Comment on Michael Lissack’s defence of Donald Trump

In his Contributor article to Huffington Post, Why Trump’s Appointments May Be GreatMichael Lissack (Applied Philosopher of Science, Wall Street Whistleblower, Serial Entrepreneur, Professor of Design Innovation & Management) raises some important and interesting issues.

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The first is the way his case is argued.

It is an approach that is frequently used by people such as Malcolm Roberts the One Nation senator in the Australian Parliament.

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Roberts is a climate denier whose approach is always to shift the argument away from the substantive facts of climate change to slightly different and more contestable ground.

Roberts will always argue that climate change is a hoax because there is a conspiracy between NASA, the Chinese government, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (add to the list as you require) and that all the data for climate change is rigged. Consequently, any public discussion of Roberts’ views degenerates into a slanging match about conspiracy theories. The problem is that no one is ever going to win an argument with someone who believes that NASA has falsified climate data to exaggerate warming in the Arctic.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Michael Lissack is a climate sceptic. But, like Roberts, he shifts the ground when defending trump’s executive appointments.

The argument that the Trump executive appointments will break the traditional modes of thinking in Government may be right but it shifts the argument away from the more substantive and detailed argument about the impact of appointing a climate sceptic to senior environmental authority position, a life-long member of the NRA as Attorney General and a creationist to a senior Education portfolio.

The second issue is whether the new executive will bring entrenched and regressive attitudes to the new appointments rather than being agents for change. It’s one thing to argue that the US political  and economic system needs change. It is quite a different matter to mount the argument that a Trump-appointed executive will, per se, do this.

It is highly likely that the Trump appointments will bring their values attitudes and prejudices, their “habitus”, to their positions.

In his article, Michael Lissack argues, cogently in my opinion that “Those who populate that government (its employees and its many supplicants) have had decades to speak with one another, lobby with one another, and develop a common world-view. Those who frame the world differently are rejected. Policy differences are about goals and methods, but not about base underlying assumptions regarding the world.

The noted French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term “habitus” to describe the socialized norms or tendencies that 1) guide our behavior and thinking, 2) are either embodied in the environment or deeply embedded in our thought patterns, and 3) we take for granted as “given” when we attempt to make sense of the world.

Simple ideas are not probed for second and third order effects. Orwell called this groupthink. Cognitive scientists call it “bias.””

This bias arises, Lissack argues, because many of us suffer from what he would  term “black box thinking”.

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This is where people (critics of Donald Trump in particular) cease to be aware of the biases inherent in their thought processes (the black box) and become uncritically accepting of the conclusions they reach.

There is no doubt that this process afflicts all of us but the assumption in the article is that it is a particular affliction of people who have been entrenched in the bureaucratic system, have been the beneficiaries of government policies over extended period of time or who argued the case against Trump from a liberal or elitist perspective.

There is also no doubt of that many people find Donald Trump deeply repugnant and that this creates a profound bias against him. This makes it very difficult for people who have been offended by Trump’s rhetoric ( women, the disabled, Hispanics, Blacks, the Clintons to name a few) to give him a fair hearing or to consider any of the advantages of the changes he may bring.

But to argue that this should lead to an uncritical, or even enthusiastic, acclamation of the election of Donald Trump is fallacious.

The central point point of Lissack’s discussion is that:

“Trump wants to break that bias. We should all be grateful.”

The third issue is whether there will be general gratitude for the changes that the Trump administration will bring about

There is no doubt that Trump has made it clear that he wishes to change the way that things are done in Washington.”Draining the swamp” was his term for reform.

It is certainly true that over extended periods of time an orthodoxy creeps into government thinking, regardless of which party is in power and that in times of renewal it’s necessary to question and challenge that orthodoxy.

But the appointment of the the head of Exxon Mobil Corp, who has significant business dealings with one of the owners of the significant proportion of Russia’s oil reserves  (Vladimir Putin in case you’re wondering), as Secretary of State will certainly constitute a change to the way business is done in Washington. Whether it is a change for the better is profoundly debatable.

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It also appears clear that Trump is determined to change the way the US bureaucracy thinks about foreign policy.

He certainly made a significant, and possibly disastrous start, in his relationships with China and Taiwan. But this particular case illustrates the danger of initiating change to policies that have been well-established and relatively successful over many years.

What Trump has done with his telephone call to the President of Taiwan is antagonise America’s major trading partner, America’s major creditor ($1.305 trillion) and one of the great military superpowers.

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The Chinese response to Trump’s overtures to Taiwan is likely to be disproportionately severe and will certainly destabilise Chinese/US relations.

If the Trump administration is going to turn around more than 50 years of diplomatic policy in relation to Taiwan, then it would be reassuring to know that there a coherent argument supporting this.

Lissack  also argues that “much of the electorate who made Trump President already believes the government fails to step in and look out for them. They believe the government looks out for “others.” That belief says that government has to change.

By appointing people whose worldviews differ from the agencies they are to lead, Trump is restoring the tool of questioning to the role of leadership.”

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump speaks during the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

This may well be the case, but in appointing loyalists, hardline nationalists, former Goldman Sachs bankers, billionaire entrepreneurs, anti-Washington outsiders and military generals. He has also chosen mainstream Republicans fiercely critical of the Obama administration’s climate, healthcare and anti-business policies, there are worrying signs  that there will simply be a different set of vested interests installed in Washington.

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