Andrew Yang gets why Donald Trump won. He won't be president but he deserves attention.

No, seriously. Stop laughing, at least for a couple of minutes.

I know, I know: Andrew Yang is not going to be the Democratic nominee for president in 2020.

He knows that, too.

Yang somehow made the cut to participate in last week's third Democratic debate, clearing the fundraising and polling thresholds the party established in an effort to winnow its presidential field. But he did little to convince viewers who remained alert throughout that three-hour marathon that he will be a factor in the primaries to come.

So I'm not writing this to suggest that the political oddsmakers should be taking Yang's dark-horse candidacy more seriously, or that Yang would be getting more respect if the average Democratic voter were as farsighted as he is.

Automating away millions of jobs

I simply want to acknowledge that he is the only candidate talking about an issue that seems likely to loom larger in presidential campaigns to come, and suggest that critics who scoff at his signature proposal for a universal basic income may feel compelled to examine it more closely in the decade ahead — especially if Yang's forecast of an artificial intelligence-induced tsunami of unemployment proves prescient.

I find Yang's candidacy interesting not because of his unusual résumé, which includes no prior political experience, but because he has offered what might be the simplest and most useful explanation of how Donald Trump came to be president.

The conventional wisdom, as Yang summarizes it, is that Trump's ascent was the perfect storm spawned by the convergence of racism, Russian cyber-kibitzing and hostility toward Hillary Clinton.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang at the Democratic debate in Houston on Sept. 12, 2019.
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang at the Democratic debate in Houston on Sept. 12, 2019.

His own explanation is simpler.

"I'm a numbers guy," Yang said in a recent broadcast of The New York Times' "The Daily" podcast, "and the numbers tell a very clear and distinct story that the reason why he's our president is that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in your home state of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, Michigan — all the swing states you needed to win."

An unemployment crisis is coming

As Yang sees it, that dramatic decline in manufacturing jobs represents only the prelude to a coming unemployment crisis that will leave tens of millions of Americans working in a much broader swath of industries without jobs by the end of the next decade.

My son, a hardworking entrepreneur with only a marginal interest in politics but a keen eye for the zeitgeist, likes to warn me that America's next bloody revolution will come when autonomous vehicles begin supplanting the nation's 3.5 million truck drivers, whose livelihood is the most common occupation in more than half of the 50 states.

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Yang agrees. "The replacement of drivers will be one of the most dramatic, visible battlegrounds between automation and the human worker," he writes in a recent essay for the Evonomics website. "Companies can eliminate the jobs of call center workers, retail clerks, fast-food workers and the like with minimal violence and fuss. Truck drivers will be different."

If you know anything at all about Yang's quixotic candidacy, it's probably that he proposes to address that crisis by using the proceeds of a value-added tax on corporate profits to bankroll a $1,000-a-month "freedom-dividend" for every American adult.

Freedom dividend and harnessing love

The freedom dividend — Yang concedes that he adopted that descriptor because it went down easier with voters than its predecessor "universal basic income payments" — is being taken about as seriously as fellow dark-horse Marianne Williamson's proposal to "harness love" in her campaign to bring about a spiritual transformation of American government.

Yang has used his own money to underwrite monthly stipends for a small number of recipients in an effort to test his theories that such payments provide an economic stimulus for the larger community. I admire that initiative, but many dismissed his Thursday night pledge to expand the test (to 10 lucky families chosen at random) as a stunt, or even a violation of election law.

Even so, the plague of unemployment Yang forecasts is a little more concrete than the "dark psychic force" Williamson seeks to dispel, and it's easy to imagine voters giving his proposal a second look in an America where lawyers and teachers as well as truck drivers and grocery store cashiers are being sidelined en masse by automation.

2020 isn't the only important election coming

Many Democrats, independent voters and disillusioned Republicans see 2020 as the decisive election year in which Americans will either reject Trump and everything he represents once and for all, or condemn us to a permanent state of corruption.

But, barring a repudiation of constitutional law and political precedent even more audacious than even Trump probably dares to imagine, there will be presidential elections in 2024 and 2028.

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Yang deserves our attention because he is focusing on issues — artificial intelligence, automation and their ever-more-profound impact on employment — that will likely become central to the lives of more and more Americans in the decade ahead, whether or not voters hold Trump to one term.

The more accurate Yang's unemployment forecasts prove, the harder it will be for his detractors to keep laughing.

Brian Dickerson is the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press, where this column first appeared. Follow him on Twitter: @BRIANDDICKERSON

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Democrats should listen to Andrew Yang on Trump, jobs and automation