Do You Need A Plumber Or A President? The Importance of Domain Knowledge


In an election year littered with strange weeks, this one might have been the strangest. Last week Donald “The Blister” Trump squared off against “Typhoid” Hillary Clinton in their first head to head presidential debate. Social media users prepared for the event by pretending it would be both presidential and a debate. The latter was never a possibility, as only one of the two participants was endowed with the skill set required to debate matters of national interest. This likely sounds like a criticism of Trump or an endorsement of Clinton (or both), but it isn’t. Personalities, scandals, sexes, self tanners, and temperaments aside, what makes a Clinton-Trump match-up so lopsided is this: domain knowledge.

Domain knowledge is a pretty self explanatory phrase, at least if one’s domain is English, but for those in the cheap seats I’ll break it down. Most of us have an area of expertise. This is our “domain,” and we sound pretty damned smart when we talk about it. When we’re talking to someone with no knowledge of our domain, sometimes we conclude that person is stupid. Chances are he isn’t, though–he just knows a whole bunch about something else.

In other words, we want plumbers when our toilets are backed up and cardiovascular surgeons when our arteries are clogged. “Knowledgeable” is relative to the topic under consideration.

For example, my domain knowledge rests in the area of trivial nonsense. I know that the B-side of Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun” was the oddly titled “Put the Bone In,” and that Leather Tuscadero’s sister was in a band named Fanny. (Okay, technically Suzi Quatro’s sister. More trivial nonsense!) Neither of those facts qualifies me to unclog your toilet or your heart, nor do they make me a potential presidential candidate; however, my retention of trivial nonsense qualifies me as smart among music nerds.

Trump’s domains appear to be marketing, self promotion, and the accumulation of money. We who know that Jimi Hendrix played guitar for King Curtis might debate Trump’s ethics or even his success in those domains, but to my eye he who squats on golden toilets likely knows how to acquire wealth. We also can debate whether his domains possess any redeeming social value (does the world need more expensive trashy hotels?) while Donald brags about his real estate empire, but we all agree that when the golden toilet overflows someone whose domain knowledge is sorely undervalued gets a frantic phone call.

In every situation, we don’t need the “smartest” person, but rather the person who best understands how the machine in question works. It’s a simple concept that’s often overlooked in business, where top performers are promoted into management positions. In information technology, for example, this results in ace programmers no longer coding but rather negotiating budget cycles and contracts, battling with human resources departments, team building, and placating both clients and senior management. Programming is what is known as a “sole contributor” role that is dependent upon very specific domain knowledge; on the other hand, management is the antithesis of that. Many highly productive employees are “rewarded” with jobs that they are not qualified to do. They are thanked for their service by being set up for failure.

Domain knowledge is implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the Trump campaign’s message:”Our guy is a successful businessman; therefore, he’ll make a great president.” It’s a line that seems to be working, but it’s no more logical than assuming that a great programmer will make a great manager or that a heart surgeon can replace your sewer main because he “cleans pipes.”

Business is one important domain for a president to understand, but it isn’t the only domain. The modern president’s domain knowledge is less analogous to, say, a gold medal sprinter than to a decathlete who is good but not great at ten different track and field events. Arguably, a modern president’s most essential skill is the ability to surround him or herself with exceptional sole contributors–the best economist, the best military adviser, etc.–thereby building a collective domain knowledge far greater than any one person could possibly achieve.  Modern presidents are not sole contributors, but rather managers.

They are also diplomats. Whether dealing with foreign leaders, a reluctant congress, or a heartbroken community, the modern president must represent not just him or her self but the entire nation. There is no cabinet to fall back on when the commander-in-chief steps to the podium. Behind the scenes the modern presidency might be a team effort, but on its face it’s a “buck stops here” enterprise.

