A small man finally found his balcony last week. But while the political world focused on the manically insane, attempted strongman antics of a virus-infected president desperately clinging to what may be his final weeks of power, I couldn’t help thinking one thing. It’s bad enough that Donald Trump has cemented his legacy as the worst president in America’s 244-year history, but he’s even terrible at the thing that got him there — being a populist demagogue.
Even before 2020 and the coronavirus, it was stunning that the first developer to become U.S. president, with vain and grandiose ambitions, never launched a massive building campaign, despite dozens of Infrastructure Weeks. Now, the pain of a record-setting, virus-sparked recession has at least given Trump a chance to pull off every authoritarian’s dream: sending voters a large check, just days before an election.
And yet, Trump has totally botched any economic stimulus, even when congressional Democrats who otherwise hope the president gets crushed in a landslide on Nov. 3 are still willing to work with him on this issue. Somewhere, the late Huey Long — a real American populist, a rogue who won the enduring love of Louisiana voters by building roads and bridges, a towering state capitol and a growing public university — is looking up and laughing at Trump.
I’m not going deep today on the madness of King Don, other than to note that his ability to dominate — not a microscopic virus, unfortunately — the American news cycle, with his reckless behavior and tweets, is keeping our focus away from the two real crises that are crippling everyday Americans. The first one — the again rapidly rising rate of coronavirus infections, just as experts feared with the arrival of colder weather — is about to exacerbate the second one, a Trump recession that is suffocating the ironically named “essential workers” of the middle class.
You’ve probably seen the numbers, at least for a few seconds before cable TV went back to Trump’s latest virus lie. The latest jobs report showed that the bounce-back from spring’s mass layoffs over the coronavirus lockdown has slowed to an anemic pace and that 11 million willing Americans remain without work, a number that’s worse than the dog days of what we still call the Great Recession of just a decade ago.
Getting even less news coverage is the human misery behind those stats. Once in a blue moon, you’ll see a tweet or a short news clip of an endless line of cars at a food bank, but — spoiler alert — it’s not the cars that are suffering, but the people inside of them, who are increasingly fearful of where the next meal, after this donated one, will come from.
“There’s no work. There’s no income. At least we for sure have food,” Rosario Cepeda, a San Antonio hairstylist with hardly any clients, whose daughter, son-in-law, and grandkids were forced by the recession to move into her small apartment, recently told Texas Public Radio at the head of one massive food bank line. She expects to come for the food distribution more often since government aid — such as enhanced unemployment benefits and that one-time $1,200 stimulus check from the spring — has expired or worn off.
The number of Rosario Cepedas out there may grow over the autumn. Between government gridlock and now the feared second wave of COVID-19 — which could push struggling small businesses, especially restaurants and bars, over the edge as outdoor dining season ends — new rounds of layoffs may be ending the economy’s dead-cat bounce. A whopping 45,000 airline employees — good, solid, middle-class jobs like flight attendants or reservations clerks — just received layoff or furlough notices because our addled-D.C. leaders couldn’t reach a deal to save them.
For most of us, the cuts are either hitting home or getting closer. It was with both heartbreak and a feeling of powerlessness that I learned on Friday that my own employer, The Inquirer, plans to print the newspaper elsewhere and shut down our Upper Merion Township printing plant that now employs about 500 people, many of whom have toiled for decades in the middle of the night to make sure the news arrived on people’s doorsteps. In a time when those other hurting businesses stopped advertising, our bosses say the carnage is the only way to save the jobs of folks like me, the college-educated people of a so-called knowledge economy who can sit in our basements and earn our paycheck from a laptop.
That’s not a unique story. The Trump-coronavirus recession of 2020 has been a kind of neutron bomb that has devastated America’s low-income communities — both in Rust Belt towns that voted heavily for the president, and even more so in predominantly Black or Latinx neighborhoods of those “essential workers” — while sparing the eggheads of tech or media who can attend meetings on Zoom or work from home.
A recent Washington Post analysis of the gross inequality of the 2020 recession includes some staggering numbers, including the fact that at the height of the coronavirus lockdown, some six in 10 college-educated employees were working from home, but just one in seven for workers with only high school diplomas. Low-wage jobs were vanishing at a rate of eight times that of well-paying ones. “The devastation was deepest among the lowest-paid, but middle-class jobs were not spared,” it reported. “A clear trend emerged: The less workers earned at their job, the more likely they were to lose it as businesses across the country closed.”
That working-class-destroying tsunami — at the expense of the elite “knowledge economy” — is a stunning exclamation point on nearly 50 years of widening inequality in America. It’s a recipe for massive social unrest — arguably, we’ve already seen this in an increasingly violent culture, not to mention the movement that put this would-be demagogue in the White House — that was probably only briefly deferred by the $2 trillion stimulus in the spring.
Washington’s gridlock is also a recipe for a landslide defeat of Trump, who first decided to focus instead on using racism to scare “suburban housewives” and now — possibly addled by a cocktail of drugs that literally no human being has ever taken before — is ping-ponging between impulsively killing a relief deal and begging Democrats to work with him. But the real driver in D.C. is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who — despite the imminent prospect of losing his majority in a Democratic “wave” election — claims the Senate won’t have time in October to bail out middle-class America because it’s too busy making sure Amy Coney Barrett perpetuates anti-choice, anti-worker and anti-environment policies on the Supreme Court for 40 years after the GOP loses all other power.
If the current electoral trends continue, and if Joe Biden can somehow survive the ugly days of November to become America’s 46th president, his first 100 days may be consumed — much like Franklin Roosevelt — with urging the nation to overcome “fear itself,” mainly over the second coronavirus wave that may be peaking on Jan. 20. But Biden’s presidency is doomed to fail unless he will quickly take on the other sickness that’s been spreading unmasked in America since 1980: gross income inequality.
There’s little doubt that Biden — if also able to work with a Democratic Congress — would move things in the right direction again. He’s long supported more than doubling the federal minimum wage, stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009, to $15, which economists say would immensely benefit the daily lives of millions of essential workers in fields like food service or transportation who currently earn less. But the current crisis demands a bigger response.
Biden’s tax plan — which would raise marginal rates on the wealthy as well as corporations and kill off the hedge fund loophole, among other things — is also a step in the right direction. Experts say almost 80% of his proposed tax hike would fall on the wealthy so-called 1%. But it’s still not as ambitious as the wealth tax ideas proposed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who now back Biden, but are still pushing more progressive stands.
America’s problem is clearly structural, so it won’t be solved by tinkering on the margins. Ending the ridiculous disparities in our society made even worse by the coronavirus will require massive long-term investment in an overhaul of higher education and career pathways for all classes of Americans, plus a real Infrastructure Week, as well as job-creating green energy that can lift up the currently unemployed.
President “Covita” can’t hear our crying as he keeps his distance up on the White House balcony, but a President Biden might listen — if we keep making our voices loud enough, even if victory comes in November.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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