The writer is a US-based author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Home Free: An American Road Trip, among other books.

Kim Jong-un, Supreme leader of North Korea (left) U.S. President Donald Trump (right)

Nixon went to China in 1973 and was forced to resign from the U.S. presidency the following year. It looks as though Trump is going to have what’s being touted as a historic meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, so we can hope a similar fate might befall him. The sooner the better, though; I’d prefer not to have to wait until next year. A year is a very long time these days.

But seriously, do you want to know what to think about this North Korea thing? So do I. Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, was widely quoted as having this to say: “Kim is not inviting Trump so that he can surrender North Korea’s weapons. Kim is inviting Trump to demonstrate that his investment in nuclear and missile capabilities has forced the United States to treat him as an equal.” And the venerable journalist James Fallows recommends Lewis’s comments thus on Twitter: “Excellent summary of the self-inflicted damage of [Trump’s] latest impulsive gesture. The aim of DPRK [North Korean] drive through past decades has been to get US to recognise it as equal, legitimate power. And US leader now obliges.”

Tariffs on steel and aluminum
Meanwhile, Trump’s insistence on unilaterally raising tariffs on steel and aluminum raises the prospect of an every-country-for-itself “trade war” – these have led in the past to actual wars – and compounds the sense that one already had of a continued rapid unraveling of the world as we once knew it. What exactly is going on, and where are we headed? Should I take my lead from, say, the insufferably high-minded and self-assured liberal mandarin Paul Krugman? Sniffs Krugman in his New York Times column: “There’s near-universal consensus among both economists and business leaders that Donald Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum are a bad idea, and that the wider trade war those tariffs could trigger would be very destructive.” If only, he sighs, the masses would listen to the experts – like me, Paul Krugman – rather than allowing themselves to be led by the nose by That Man! But the problem is that, horrible as Trump is, it was precisely the liberal-centrist technocratic elite exemplified by figures like Krugman and, yes, Hillary Clinton that led America to the cliff it jumped off when it elected Trump.

One of the biggest problems with Trump is that he’s a “yuge” distraction from what’s really going on. During the same week all that stuff about tariffs and North Korea was happening I found myself weirdly fascinated to watch a video of a robot that has been developed specifically to flip hamburgers on a grill, complete with heat sensors to help it detect the optimal moment to flip each individual burger. What’s truly alarming about that is that burger-flipping has long been the quintessential unskilled American job: if a given suburban teenager or poorly educated adult can’t do anything else, at least he or she can flip burgers at a fast food joint. But now, that task is being taken over by robots. In the looming future, no doubt the robot will also ask the hungry consumer the classic question: “Would you like fries with that?”

Which brings to mind the title of a book by the prophetic American author Wendell Berry: What Are People For? Apparently, people now are only for buying and eating burgers, no longer for flipping them. Kind of like how cows are for eating grass, the better to be turned into burgers. But where are the soon-to-be-unemployed human former burger-flippers going to get the money to buy the burgers? No one has the answer, but the question is appallingly urgent. My father – who, not coincidentally, turned me on to Wendell Berry’s writing many years ago – had this to say: “The ultimate implication, of course, is that human beings are dispensable. We don’t need them. We just need enough to keep the robots going and to fuel the capitalistic economy.”

Urgently relevant to all this is the historic nine-day strike by teachers in the famously poor state of West Virginia, which ended victoriously with a 5 percent pay raise for all public employees in the state. The strike carried loud echoes – mostly unremarked-on – of the equally historic occupation of the state capitol building by teachers and other state workers in my home state of Wisconsin during the freezing winter of 2011. (I was in Islamabad, by the way, when I first read online about the events in Wisconsin. I was traveling around Pakistan to see for myself communities affected by the severe flooding of the summer of 2010. One thing I’ve learned over many years as an international journalist is that, as soon as you focus your attention somewhere, something is bound to happen somewhere else.) The Wisconsin episode now seems remote because of all that has happened since – notably including the election of Trump – but it really was not very long ago. And one thing Wisconsin and West Virginia have in common is that both have strong – if now vestigial – traditions of trade unionism. Well might we wonder what that portends for the future of America as a whole?

Writing in The Guardian, Ross Barkan calls West Virginia “a revolt that may just signal the actual, much-deserved revenge of the working class.” But West Virginia is not only a labor story, but also the latest battle in the decades-long American civil war over public education. The two go hand in hand, in the sense that teachers need to make a decent living, if children are going to be taught. But taught what, how, and for what purposes? As in Pakistan, how and even whether children are educated is arguably the most important sociopolitical issue, with massive implications for the society as a whole. “All the Democrats running for president in 2020 should not only be standing with the teachers of West Virginia but traveling down there themselves to show solidarity,” argues Barkan. “This is the fight that matters.”