This perhaps is the domain that angers citizens most when presidential failure is perceived: “The world is falling down and he’s walking around a golf course.” “I can’t believe he bowed.” “Did he really just work Rosie O’Donnell and Howard Stern into a presidential debate?” One of the most glaring examples of the last forty years was President Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech, which was broadly criticized for blaming the American people for the state of the nation. Whether he was right is beside the point: Carter was perceived as a weak leader for shifting blame. In some historians’ estimation, that misstep cost him the 1980 election.

Not everyone agrees that the modern presidency requires a diplomatic decathlete. Some are single issue voters, convinced that whatever touches their particular domain (jobs, immigration, the mysterious disappearance of Chuck Woolery) is all that matters. Others might agree that “diplomatic decathlete” is indeed the shape of the modern presidency while simultaneously arguing that this is the wrong shape. These individuals insist that those who understand the machinery of politics are the problem, and the solution is to elect outsiders to do the job. Maybe they’re right, but it’s more likely (as we’ve seen with the Tea Party revolution in congress) that hiring a master gardener to unclog a golden toilet leads to a Persian rug covered with turds.

Regardless, the general if unspoken perception is that a good president is an intellectual decathlete capable of fielding questions from many domains in a diplomatic manner proportional to the gravity of the office. This is what the one-on-one debate format attempts to reveal, and this is why the Trump-Clinton televised wrasslin’ spectacular was never a debate in the conventional sense. Trump demonstrated that he had no grasp of the issues, that he couldn’t carry himself diplomatically, and that contrary to his shouts indicating otherwise he does not possess the temperament required for the job.

Disliking either candidate is irrelevant for purposes of this conversation. What matters is that Clinton possesses the domain knowledge necessary to fulfill the role of a modern president while Trump does not. He may be an exceptional sole contributor who is capable of building his brand and filling his coffers, but those skills are not transferable to the modern presidency. He is not stupid–he is politically stupid. Likewise, Clinton is not stupid but rather “building a real estate empire” stupid. Domain knowledge matters. Surprisingly, many conservative newspapers agreed with this assessment after the pseudo-debate, some breaking with century-old streaks of endorsing Republicans to throw their weight behind Clinton. A few even endorsed Gary “Aleppo” Johnson.

But what’s not surprising is how many voters claim to still support Trump regardless of whether he demonstrates the necessary knowledge to get the job done. Their detractors malign them as fools, sexists, racists, and xenophobes, but I suspect in the majority of cases a different malignancy is to blame: party loyalty.

I am a member of a political party for one reason. Back in the early 1400’s when I first registered to vote, one couldn’t vote in the primaries without a party affiliation. That may still be true for all I know; regardless, over the course of my voting life as a registered political party member, I have voted for Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, Independents, men, women, blacks, Latinos, Asians, young candidates, and elderly candidates. I might have even voted for a cactus once. The only question I’ve ever considered is which candidate seemed best suited for the job. I remain unburdened of party loyalty.

Admittedly, in national elections I’ve consistently voted Democrat, but even that’s a function of my assessment of who possessed the appropriate domain knowledge. The sole exception to this is 2004, when I voted for “Anybody But Bush,” which leads to another point: With exception to 2004, I never worried that the other nominee would do significant damage to either the office or the nation. Bob Dole would’ve done fine, as would Mitt Romney. Even McCain sans Palin would’ve been an adequate decathlete-in-chief. I’ll even admit that in retrospect my ’88 vote for Dukakis should have gone to Bush senior.

The 2016 election is unprecedented in modern times. At least in the post-World War II era, Trump is the first major party presidential candidate who is demonstrably unqualified for the job, and yet he still maintains voter support. Much like the recent congress explicitly stating that their mission is to obstruct the sitting president, Trump support this late in the game exposes the power of party loyalty over national loyalty. I suspect that this always has and always will be true, but the level of political incompetence that Trump has demonstrated throws the issue into sharp relief.

Here’s the thing: If you want to hire a plumber to perform your bypass surgery, have at it. It’s your life–end it however you want. But when it comes to unclogging the national toilet, please consider that the rest of us don’t want to spend the next four years stepping around your turds. Come November, please remember that domain knowledge matters.


Categories: op-ed

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.