Last Thursday, noted author, historian, and political columnist Gwynne Dyer held a lecture in UFV’s Evered Hall, entitled “Surviving Trump.” The main subject of the lecture was not so much about Donald Trump himself (who has been discussed more than enough already), but rather the forces that allowed “a man I wouldn’t even let into my house,” in Dyer’s words, into not just any house, but the White House of all places. Dyer’s scope is not limited to the United States either, but seeks to explain how and why right-wing populist movements have been gaining traction all over the globe.
The answer, according to Dyer, is unemployment on a mass scale. It is noteworthy that in the 2016 federal election, Trump won the key states in the Great Lakes region, a region today known as the “Rust Belt.” In the old days, the Mid-Atlantic and eastern Midwest were America’s manufacturing heartland. Nowadays, this region has fallen far from its former status as the economic heart of the nation. “Every time I go to Detroit, they’re tearing down a new skyscraper,” said Dyer. The question is, what happened here, and why did the people of the Rust Belt see Donald Trump as their best option?
As for what happened, the simple answer is that the jobs disappeared. Outsourcing played a part, but the greatest job-killer is automation. Assembly line jobs are the easiest to automate, and they were the first to go. This is why this part of the United States was so heavily hit, due to their economy’s heavy reliance on manufacturing. Since the process began, seven million manufacturing jobs in the United States have been lost to automation. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning. With self-driving cars on the brink of going public, the 4.5 million driving jobs in the U.S. are expected to be cut down to half a million over the next 10 years; and 47 per cent of jobs are “vulnerable to automation,” according to Dyer.
This still doesn’t explain why people are turning to right-wing populist candidates. According to Dyer, people in regions affected by mass unemployment feel “cheated, betrayed, abandoned” by the establishment. Trump’s hard line on immigration and “America first” foreign policy appealed to many working-class people in the Rust Belt and other hard hit areas, who feel that their jobs are being “stolen” by outsourcing and competition from immigrants. When Trump was touring the West Virginia coal country during his presidential campaign, he said “I will be your voice.”
But according to Dyer, the people of West Virginia were under no illusions that Trump would save the ailing coal industry. While automation has surely taken its toll in the mining industry as anywhere else, the truth is that as renewable energy like wind and solar become more powerful and efficient, there is less demand for coal, which was once primarily used to generate electricity.
There is nothing Trump or anyone else can do to change this, even if they wanted to. Even so, mere recognition of their struggles goes a long way; and even if it will not solve their problems, the working-class people of middle America saw an opportunity to attack a political establishment that was at best ignored, and at worst worked against their interests. Dyer noted that the filmmaker Michael Moore, who was one of the few who predicted that Trump would win in 2016, described it as “the biggest ‘fuck you’ vote in history.”
It should be said that this is not limited to the United States. The greatest support for Brexit in the U.K., and for Marine le Pen (President of the National Front) in France’s 2017 election, correspond to regions that used to be those countries’ industrial heartlands. Across the world, people who are increasingly unable to make a living are lashing out at the political establishment and other “undesirable” groups whom they perceive as having caused their current crisis, or have allowed it to continue.
In order to curb the rise of dangerous nationalist movements, the root cause of the people’s dissatisfaction must be addressed, and Dyer spoke of some solutions to the issue.
Universal basic income (UBI) was the most discussed option, but mainly because it is the most discussed option everywhere else. UBI has come a long way in public discourse. Ten years ago it was practically unthinkable, but in another 10 years it may be non-negotiable, assuming things continue as they have been over the past few decades. UBI may be closer than you think. Six countries are running pilot programs to assess the impact of UBI. One of these is Canada, with Ontario currently running a three-year pilot program. The B.C. government is currently considering a program of its own.
Other possibilities such as a “machine tax” to help offset the losses by automation, or the so-called “Tobin tax,” which would put a 0.5 per cent tax on conversions between currencies, were suggested.
Dyer stressed that it is not about whether or not we have the resources to implement programs such as these. “We’re rich,” he said, mentioning that despite downsizing and outsourcing, American industrial production has doubled. We certainly have the resources at our disposal, they are just not evenly distributed.
In order for UBI or anything similar to succeed, it must “tick two boxes.” The first is that nobody will be left to starve. The second is that nobody should be made to feel ashamed or lesser for receiving guaranteed basic income.
Dyer is optimistic that programs like these will be adopted in the near future, claiming that there is support even among the political right. He predicts that the United States will lag behind in this area, but not for long. As for whether this will prevent a more violent and intolerant future, Dyer is uncertain, but he does say that we are in for some interesting times in the years ahead.