Pandemic, protest and a slow, painful economic recovery: We've got a long, hot summer ahead

Despite Trump's crowing, the economy's not improving and the death toll is still rising. None of this is over soon

By Heather Digby Parton


Published June 8, 2020 9:27AM (EDT)

A demonstrator wearing a protective face mask holds her fist high during a protest (Aleksander Kalka/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A demonstrator wearing a protective face mask holds her fist high during a protest (Aleksander Kalka/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Last Friday, Donald Trump woke up to the first good news he's had in weeks. The job numbers for May were better than expected. Forecasters had been predicting that the unemployment rate would hit the 20% mark but instead it dropped slightly, to a still catastrophic 13.3% from 14.7 the month before. There is some controversy about whether or not the numbers for both months are actually higher than that, but any way you slice it May was better than April and that's certainly preferable to the other way around.

Why the predictions put May as worse than April is a mystery to me, frankly. States around the country were starting to open up in the middle of the month and plenty of people were being hired back at small businesses that had temporarily closed down, as each state and locality permitted. As we've all seen in the news, in some places hair salons, barbers and tattoo parlors are now up and running. 

In any case, Trump strutted and crowed as if the country had completely recovered and he was personally responsible:

I haven't heard reports that he signed that graph and sent it around to his friends, as he did with the stock ticker for a single day's rally — right after a 20% decline that was the fastest in history — but I wouldn't be surprised. Yes, the jobs gain in the month of May was historic. So were the job losses in April.

Only Donald Trump would have the chutzpah to brag about a 13.3% unemployment rate. By Sunday night he was tweeting this:

His greatest economy wasn't that great. And his promise to "do it again" will very likely come true. The economy will naturally begin to improve from the depth of the national lockdowns for the COVID-19 pandemic this spring. But since he so badly botched the pandemic response and failed to contain or properly mitigate the effects of the virus, the comeback will probably be tepid. Polling released this weekend by NBC and the Wall Street Journal contains some bad news on that front:

Two-thirds of American voters say they would not feel comfortable flying on a plane or attending a large gathering due to continued worry about the spread of the coronavirus, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds. Half of all voters are also uneasy about dining at restaurants, and half of parents say they are uncomfortable sending their children back to school or daycare in August.

The survey, which was conducted as many states eased some restrictions on businesses designed to blunt the virus's spread, found that 66 percent of Americans say they are uncomfortable attending a public gathering or an event with a large group, with 43 percent saying they are "very" uncomfortable. Just 17 percent say they would be "very comfortable" at a large event.

This finding may seem odd considering that we've seen massive daily gatherings in the streets of America over the past week, but it really isn't.

The Black Lives Matter protests are huge and have spread to virtually every part of the country — but are largely composed of young people, with relatively few people over 40. That's actually unusual. Big demonstrations are naturally driven by younger activists, but there is often a large contingent of middle-aged or older adults. Despite the generational divide on politics, at least 40% of older voters are liberal, and anyone who attends protests is familiar that some folks from the 1960s are still willing to show up.

But under current circumstances, it's understandable that older people would mostly stay away. Of course younger people can contract or transmit the coronavirus but in most cases are unlikely to become gravely ill. The death rate for people under 35 is extremely low. So they see the risk as worth it and, needless to say, the matter of police violence is an urgent public health and social justice matter of a different sort. They are taking the risk because they are looking at the long arc of their own future.

Most protesters appear to be as careful as one can be in this unusual situation. It's a different calculation for older people. Many of them are sympathetic to the cause. That same poll from NBC News and the Journal shows that voters, by a ratio of more than two to one, say they're more worried about the death of George Floyd and police violence than they are about the protests. (Only 27% of the country clearly support Trump and his "Law and Order" approach.) In other words, there are plenty of older people and those in high-risk groups who might otherwise march in solidarity, but they can see that the cause is extremely well represented among the young and healthy and feel confident that the point is being made, even if they continue to observe public health guidelines that will keep them out of the hospital.

Make no mistake, however — this is still a perilous situation. Dr. Anthony Fauci and other epidemiologists are highly concerned about the protests spreading the virus, particularly among vulnerable populations of people of color who are already hit hard by the pandemic. Combined with businesses opening up all over the country, this means that the 60% of people who already feel uncomfortable going out are likely to stay that. Which means in turn that the economy will remain in a precarious state for the foreseeable future.

The economic recovery won't happen on any large scale as long as so many people don't feel confident they can safely travel, shop, dine out, go to the movies or otherwise partake in society anywhere close to the way they did before the pandemic. As long as fully half the population is staying home, this economic crisis will continue.

And I have a sneaking suspicion that levels of social unrest will reflect that reality before too long. Special federal unemployment benefits enacted earlier in the pandemic are set to run out in July and Republicans are already balking at extending them. There is little chance they'll do it now that the White House has decided that 13% unemployment is a tremendous success.

Why wouldn't Trump want to keep the federal government spending money in an effort to boost his prospects for re-election? It appears he and his Republican accomplices are once again living in denial and relying on magical thinking. That's likely to be just as successful as his delusions about miracle cures have been with the pandemic.

Just a month ago, Trump — who had already revised his estimation of the pandemic's death toll multiple times — said he believed it could reach 100,000 when all was said and done. We have now surpassed 112,000 deaths, with the end nowhere in sight. It's safe to say that Trump's rosy economic estimates are almost certain to be just as accurate.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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