Trump is Standing on the Wrong Side of History

By fighting against progress, Trump might accelerate it. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Donald Trump is a spasm.

Now that our new president is in office and we've seen his Cabinet of old white billionaires and his "American carnage" inaugural address, it's obvious he is the leader of one last, desperate push to stop the 21st century from unfolding.

But in spite of himself, Trump might end up being the best thing to happen to technological advancement since World War II—as long as he doesn't start World War III along the way. If Trump bigly discredits the backlash against progress, it will accelerate the arrival of a future that's going to be better than any of the bleak pictures he paints. Techies once so aligned against Trump might even end up perversely thanking him.

Already, in his earliest actions and statements as president (End trade deals! America first! Bring back uneconomical jobs!), Trump is standing on the wrong side of history. He's as mistaken about the future as when Frank Sinatra declared in 1957 that rock 'n' roll was a "brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression" that would never last.

If Trump wants to turn back progress, he will fail. This is not a political argument. It's not about Republicans or Democrats. It's about the inevitable. The world is moving into a radical new digital era, leaving behind the industrial order we built in the 20th century. That factory-based economy will fade as surely as print newspapers and paper maps have become objects of nostalgia.

When Trump spectacularly fails to stop this shift—and, of course, with him it will be spectacular—that failure could clear out the conservatives and populists who fight against the future. "Trump ultimately is going to do America and the world a service by becoming the vehicle that will finally take down right-wing conservative politics for a generation or two," writes Peter Leyden, author and CEO of media startup Reinvent. He equates Trump with Herbert Hoover, elected in 1928, another time when technology was recasting every aspect of life and business. Back in the early 1900s, cars, airplanes, the telephone and the electric grid all stampeded into society over about a 30-year period. Life in the late 1800s was unimaginably different from life in the 1930s. Hoover, an ultraconservative with strong ties to business, rode a backlash against this rapid change to gain office but then choked after the stock market crashed in 1929.

"Perhaps his single greatest policy blunder was supporting and signing into law a tariff act that fueled international trade wars and made the Depression even worse," said U.S. News & World Report in a feature on the 10 worst presidents ever. (Sound familiar?) Hoover's failures knocked roll-back-the-clock conservatives out of power until 1952.

The magnitude of our current technological change echoes Hoover's time. Life today is profoundly different from life in 2007, when smartphones, social networks and cloud computing were babies. In another 10 years, pre-2007 life is going to seem practically Amish. We're witnessing an explosion of artificial intelligence technology and the arrival of self-driving cars, delivery by drones, digital currencies like bitcoin tied to no sovereignty and $200 genetic tests that could unlock the secrets to every individual's health. Solar energy for the first time became cheaper in some regions than carbon-generated energy—a glimpse of the end of oil's dominion.

These new technologies are doing more than just changing the way we live. They are changing the global economy, taking apart one industry after another, which destroys many old companies but also creates many forward-leaning new ones. A list of the world's most valuable companies shows how fast things are changing. In 2006, the top four were Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Microsoft and Citigroup; all but Microsoft were more than a century old. In 2016, the top four were Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft and Amazon—all new-economy companies.

These transformations have been wrenching for big chunks of the population. Software is automating away many kinds of jobs; today, it's lower-end repetitive jobs held by people who didn't go to college, but tomorrow it will be professional and creative jobs. One new company, Jukedeck, is using AI software to replace songwriters. (If songwriters are the next coal miners, Kanye might've been prescient in his support for Trump.) People on the wrong side of the divide are angry and scared, so they understandably supported a leader who promised to bring their Old Economy jobs back.

But the new tech promises better times. Throughout history, automation and trade have created more jobs and greater prosperity, despite people's fears. AI will give us a chance to solve cancer, ease climate change, manage our bursting cities and explore other planets. Genomics will be a key to making health care cheaper by helping us prevent diseases before they start. While new technology isn't all good, it's almost always better than what came before.

Still, a backlash was probably unavoidable. We're in the middle of what economist Carlota Perez calls a turning point in a technological revolution. At such points, when technology is getting too far ahead of our ability to adapt, government's job is to slow things down. The crazier the pace of change seems, the more likely we are to elect someone who will push back hard. The fact that we elected someone as radically retro as Trump shows just how far and fast technology has raced ahead.

The pushback is always temporary. Always. And it can be beneficial, as Perez wrote in her seminal book Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital. It forces technology to realign with society and spread its benefits more equitably. Silicon Valley needs to take note of that. But then progress resumes. The opposition gets caught holding too tightly to the past and gets swept away.

Tech surges often align with surges in a young population ready to embrace the new, and in America the massive millennial generation born in the digital era is moving into the workplace and starting companies. As polls show, compared with the nation's previous generations, this one is more educated, ethnically mixed, globally oriented and driven by purpose rather than money. They have been migrating to cities in record numbers.

Which side of history is Trump on? Just look at who voted against him. College graduates backed Hillary Clinton by a 9-point margin; people without a college degree backed Trump by 8 points, according to the Pew Research Center. "This is by far the widest gap in support among college graduates and non-college graduates in exit polls dating back to 1980," Pew states. Young voters went for Clinton by a huge 18-point margin, while voters over 65 went heavily for Trump. And as anyone who saw an election map knows, Clinton won almost every major city, while Trump won the rest of the countryside. So it seems Trump stands firmly with the past—or, at least, the past stands firmly with Trump.

"In short order, [Trump] will completely and irrevocably alienate all the growing political constituencies of the 21st century," Leyden predicts. That's a lot of gravity pulling at Trump's already low 40 percent approval rating.

Look at the far-right movements around the world, and you'll see the same pattern. Pro-Brexit voters tended to have the characteristics of Trump voters. So, really, Trump is in a corner. He got elected because of a social spasm, but he won't be able to beat the trends.

The wild card here is Trump's unpredictability. He might ditch the anti-progress populism and pivot to policies that look forward and help a shiny new society blossom.

Or he could get us into some serious trouble. Social spasms can lead to wars and revolutions. Those early-1900s advances upset the global order and led to two world wars. A similar kind of global conflict in this century could go nuclear and send society back to solving algorithms by drawing in the dirt with sticks.

If we're lucky, the Trump presidency will be but a pause and recalibration in the race to the next era, and we won't end up trading the promise of self-driving cars for an oxcart we have to pull through postapocalyptic rubble.