On Tuesday, President Trump declared that he wanted to see churches full on Easter Sunday, and called for an Easter reopening of America’s businesses, which he hoped would be “raring to go” in less than three weeks.
Trump’s characterization makes it seem like a battle of wills – if people just wanted to go back to work – rather than data-driven medical science that was driving the economic shutdown.
This characterization has, in true Trump fashion, pitted us against them: those who believe in science over those who believe in fantasies; those who trust professionals trained to do their job over those who revere dilettantes who dabble in policy; those who pledge undying loyalty to a personality over those of who pledge loyalty to our constitution, our democracy.
But the biggest division is yet to come. That’s because the new us versus them will be between those who have the luxury of cocooning, working from homes resplendent with the aroma of Clorox and Lysol, with everything that’s needed conveniently delivered to the front porch, to those creating and delivering what is needed.
It is class warfare at its worst. And the consequences are likely to be deadly for our most economically vulnerable populations who – out of necessity are likely to follow the government’s directive to return to work when experts say it is not safe. Standing on the front line of Trump latest war are hourly wage employees.
Last week, 150,000 New Jerseyans filed for unemployment benefits, a staggering 2,000 percent increase. The sheer volume of claims crashed the system and made it impossible for some to apply.
Among the newly-unemployed are a disproportionate percentage of hourly wage workers. Those who get paid by the hour worked rather than a set salary are more likely than salaried employees to work in industries that cannot perform their functions at home. For example, almost the entire non-managerial sector of the industrial economy are hourly wage earners. So are those in the service economy – people who work for businesses that make our lives easier, from maintenance workers to manicurists, from garage collectors to groundskeepers. And of course, almost the entirety of the travel, hospitality, and tourism industry are hourly wage-earners.
Hourly wage workers are the backbone of the American economy, and while the majority of them are white, people of color and women are disproportionately represented in their ranks, as are young people.
And a large chunk are Millennials. Millennials also constitute the largest portion of people who work in the gig economy – an economy that will be uncompensated by any federal relief program, and the most economically vulnerable if the call to normalize is issued prematurely. They also will again bear the brunt of this economic devastation, just as they did the Great Recession.
Trump’s clarion call to bring them back to work by Easter – one that his supporters and his administration is latching onto despite the lack of medical evidence demonstrating that it is a prudent course – is putting them directly in the line of fire.
It is not that people don’t want to return to work, it is that they are afraid to return to work. And rightly so.
Why would Trump jeopardize the lives of so many Americans? Some have posited a profit motive – that he and his cronies need the stock market to rebound. But Trump is person whose economic failures have been well-documented, yet he has managed to spin them in a way that a solid chunk of the American people believe that he is an economic success.
The economy only matters to Trump for one reason: for incumbent presidents, one of the best predictors of the chances of reelection are voters’ assessment of the economy, and their evaluations of whether prosperity is likely in the future. An entire cottage industry within the discipline of Political Science has modeled at what point voters make their determination, without much consensus. But James Carville’s mantra “It’s the economy, stupid,” during Bill Clinton’s campaign nearly 30 years ago demonstrates the importance of the economy for voters.
So, is it possible that President Trump is putting his own political career in front of the best interests of the American people – particularly the most economically vulnerable?
Absolutely. And what’s shocking is that it’s not shocking. Hell, at this point, nothing’s shocking. But understand that many those who will be heeding his call to return to work – even if that’s not medically advisable – are the same people that constitute Trump’s base – the people left behind in this economy. And so while not shocking, it is sad.
Brigid Callahan Harrison, Ph.D. lives in Longport, NJ. She is a candidate for Congress in New Jersey’s second congressional district, and has taught Political Science at Montclair State University for 25 years. She is the author of five books on American politics.