Trumpism and Expertise

The conventional wisdom was that the Cold War ended when the Soviet Union fell and its satellite states became independent once again.

I think actually that the Cold War just ended right now in 2016. What is it that has ended? Basically an interstate system built to systematically offload volatility and risk onto Western Europe’s former colonies while reducing uncertainty and volatility in interstate relations within the core, whether that was within Europe, between the West and the East, or between the major economic hubs of the global system. In my own current research, I’m thinking about the way that interstate relations were ritualized and formalized to express this sort of predictability between the major Cold War powers and the new states of independent Africa. I recently heard a fantastic talk by the historian Nikhil Singh that added to my thinking on this point, in which he observed that another part of this infrastructure of relations involved assertions about global collaborations towards modernity and progress, that the new temporality of the world-system stressed the relative simultaneity of modernity between states and within states, that the developing world was only just “behind”, that systems of governance and management were all at once just now modernizing, rather than the indefinitely deferred maybe-someday modernity imagined by the architects of indirect rule in modern European empires.

That’s what is ending now, after a long sickly period of invalidism since 1992 or so. All over the world it’s ending. Some places never got to see that less-risk, less-uncertainty world, because they were always tagged as the sites where proxy war would happen or state failure would be tolerated. By the early 2000s, nowhere seemed to be the site of a managed, controlled form of methodical progress. But the elaborate protocols and hierarchies of the infrastructure of Cold War relationships, with their managerial certainties about the importance of expertise and experience, survived more or less intact past the fall of the Berlin Wall. The world that area studies was meant to service, a world where dominant states had to shepherd their flocks with well-trained men and women who spoke languages, knew histories and cultures, understood the particular protocols for each state, that’s the world that’s grinding to a halt. We are now fully in what Ziauddin Sardar calls a “post-normal” world, shaped by complex feedback loops of causality and outcomes that our traditional modes of management and expertise are ill-prepared to deal with or understand.


Do you actually need to be an expert to head an executive department of the United States government (or its counterparts)? It is plain that for the last three decades, you have not needed to be in the sense that a lack of direct expert knowledge of your area of responsibility would outright mean you would not be appointed or confirmed.

Have the executive departments of the United States government operated better when their top official is a well-trained subject specialist with direct prior experience in that area of administration? I’m not sure that this holds up either. In some cases, I think too much expertise for the Cabinet officer has been a problem, in fact: the policies that get put forward in that circumstance are sometimes too circumscribed, too technocratic, too narrowly conceptualized.

So where is the real domain of expertise? Two places, I think: the undersecretaries who do the real work of leading on particular policies and specific administration, and the “deep state” that executes the will of the appointees below the level of the Cabinet (who in turn are trying to follow the direction of the Cabinet appointees, the President, and to a lesser extent Congress).

I think it’s fair to say that the Administration now taking shape is showing an unprecedented degree of hostility towards the standard post-1945 relationship between expertise and executive administration in this respect. Many of the Cabinet and non-Cabinet heads proposed so far by Trump actively disdain their own department and argue that sources of information and policy insight are better found away from any system of authenticated or trained expertise, regardless of the ideological predisposition of said experts. Given the strength of this view so far, I think we can expect that Trump’s appointees will seek to have all their immediate subordinates align with this overall distaste for the standard markers and sources of expert knowledge.

The “deep state” is another matter. Not only are many civil servants legally protected and standard systems of appointment and seniority insulated from direct political control, many of them also do work where the expertise they possess is opaque to appointed-level authorities but also required by dense interlocking bodies of statute and regulation. Reaching into the worlds where visas are granted, borders are patrolled, inspections are conducted and so on is more than the work of four or eight years. I suspect much of this work, with the requisite expertise required to carry it out, will go significantly unperturbed unless or until it is subject to a strong and persistent directive from the top. (Say, for example, to massively restrict certain kinds of visas or to aggressively deport undocumented residents in new ways, and so on.)

So here’s the question: will an active hostility to expertise in the top three or four layers of executive authority produce bad outcomes at a novel and consistent scale in the coming years?

The answer, I think, is yes, but not all at once, and not as consistently as we might be inclined to presuppose. Let’s start with one of the first issues to arise out of Trump’s approach to government, namely, his disinterest in diplomatic protocols in calls to heads of state and in receiving his daily intelligence briefing. Here are two cases where he has announced as matter of policy that he will not be guided in the same way as past chief executives by expert advice. What will come of that?

