President Trump, misperceptions and leadership

At this point, the international community is still trying to assess the nature of President Trump’s administration.

January 30, 2017 21:24
3 minute read.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP with Vice President Mike Pence, after signing an executive order banning immi

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP with Vice President Mike Pence, after signing an executive order banning immigrants from seven countries for 90 days from entering the United States. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The eyes of the world are now upon US President Donald J. Trump.

“The hopes and prayers of liberty- loving people everywhere march with you,” as Dwight Eisenhower wrote in Order of the Day for the soldiers who were about to embark for D-day. Conversely, Trump is about to embark upon his great endeavor, our own endeavor, and people are marching – but not with him.

At this point, the international community is still trying to assess the nature of President Trump’s administration.

If things seem obvious to American citizens who voted for making America great again, they are not quite as obvious to Trump’s opponents, both inside and outside the US. They are on the streets right now, protesting and marching, mainly because of President Trump’s personality and the rhetoric he used on the campaign trail.

Any elected president brings with him to the office a set of values and beliefs.

These will influence his policy, however it is impossible beforehand to determine exactly how. This is because a president’s decisions are not made in a vacuum but are influenced by the environment – international, domestic and/ or bureaucratic. The real challenge starts when the values and perceptions a leader has are not compatible with the information he or she has about a situation.

This internal conflict, called cognitive dissonance, can harm the decision making process by forcing a leader to adjust his beliefs to the information that stands in front of him and vice versa; to adjust the information according to his beliefs.

Robert Jervis, in his book Perception and Misperception in International Politics, defines a manual for policy makers that helps to identify and avoid the kind of misperceptions caused by cognitive dissonance. He explains that we tend to ignore information that does not fit with our beliefs; we twist it so it confirms, or at least does not contradict and deny its validity. Furthermore, “we tend to believe that countries we like do things we like, support goals we favor, and oppose countries we oppose.” This consistency, irrational as it is, contributes to the tendency of people to maintain their beliefs even when they are no longer appropriate.

Former president Barack Obama characterized President Trump as pragmatic.

Obama’s wishful thinking that President Trump will be pragmatic like Obama is might be true. But the question we need to ask is if Trump’s pragmatism drives more from emotions or from rational reasoning. What makes a leader great is the ability to find the golden path, the middle ground between emotionality and rationality. It is a widespread consensus that Trump is the opposite of Obama, and if Obama’s pragmatism derives from idealism and rational reasoning, it seems that what drives President Trump is materialism and gut feelings, or in other words – emotions.

Both President Trump and president Obama are on opposite edges of the scale between emotional and rational.

That is mostly a recipe for an internal conflict. Such conflict that can lead to misperceptions.

We cannot ignore President Trump’s personality, his actions and blunt rhetoric that hurts minorities and leads to an increase in antisemitism. Nevertheless, if we think that we can predict how President Trump will act, we are wrong.

The set of values he brings to the White House will be under constant criticism and his policy making process will have to adjust to the checks and balances that the domestic and international environment has. Let us hope that his decision making process will not derive from misperceptions.

Let us hope that he will find the golden path to make America great again according to the values of freedom, equality and democracy, and by that make the world a safe place for all of us.

I plead with President Trump: do not ignore the voices of the people, do not twist them so they will fit your beliefs.

Listen to them, particularly to the voices of those who did not vote for you, all of them are liberty-loving people who are marching right now. “March” with them.

The ability to listen and seek the golden path is what makes great leaders and that is what will make America great again.

The author is a fellow at the Israel Leadership Institute in Sderot. He is currently working as director of recruitment and admissions for international graduate programs at the University of Haifa. He was a member of the Education and Jewish Identity Committee at the CJP’s Boston-Haifa Connection and former co-chairman of the CJP’s Haifa Young Leadership Committee.

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