In any other era Chris Liddell's appointment to deputy chief of staff of the White House would have been greeted with a chorus of congratulations from New Zealand business, the media and the wider public.

The silence has been deafening.

New Zealanders who might otherwise have proudly trumpeted another great Kiwi success story are feeling bemused and conflicted about Liddell's rise through the ranks of Donald Trump's administration.

I don't think anyone in New Zealand business wants to condemn Liddell, even those of us who are highly critical of the Trump regime.


Liddell is extremely well regarded and business people tend to respect the rights of individual make decision for personal reasons.

Liddell is smart, charismatic and someone who has always come across as thoughtful, ethical and interested in making the world a better place.

He's an active philanthropist both here and in the US.

His achievements as a Kiwi on the corporate stage are unparalleled.

As chief financial officer of General Motors he oversaw the biggest public share float in history – raising more than US$23 billion.

He was also Bill Gates' right-hand man for several years as CFO of Microsoft.

This is a kid from Mt Albert Grammar. His is a wonderful story of an ordinary Kiwi lifting himself up to take on the world.

So what on earth is he doing with Donald Trump?


There is the "voice of reason" argument.

Some have suggested that Liddell is working to soften Trump's edges, to moderate his behaviour.

But this implies a belief that without moderation Trump is an inherently negative force in the world.

I very much doubt Liddell would work for him if he believed that. The idea that Trump can actually be moderated in this way also seems less plausible with every White House staffer that gets sent down the road.

Liddell began his involvement in US politics working for Mitt Romney, a Republican candidate with some extremely conservative views.

But the Romney campaign fitted within the traditional framework of US politics. He was, for example, respectful of the gravity of foreign policy.

As a presidential candidate, Romney believed in globalisation, free-trade and the neo-liberal idea that business can ultimately improve anyone's lot in life if people are given the freedom to pursue it.

You could disagree with him completely and still respect him. He also had class. He was a gentleman.

The current President sends midnight tweets WRITTEN IN CAPITALS.

He thought it was funny to make a phallic joke about having a bigger red button than Kim Jong-un.

He calls the New York Times and Washington Post fake news.

He's embroiled in a sex scandal with a porn star.

He thinks a trade war is a good thing – that you win.

He commended Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte on his shoot-to-kill policy for drug dealers and congratulated Chinese President Xi Jinping on changing the constitution to abolish term limits – joking that it might be something for the US to explore.

I really don't need to go on, you can pick your own favourite examples.

One can only imagine the triumphant embrace Liddell would have received from New Zealanders had he been appointed to a similar role in Barack Obama's administration.

Obama – as evidenced by his friendship with John Key and the excitement around his visit this week – had an appeal that transcended the Left/Right divide in this country.

The widespread disillusionment with Trump's presidency also transcends that divide.

Trump appears to be making up his own rules and whether he gets away with that is anyone's guess.

All of which makes Liddell's role in this harder to reconcile.

Does he see some greater good that isn't yet evident? Because nothing in Liddell's personal history suggests an alignment of worldview with Donald Trump.

New Zealand does still have a "tall poppy" syndrome but it's one that the business community, in particular, has worked hard to reject.

Sometimes New Zealanders outgrow the small Pacific island they grew up in and those of us who stick around could do a better job of understanding that.

But Liddell's rise has left us staring awkwardly at our shoes.

It's not hard to see how his managerial talents would be valuable to the White House.

It's just hard to see why he would want to be there.