Why, for example, does a head of state (or his immediate executive underlings) follow the advice of protocol experts and the diplomatic corps in speaking with counterparts? Three reasons, principally. First, as part of that Cold War system of reducing net uncertainty and risk, by making sure that no miscommunication of intent takes place. Second, as part of an overall system of standardization of communication that performs a certain kind of notional equality between states as a marker of progress towards global modernity. Third, as a persuasive strategy, wherein the rhetorical, cultural and political expertise of diplomatic staff allows the head of state to produce favored outcomes through a form of knowledge arbitrage or information asymmetry, wherein the most expertly informed leader most adroitly matches or confounds the agenda of his conversational partner.

1) On uncertainty and risk. Trump has already communicated his view that better deals are made by a negotiator who is unpredictable, and his general Cabinet seems to believe similarly that the United States should no longer be seen as a reliable, predictable partner with a persistent long-term agenda that favors shared interests and overall stability, but instead as a highly contingent actor who will seek maximum national advantage in all interactions, even if that destabilizes existing agreements and frameworks. He seems to believe this approach is best carried out with a minimum of prior expert knowledge, treating all negotiating partners as similarly pursuing maximum national advantage.

Is he right or wrong about expertise here? Well, first, this is not so much about expertise as it is about philosophy, ethics and morality. It’s a view of human life. But it is also about expertise: it’s a damn fool negotiator who spurns useful information about the person he’s bargaining with, and at least some of that information is not available to intuition, no matter how good the intuition might be. Trump reads the room intuitively in only three ways, though I’ll give him credit for some real skills in this respect: he knows what ramps or riles a crowd up and how to keep adjusting to changes in the crowd’s mood, he knows instinctively how to emasculate or frighten weak men like his primary rivals, and he knows how to bluster when he’s up against someone who isn’t going to back down. He is the equivalent of the poker player Phil Hellmuth. But that style can be beaten, and it can be beaten by someone with more information who also knows that the intuitive negotiator can’t turn his style off when necessary. (I suspect this is why a lot of Trump’s actual deals have been pretty bad for him in their specifics: he can be outplayed by someone who knows the specifics better and understands Trump’s personality well enough to play at him rather than be played. His supposed unpredictability is actually pretty predictable)

Trump may be right that the desire for stability and risk management, managed by conventional systems of academically-vetted expertise, has made the United States in particular a lumbering colossus that can be exploited, targeted, predicted, and manipulated. Much as I think academic disciplinarity in general often prefers predictability and incrementalism over idiosyncrasy and invention, despite much rhetoric to the contrary. But I suspect he will be wrong that expertise is of little importance to the negotiator, and I know that a more unpredictable and uncertain world is a more dangerous one by far. The plutocrats who make up a significant percentage of his Cabinet should be as scared of that as anyone else: “disruption” has a different meaning when there are no rules or limits on interstate relations and international institutions.

2) On the notional equality of states and the belief in progress. Experts were an important part of how we maintained both visions in the Cold War: the proposition that you had to recognize the equal-but-different character of each nation, its defining cultural practices, ways of thought, and so on, was the only equality that an unequal world could offer. Everybody got their own CIA Factbook listing, every country got its own briefing in the same format, every nation had its own scholarly literature. And every expert could produce an account–even a left-wing or dissenting account–of what progress in each notionally equal national unit might look like. Nations in this sense functioned as proxy individuals in a basically liberal framework; just as each individual was notionally entitled to have their distinctiveness recognized by psychologists, by teachers, by doctors, by civil servants, by colleagues, by law enforcement, so too was each nation attended to.

Do we need that? Well, there are other visions of progress, other possible worlds–and other discourses of equality and justice that do not rest on giving everyone their own seat at the United Nations. Some of those other visions require expertise, perhaps of a kind other than what most of the present infrastructure of expertise stands ready to supply.

The Trump Administration is not gearing up for an opposite vision of progress, however, but for its abandonment. Since the end of the Cold War, most leaders have become sheepish about progress-talk. It’s best saved for bland, vague ceremonial speeches or as part of an outraged denunciation of the enemies of progress, say, following a terrorist attack. The Trump Administration and its counterparts rising around the world aren’t interested in even that much, though I would expect a few muttered gestures of this sort at the usual times to persist.

Do we need progress and a system of notional equality between nations or societies? Hell yeah. Are experts important to it? Yes, but not as important as rethinking some of the vision underpinning progress, which experts have been strikingly bad at doing for the entire post-1945 era. Walt Rostow and his heirs, of varying ideologies, can go ahead and sit down and wait until the infrastructure gets rebuilt. The deep ideas and feelings that can sustain a vision of a better world need attention from ordinary people in their everyday lives, from philosophers and hermits, from novelists and dreamers, from tillers of the soil and computer programmers. What Trump is doing here is not first and foremost about a vulgarian assault on expertise, it’s far more fundamental and disastrous than that.

