Isaac Asimov, the greatest of the golden age sci-fi writers, can teach us a great deal about the Trump era. While Asimov did not explicitly foresee the rise of the Trump phenomenon, he came uncomfortably close to predicting the forces that brought the liberal order to its knees on November 8th. Automation and social tensions are routinely featured in Asimov’s work, and they are worth exploring at length.
In Asimov’s book The Caves of Steel, the people of Earth live in a society that is undergoing automation as robots replace humans in the workplace. Facing a steady stream of job losses, people feel angry and helpless, leading them to strike out at the status quo in a wave of riots reminiscent of recent events in the Rust Belt. As told from the perspective of the protagonist, Elijah Baley,
Men who found themselves faced themselves faced with the prospect of declassification, after half a lifetime of effort, could not decide cold-bloodedly that individual robots were not to blame. Individual robots could at least be struck at. (29)
In these riots, robots are not simply treated as machines that serve human beings; they are explicitly seen as competitors who ‘steal away’ humans’ hard-earned jobs. In this sense, robots are analogous to immigrants recently arrived to the United States, and the rioters represent blue-collar workers in the Rust Belt who reject the new global order. Much in the same that America has seen an uptick in anti-immigrant rhetoric and a corresponding ‘America First’ agenda, the Earthmen in Asimov’s novel believe that they have rights to jobs now occupied by robots.
As numerous scenes in Asimov’s book make clear, human laborers feel that they ought to be protected from undue robot competition. For example, in one particularly relevant moment, a woman arrives at a shoe counter, only to learn that the clerk is a robot. Her angry reaction to such a moment reveals a great deal about the tensions between humans and robots.
“Well!” The woman registered shock. “Maybe you think you can talk to me like I was dirt. Maybe it’s time the gov’min’ reelized robots ain’t the only things on Earth. I’m a hard-working woman and I’ve got rights.” (32)
As scenes like this one demonstrate, the Earth authorities have greatly underestimated the feelings of displacement that result from automation and job loss. In fact, the government arguably acts condescendingly towards the affected human workers by calling the tensions mere “growing pains” (29). The government promises that eventually, “a new and better life would exist for all,” but these benefits never seem to materialize for the people facing job loss (29). Similarly, during the recent election in real life, the Democratic Party greatly underestimated the feelings of frustration and abandonment in the Rust Belt. Democratic insiders often took the votes of working class Americans for granted and dismissed their real concerns about globalization as unavoidable consequences of living in an interconnected world. As seen through Asimov’s writing, the result of such a miscalculation is a populace turned against individuals perceived to be stealing away people’s hard earned jobs – whether they happen to be robots or immigrants.
The people in control of Asimov’s fictional universe – the Spacers – are blissfully ignorant of the social forces at work in Earth’s cities. While the Spacers originally come from Earth, they have become so far removed from Earthmen that they invite resentment. The Spacers live outside of the cities and are blessed with extra-long, disease-free lives. To make matters worse, the Spacers spearheaded the project to bring robots into Earth’s cities. At the time, they believed that they were improving the quality of life on Earth, but inadvertently they created enormous job insecurity (24). In this sense, the Spacers can be thought of as east-coast liberals; much like the Spacers, liberal Americans are generally well-meaning individuals who want to improve the quality of life for the rest of the country, but they, too, are sometimes guilty of not asking the communities affected by their plans for input. From the comforts of DC, Philadelphia, and New York, liberal communities often mistakenly conclude that their sweeping legislation will be well received across the country. Unfortunately, because these individuals only occasionally venture into other parts of the country, they are routinely thought to engage in harmful social engineering, just as the Spacers are accused of nefariously bringing robots into Asimov’s cities.
In The Caves of Steel, the Earthmen’s frustrations manifest in a movement called Medievalism. The people of Earth romanticize the past, thinking back to the day that they were the single home of mankind (21). Analogously, Trump’s America has woken an angry nationalism — a social movement that fosters distrust of international institutions while pursuing a markedly ‘America First’ agenda. Both movements are distrustful of foreigners and immigrants, and they call for a halt to rapid social change. Whether or not Trump can deliver on his campaign promises, the comparisons between real life and Asimov’s fictional universe are uncanny and even unsettling. For an explanation of why Trump was elected president, we need to look no further than Isaac Asimov’s writings. We may come away feeling no less scared and demoralized, but at least science fiction serves as a vehicle for understanding the social tensions that decided the election.