Commentary

The haves and the have-nots: How the Wall St.-Main St. divide stokes political discord

August 31, 2020 12:01 am

President Donald J. Trump gestures to the crowd prior to delivering remarks in support of the Farmers to Families Food Box distribution program Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, at Flavor First Growers and Packers in Mills River, N.C. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Watching the Dow and the New York Stock Exchange take their deepest single-day dives ever back in March and April was terrifying. It continued day after day it seemed, and doing the math only freaked me out more when I saw what that came to in value lost to my 401(k) and other investments.

My financial advisor didn’t sugar coat it – those losses were real – but, he said in talking me off the ledge, this was no time to panic. The stock market takes wild swings and, while it’s particularly unnerving for people of a certain age to stomach the downturns, it’s not a good idea to pull out of the market either, he counseled me.

And he was right.

Wall Street has made something of a comeback (not that it couldn’t all go to hell again tomorrow). But at least I no longer envision busting up the furniture for firewood or, worst case, living in a van down by the river. For that, I am truly grateful.

Main Street, however, has not been so fortunate.

Traditional retailing had been under the gun for years from online giants such as Amazon, and the restrictions put in place to thwart the pandemic killed many small shops and some that hang on at reduced capacity still face an existential threat. Chain stores are in a world of hurt, too, with Moody’s predicting that one out of every five mall stores will be extinct by the middle of this decade.

Restaurants, for months limited to carry-out or delivery only, furloughed or dismissed loyal employees to stay afloat and are trying to get by with dine-in seating slashed by half or more.

Service businesses such as dry cleaners, salons and gyms also took a severe haircut during home sequestration. Farmers, already circling the drain, are in some cases having to liquidate unsellable crops and livestock because of consumer austerity, poultry and meat processing disruptions because of COVID-19 hotspots at packing plants as well as the Trump administration’s trade war with China.

Airlines and cruise companies are laying off tens of thousands amid weakened travel demand.

Those aren’t just passing fluctuations on a stock market ticker. Those are jobs gone, and in numbers not seen since the Great Depression. Unemployment spiked at nearly 15 percent in April, a number that meant more than 20 million Americans lost their jobs in just 30 days. The rate had receded to 10.2 percent by July, and even that rate is double what the nation suffered during the entire 2007-2009 financial meltdown. In another ominous metric, the nation’s gross domestic product declined at an annualized rate of 33 percent in the second quarter of 2020.

Numbers that huge make it difficult to fathom the individual suffering of families who, through no fault of their own, find themselves at the mercy of unprecedented federal aid payments that added trillions of dollars to the nation’s already crushing debt. Many of those families were already struggling before the pandemic, working a combination of part-time and gig jobs without healthcare or retirement benefits just to keep the rent paid, food on the table and the lights on. With orders banning evictions for past-due rent because of the pandemic expiring and Congress unable to agree on a new relief package, despair is likely to deepen further.

And that, more than anything else, brings us to what really animates the nation’s politics today: the fear and anger among tens of millions of our countrymen that they’ve been dealt out of the American dream. Back when a novel deadly virus spreading worldwide with no vaccine and no acquired immunity was the stuff of Stephen King novels, these people had already seen their jobs shipped overseas, taken over at home by robots or technology, or swallowed up and eliminated through consolidations and corporate “right-sizing.” They’re frightened and angry, unsure whom to blame or turn to for help.

You know who understood that and knew how to weaponize it better than anybody? Donald Trump.

While his rivals in the 2016 Republican presidential nomination field and, later, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, were viewing the 2016 election by the old paradigm of right vs. left, liberal vs. conservative, the reality TV star instinctively (and correctly) sized it up for what it is: the haves vs. the have-nots. He played it masterfully with few outside his own advisors recognizing what he was doing, particularly in the decisive and Democrat-friendly Rust Belt states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

In an unequaled feat of political legerdemain, this billionaire Manhattan real estate baron, who luxuriated in a gilded penthouse in his namesake Fifth Avenue tower where he sandbagged and bullied small vendors and contractors who pressed him on bills he owed, convinced America’s have-nots that he was their savior. Almost no one — certainly not the pollsters, the pundits or, least of all, Team Hillary — saw it coming until the wheels began falling off her victory party around 10 p.m. on election night.

Trump works in grievance (particularly White grievance) the way Van Gogh worked in oils or Michelangelo in marble, a doyen without equal. It was on full display in last week’s Republican National Convention, when he became the first president to breach an ethical and, possibly, a legal boundary by using the White House — historically above partisan exploitation — as a glorified show-biz set.

From that backdrop owned by the taxpayers, in his typical taunting style, he delivered tailored messaging — subliminal and direct — to middle America’s have-nots that he is their lone protector from all that threatens, afflicts or annoys them: immigrants, socialists, China and its virus, the “fake news,” ISIS, destructive protests over police killings of Black people, price-gouging pharmacy giants (which he also submitted as his magic-bullet pipe dream of an imminent coronavirus vaccine), to name a few.

And what do all those supposed malignancies have in common, Trump asked more than 1,000 handpicked supporters sweating in the sultry D.C. heat jammed shoulder-to-shoulder without face coverings Thursday night on the White House South Lawn? It’s Joe Biden, he said, the Democratic former vice president whom he trails in polls.

“The fact is, we’re here and they’re not,” Trump sneered to a standing ovation at the end of his 70-minute speech.

Biden, however, is among the few who get the Wall Street-Main Street disconnect, the politics of the have-nots, and who saw how Trump was exploiting it four years ago. Raised in blue-collar Pennsylvania, Biden warned that the Clinton-Kaine ticket and his party broadly were perceived as “limousine liberals” with work to do in places like his home state, in Wisconsin and in Michigan to connect with White, working-class voters. They had done too little, he cautioned, to make their case to underemployed or unemployed Americans who for years had chafed as college-educated white-collar professionals took home generous paychecks and enjoyed employer-supplemented health packages as a sky-rocketing stock market fattened their retirement investments.

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden addresses a crowd at a town hall event at Clinton College on August 29, 2019 in Rock Hill, S.C. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Maybe with Biden knowing the game, it will make a difference, but he can’t expect it to work hunkered down and mute, as he was nearly all of last week, in his Wilmington, Delaware, home. With Trump defying biology and zipping from one blue-collar venue to another with essentially the same appeal as 2016, Biden can’t hope to sit on a tenuous Labor Day lead in the polls and bleed the clock for 62 days with a four-corner offense.

He’s got to fight Trump on Trump’s turf. That’s Main Street.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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