You watch those folks demonstrating in Annapolis over the weekend and find yourself saying, “Yes, we understand your frustration. Yes, we know you’re frightened and desperate.
“But don’t you know you’re angry with the wrong people?”
There were hundreds out there Saturday, Apr. 18, in Annapolis, and heaven knows how many thousands more in lots of places around the country, defying governors who have issued directives to stay inside – and defying the coronavirus that threatens to kill them if they don’t listen.
“Let my people go,” read one of the signs carried by a demonstrator in Annapolis.
“It’s 2020, not Orwell’s 1984,” read another.
As though Big Brother’s telling everybody to stay home, and not little, microscopic bacteria.
For most of these folks, the urge to “Re-Open Maryland,” as their rally was called, is both understandable – and exasperating.
It’s exasperating, because some of them seemed to have been egged on by President Donald Trump, who’s tweeted that it’s time for Americans to “LIBERATE” ourselves and leave the safety of our homes and get back to work.
(It’s exasperating, too, to see some of the racist, anti-Semitic signs carried in various parts of the country. But let’s attribute that to a few lunatics and assume the others have cleaner motives.)
With Trump, it’s all a matter of getting the economy going, so he’ll have bragging rights for his re-election campaign. What the hell, so you lose some lives along the way. Who do you want to believe, the scientists and the medical experts, and the death toll climbing higher into the thousands, or your Beloved Leader?
With those demonstrators, though, take away whatever White House politics may be prompting them, and it’s a matter of survival.
As the country has gone into economic shutdown, they’ve found themselves with no money to pay the rent, buy groceries or take care of the basics for their families.
But that’s where they’re angry with the wrong people. The question isn’t, “Why can’t we go back to work?”
It should be, “Why did our money run out so fast?”
Only a week or two into the current troubles, millions found themselves utterly broke. But they’ve known, for years, that they’re only living from paycheck to paycheck as they cling to whatever fantasy they’ve clutched about being “middle class” or “working class.”
Who’s “middle-class” or “working-class” in the modern context?
It’s those people out there demonstrating that they’re so desperate to go back to work, they’ll risk their lives to do it.
Ever since the dawning of Ronald Reagan’s “trickle-down” economics – and that’s 40 years ago, folks – the middle-class and working-class have slowly found themselves becoming a slightly higher version of the underclass, trying to convince themselves that they’re doing just fine while knowing, deep down, that they were clinging to solvency by their fingernails.
But all this time, the rich were getting richer. Can you believe it? The wealth of the top 1 percent of households has now surpassed the combined wealth of the bottom 80 percent.
Real incomes have stagnated for the past several decades. As a New York Times editorial this weekend put it:
“Executive pay has skyrocketed, and shareholders have enjoyed rising stock prices [at least until recently] while most workers are falling behind. If individual income had kept pace with overall economic growth since 1970, Americans in the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution would be making an extra $12,000 per year, on average.
“In effect, the extreme increase in inequality means every worker in the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution is sending an annual check for $12,000 to a worker in the top 10 percent.”
Let me add to this (not for the first time), Jane Mayer’s summation in the latest issue of The New Yorker, referring to the 2017 tax bill that Trump’s Republicans pushed through:
“It rewarded the [Republican] Party’s biggest donors by bestowing more than 80 percent of its largesse on the wealthiest 1 percent.”
The rest of us have been chumps, watching the fat cats of corporate America maneuver the big shots in Washington to do their bidding, while the vast majority of us keep falling further behind.
President Trump urging on those demonstrators is despicable. He’s doing it to boost his own political prospects, whatever the cost to their very lives. But the anger of those folks out there is understandable.
It’s their aim that’s questionable. It’s the governors who are trying to keep them healthy. It’s a political system that’s been draining their economic health for the past 40 years that’s killing them.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.