should never forget it is the main reason why Roosevelt was created 70 years ago.