It was this time last year that it first occurred to me that the US presidential election was a choice between two Second World War acronyms: snafu (situation normal, all f***** up) and fubar (f***** up beyond all recognition). In essence, American voters faced a choice between a candidate who personified the political status quo under an arrogant and detached liberal elite and a candidate who promised the disruption of that status quo. With Hillary Clinton there was the certainty that nothing much would change. With Donald Trump there was the chance of quite a lot of change, but the risk that it would be change for the worse. Twelve months ago it was dawning on me that there might just be enough voters willing to gamble on Trump, knowing full well that the outcome might be fubar.
Since Trump’s election I have tried to swim against the current of liberal opinion. The more commentators have proclaimed the advent of tyranny and the end of the republic, the more I have tried to argue that the Trump administration belongs firmly in the tradition of American populism. The more journalists have cried “Watergate”, the more I have tried to show that Trump isn’t Richard Nixon. With his dynastic approach and louche personality, as I have argued, he more closely resembles John F Kennedy.
My goal has not been to defend Trump, but rather to expose the inconsistencies of his critics. This week, however, the time has arrived to break the bad news to those who voted for Trump. You wanted change. You got it. But the result is a political system that I can now officially certify as f***** up beyond all recognition. This is not politics. This is fubatics.
Seven months ago the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, was proclaiming the “opportunity of a lifetime” for Republicans. Having finally achieved “unified government” — that, is control of the White House and both Houses of Congress — their party was poised to enact a transformative legislative programme: repeal and replacement of President Barack Obama’s hated Affordable Care Act, comprehensive tax reform and a rolling back of burdensome regulation of the economy.
Yet despite the desperate efforts of the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, on Thursday night the Senate could not even agree on a “skinny” bill to repeal just parts of Obamacare. In the same week the Republicans abandoned all hope of passing the border adjustment tax, without which there can be no permanent reductions of corporate and income tax. As for deregulation, this was also the week when Steve Bannon, the chief presidential strategist, was quoted as saying he wanted to regulate Google and Facebook like public utilities.
Wait. Right now Google and Facebook are free. By contrast, I pay hundreds of dollars every month to the utilities that provide our home with gas, electricity and water.
Fubatics is to politics what comedy is to news. Ever since Americans began to get their politics from comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the danger has existed that the politicians would respond by providing their scriptwriters with material for gags. We have now reached that point.
On Wednesday the newly appointed White House communications director, Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci, told a New Yorker journalist that his colleague, the chief of staff Reince Priebus, was a “f****** paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac”.
“What I want to do,” he went on, “is I want to f****** kill all the leakers and I want to get the president’s agenda on track.” He took to Twitter to imply that Priebus was guilty of a “felony” in leaking details about his finances. By Friday Priebus was gone. Last week’s casualty was press secretary Sean Spicer. Next on Trump’s hitlist: attorney-general, Jeff Sessions.
Unified government? These guys are unified the way the cast of Reservoir Dogs were unified. Or maybe Goodfellas. (“You think I’m f****** funny?)
Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, the plan to render most Americans — and most humans — unemployed goes smoothly forward. If you don’t live in northern California you tend to assume that it will be decades before self-driving vehicles are the dominant mode of transport.
Last week Michael Gove, the environment secretary, announced that the sale of new diesel and petrol cars would be banned in the UK by 2040 to encourage people to buy electric vehicles. This surely underestimates Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, not to mention the established car manufacturers currently chasing him in the race to bring electric cars to the mass market. Gove’s worries about diesel fumes remind me of The Times’s editorial in 1894 warning that by the middle of the 20th century every street in London would be buried under 9ft of horse manure.
Despite overwhelming evidence of the accelerating pace of technological change, we humans remain chronically bad at making realistic projections about our economic future. According to the American Trucking Association, the number of jobs for truck drivers will be 21% higher in 2020 than in 2010. Yet self-driving vehicles are already on the road in several states in America. The Tesla Model S that takes me to the airport is fitted with an autopilot mode.
There are 3.5m professional truck drivers in America. It is the most common job in most states. But the reality is that they sit where drivers of horse-drawn carriages once were: on the brink of unemployment.
Nor are they alone. Nearly half of jobs in America are at risk of being automated over the next decade or two, according to Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University. Looking at global employment, the McKinsey Global Institute recently concluded that “half of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055, but this could happen up to 20 years earlier”.
Trump voters thought it was globalisation that destroyed the good jobs in American manufacturing. In reality it was globalisation and technology. Now technology is getting ready to destroy the not-so-good jobs too.
As an economic historian I cling to the hope that current predictions of the impending redundancy of humanity — like similar predictions at earlier stages of industrialisation — will turn out to be wrong. As a reader of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, I also expect bloody-minded humanity to put up more of a fight against the automation of the world than Silicon Valley expects. This is why Google and Facebook are the new targets of Bannon’s populism.
Yet last night I watched my son playing gleefully with a toy robot called Robosapien. The Action Man we gave him for Christmas lies forgotten. Suddenly I felt a sense of kinship with that poor, discarded doll.
The goings-on in Washington are the comedy politics of a distracted age. But the more attention we give @realDonaldTrump on Twitter, the less we pay to the economic revolution going on all around us. The future belongs to robotics, not fubatics.