It's said that victory has a thousand fathers, and Donald Trump's shocking victory in Tuesday's presidential election has inspired almost as many hasty explanations. To those most appalled by the prospect of a President Trump, it's an ugly manifestation of America's bigoted id, or the triumph of celebrity culture over substance, or a product of a broken information ecology in which acceptance of facts is optional.
Without denying any of those factors, it seems clear that James Carville's memorable formulation from the 1992 campaign also applies here: It's the economy, stupid. Without a widespread sense, in the crucial Rust Belt swing states and elsewhere, that good working-class and middle-class jobs are harder to come by than they used to be, Trumpism could not have succeeded. Unemployment doesn't turn immigrant welcomers into xenophobes, but it can induce them to set aside their reservations and throw in with an immigrant-bashing candidate if they believe his promises to bring the jobs back.
Trump's explanation of where the jobs went was simple enough to resonate with even the most low-information voters: They went to Mexico and China, shipped there by politicians who cut trade deals tailored to benefit multinational corporations, not American workers.
But that's not the whole story. Increasingly, the downdraft depressing labor demand is technological adoption, not globalization. The effects of software-powered automation and robots on employment are harder to spot because they're not as stark and straightforward as an automotive assembly plant that shuts down in Flint and reopens in Toluca. When machines and software invade the workplace, it's usually as force multipliers, making humans more effective. It's only as a downstream effect of this that they become less necessary.
Since 2000, in a break with historical trends, U.S. productivity has climbed steadily while the number of jobs has been flat. Economists Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson call this phenomenon the "great decoupling" and predict it's about to get a lot harder to overlook as the number of job types jeopardized by automation grows exponentially.
What has happened in auto plants and warehouses over the last 15 years will be replicated throughout the service sector, until now the refuge for manufacturing-sector refugees. Already, Uber, which acquired a self-driving-truck startup called Otto in August, is operating a fleet that could render the nation's 1.6 million truck drivers redundant. In my recent profile of Handy, the on-demand home cleaning startup, I detailed how the company has cut back dramatically on its use of customer service reps by deploying artificially intelligent chatbots. After the service workers, it will be the information workers' turn.
It's unclear how much of this Trump understands. Even if he were to carry out his vague campaign promise to open more and bigger auto plants than ever in Michigan, those plants would inevitably employ far fewer humans.
As that reality comes into focus, the firehose of anger that Trump so successfully wielded will find a new target, veering from Washington D.C. to Silicon Valley. "I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Donald Trump four, eight, 12 years from now is railing against the robots," McAfee tells The Information.
One person who certainly comprehends that is Peter Thiel, Trump's biggest (by far) supporter in the tech industry. So do many of Thiel's friends and colleagues, like Elon Musk and Y Combinator head Sam Altman. That's why you're increasingly hearing them talking up the concept of universal basic income, a social welfare program that would ensure widespread unemployment doesn't bring about equally widespread poverty and social unrest.
When the libertarians of Silicon Valley are the ones mooting a massively redistributionist expansion of the welfare state, that tells you something about how worried they are. From the vantage point of 2016, when all those angry Trump voters are asking for is better jobs and more affordable healthcare, paying everyone a living wage not to work sounds extreme. Maybe it's not extreme enough.
Whatever solutions Silicon Valley wants to put forward, now is the time to do it. For the moment, the tech industry is venerated much more than it is vilified; Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates were all among the 15 most admired men last time Gallup asked the question. If those three men were to champion, say, universal healthcare, any proposal would get a lot of favorable attention.
That won't be the case forever. As employment goes from stagnating to collapsing, technology and automation will become scapegoats in the way immigrants and globalization are now. When that happens, Silicon Valley could become a dirty word in much the same fashion Wall Street did after the 2008 financial crisis. If the geniuses of the Valley are as smart as they think, they'll spend their political capital now, before it's too late.