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mike robinsonRigour, noun: the quality of being extremely thorough, exhaustive, or accurate. As in, “His analysis is lacking rigour.” Synonyms: meticulousness, thoroughness.

If there’s one quality we have a right to expect from the most powerful person in the world, I would argue that it’s rigour. When your decisions have the daily power of life or death over species (from say monarch butterflies to homo sapiens); when your every tweet is followed by 41 million people; when your behaviour affects the mental health of sentient beings, you have a duty of rigour.

I have no problem analyzing this quality in people whose rigour is predictable in terms of training and practice. Take former U.S. president Barack Obama for instance: a conscientious student in grade school; a top performer in undergraduate studies; Harvard law – indeed, the editor of the Harvard Law Review in his final year. His preparation for high public service follows predictable norms: community organizing, professorial teaching, state and U.S. Senate electoral successes. His marriage is just that – one marriage to a strong woman who reflects his sense of duty and honour to societal norms of love, family and service. His daughters are a reflection of their parents’ values, and are no doubt burdened by their achievements in careers and education – but arguably burdened in a good way.

Obama’s analysis of public policy questions reflects his legal training, and predilection for the Harvard case study method for breaking down complex problems into their constituent parts: facts, issues and resolutions. A clear understanding of the facts enables a ranked listing of issues, and thereby a corresponding array of potential resolutions. This is deductive logic at work in the presidential realm.

So what of the rigour of President Donald Trump? To start with, he studied business as an undergraduate after attending an elite preparatory school. He didn’t attend graduate school. Unlike the majority (25 of 45) of U.S. presidents, he did not attend law school. He has uniquely chosen to regularly advise us of his high IQ and his great marks as a student.

Arguably (and notably at 71) he is a bull for work of his choosing. He reputedly sleeps four hours a night, tweets in the early a.m., watches a great deal of television during the work day and has a very short attention span. He regularly plays golf but doesn’t work out at a gym. He has been married three times and maintains a close association through his family business with his children. It would be fair to assume that they’re also burdened by their father’s success. Prior to running for the U.S. presidency, Trump had no record of public service.

Trump’s analysis of public policy questions arguably reflects his business experience. However, it’s very difficult to discern just what method of analysis he applies with any regularity. Facts are not well marshalled or indeed always understood, given a close analysis of his commentary on the American healthcare debate, the Mexican immigration problems, the Iranian nuclear deal framework, the North Korean missile debacle, the Paris climate agreement or the North American Free Trade Agreement.

This complex array of issues appears in Trump’s analysis to exist for resolution without the need for fact mastery. In their place are broad assumptions of certainty about ideal resolutions. These seem simply to pre-exist, and to originate not in a close reading of relevant literature or analytic debate, but as matters of faith. They are perhaps intuitively obvious to him in the absence of conscious reasoning.

Thus we get: “Repeal Obamacare,” “Build the wall,” “Decertify Iran,” “Totally destroy North Korea,” “We’re getting out,” and “Worst trade deal ever.”

It would be interesting to know if Trump’s long experience of deal-making has imparted a relict wisdom of rigour? Could it be at 71 he draws on an innate ability to reason that works in the absence of understanding the factual base of problems?

Does the Harvard case study method produce better decisions, because of its rigour, given Trump’s evident desire to overturn, negate or repeal all of Obama’s legislative and policy achievements?

Given the magnitude of Trump’s efforts to deny the American people the benefits of fact-based analysis and rigour, it would seem important that he explain how he reaches his conclusions in their absence.

Given that he’s so smart, it should be a small matter for him to book some time for this lecture. The world awaits.

Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.

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