3) On the need for expertise to achieve known objectives and aims.

Here I think it’s unmistakeable: hostility to expertise is stupid. That’s not hypothetical. You did not have to be an expert on the Middle East to know that the American invasion of Iraq was a dumb idea: occupations are almost always dumb ideas, and the people who claimed otherwise in 2002 by citing the US occupation of Germany and Japan after World War II were obviously dumb and/or dishonest in making that point before we ever got to its lack of expert knowledge of history. But the Bush Administration made what was always going to be something of a mess into a catastrophe by insisting that people who had expert knowledge of the Middle East, about Iraq, or even about counterinsurgency, be kept out of the planning of the invasion and the occupation. They got played again and again by unreliable allies, they provoked and motivated Iraqi resistance largely through blundering and incompetence, they wasted both blood and treasure due to inexpert fecklessness.

There are innumerable examples like this in the last sixty years of international relations, and more in the larger swath of world history. It is true enough that expertise alone does not guarantee better outcomes. Left to their own devices, without common sense or wisdom, experts will do things that very nearly as catastrophic as what non-experts do. But the solution to the fallability of experts is not to rubbish them altogether.

Here I think it is safe to say: bad things are going to happen if the Trump Administration is as serious as it appears to be about doing without expert advice in international and domestic policy.


However, there is also this: experts of all kinds have some housecleaning to do in the wake of this election.

First, I’ll return to a point I’ve made many times on this blog. Professionals cannot claim that only they are capable of securing the quality of their services if they don’t actually self-police. Expertise lost some of its legitimacy as a force in public culture and governance through a long period of tolerance for ill-considered or badly supported guidance to policy makers and the public by some experts. I’m not talking here about research fraud, which I think we do well enough with given the difficulty of detecting it consistently, or about extremist outliers who provide patently unbalanced or unsupported advice, but instead the kind of mainstream social science and some natural science that makes overly strong claims about policy or action based on narrowly significant research findings, or is too constrained by over-specialization and so misses the forests for the trees. We have led a lot of people astray, or we have allowed poor-quality journalism or self-interested clients (like industries or particular ideologically-driven policy communities) to distort and misuse what we produce. We need to publish less and polish more, and to abandon narrow single-variable modes of explanation and intervention in dealing with genuinely complex problems. If we’re actually confident that expertise is necessary for governance and for institutional action more generally, then we should be thinking harder about how we make sure that what we deliver is of the highest quality (much as surgeons might generally see that they have a collective interest in preventing poorly-trained surgeons from killing or maiming patients). As much as possible, the dumb kind of cherrypicking favored by pundits like Ezra Klein or slick non-fiction writers like Malcolm Gladwell needs to be contested at every turn. If you buy expertise, we should force clients to buy the whole of it, and relentlessly challenge people who just cite the one thing from our work or guidance that they find flattering, sellable or instrumentally useful. We need to look at Philip Tetlock’s critique of expert political judgment and his accompanying analysis of “superforecasting” and take a lot of the diagnostic there to heart.

Second, in light of this, we have to see some portion of Trumpism’s vision of expertise as rooted in that history of exaggeration and misuse. And part of the problem is that our horrified reaction to Trumpism in turn at least can look like (and might actually be) another kind of “economic anxiety”, namely, a fear of losing one of our major markets for what we have trained to do, and thus a customer base of students looking to be trained similarly.

It would paradoxically help our shared reputation and perhaps rebuild public trust if we could acknowledge the degree of self-interest we have in the system operating as it has operated. Technocrats are as disliked as they are in part because they cast themselves as neutral arbiters who simply are providing information and knowledge without self-interest in either the service or the outcomes. The economies which support their work are frequently opaque even within insider circles, let alone to wider publics. Experts, whether they are pundits or staff members of large organizations or academics or public intellectuals, should have to disclose more clearly where they make their money, and how much the delivery of specific kinds of counsel or research outcomes to specific clients is required to get paid off.

Third, we should also be more confident in a sense that Trumpism is going to be a shitshow if it actually goes ahead and cuts expertise out of the loop as it is seeming to do thus far. I understand that it’s hard to watch bad things happen to our common, shared interests as a people and a world, but it is important in some sense that this horrific experiment be run without intervention. To whatever extent possible, real experts should withhold their guidance if the people now in charge show no respect for the entire idea of expert guidance, even if the consequences are serious, and document every case where the advice of experts was not sought or was superceded if provided. No one will thank us for confronting them with such an archive later on, any more than gravely ill patients welcome being scolded by a doctor who is exasperated by a patient’s systematic failure to follow medical advice, but this is precisely the kind of documentation we’re going to need in the future to re-establish the place of expertise in public life.

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