by Alex Knepper
Anyone who has subjected himself to the stream of brain-droppings of pundits and their peanut galleries on social media has undoubtedly crossed paths with some intrepid soul heralding the Gospel of Scott Adams. Mr. Adams, the creator of the witty comic strip Dilbert, has cultivated a cadre of disciples breathlessly proclaiming that he not only predicted the rise of Trump, but has unlocked the psychological secrets behind Trump’s masterly art of persuasion. According to Mr. Adams, Trump is, whether by nature or study, privy to a host of so-subtle-only-a-fellow-master-can-detect-it techniques in rhetoric, body language, and more. He is playing four-dimensional chess while Hillary is playing checkers. More than this: a Trump landslide is likely impending, owing to a reserve of ‘shy Trump voters‘ who are charmed by the man but won’t admit it to pollsters — hell, maybe not even to themselves.
One obvious retort to this argument is that it is curious that a master of persuasion would find himself as the least-popular presidential nominee in American history — less popular than a woman Adams regularly suggests is a lying, dying, weak, weird, probably-criminal, uniquely unlikable representation of everything bad about ye olde Status Quo.
Adams’ disciples will usually brook no criticism of their guru owing to their false belief that nobody predicted the results of the Republican primary with the same degree of accuracy. Well, I did:
* Before the voting started, I declared that Trump has put Reaganism on death-watch and that the rank-and-file Republican voter is far less devoted to conservative ideology than the DC-NYC set believes.
* After Marco Rubio’s strong third-place showing in Iowa and the betting markets pegged him as the likely nominee, I called him overrated, said the edge is still with Trump…
* After Trump’s strong first-place showing in New Hampshire and Rubio’s humiliating fifth-place finish, I said that the race was “effectively over,” that Rubio blew his opportunity, and that Ted Cruz would meet the same electoral fate as Rick Santorum
* After Rubio’s strong second-place showing in South Carolina and Bush’s withdrawal, I said Rubio’s standing in the race is an illusion…and reiterated that Cruz has no path to the nomination…
* After Super Tuesday, I called Trump’s triumph ‘staggering‘ and pointed out that he was building a non-traditional North-South coalition…
…so let’s move on to the dissection of Mr. Adams’ work.
I should note that we cannot discount the possibility that Adams is a masterly troll enacting an election-long social experiment to see how many suckers he can reel in by imitating Trump’s communication methods. Dilbert itself is a clue to this: it’s strange to imagine Adams, who famously skewers corporate culture and capitalist excesses, would see a kindred spirit in Trump. But perhaps the comic is rooted in a sense of cynicism rather than irony; perhaps Adams truly believes the grandiose liars, shameless manipulators, and propagandists really do run the show in America, and wants to show off that knowledge.
At any rate, the essence of his appeal is that he performs the role of elections-analysis guru, projecting extraordinary confidence in his highly general predictions with the flimsiest of evidence: armchair ‘psychologizing’ is the most common trope in his quiver of pseudo-analysis, but he also employs convoluted marketing propaganda to convince his readers that up is down and black is white. When a birther-related controversy popped up for Trump last year, Mr. Adams argued that his juvenile rebuttals — a series of tweets — were in fact making use of a brilliant marketing technique called ‘thinking past the sale,’ in which Trump throws so much shit at the wall that something is bound to stick — something is bound to burrow in your mind and subtly move your perceptions of Trump as a possible president one or two tics closer to the zone of acceptability. The fact that this ‘opportunity’ took place in the context of bizarre incompetence, lies, and genuine racism is apparently irrelevant; all is subordinated to the ‘wizard’-like principles of marketing.
Adams virtually never tells Trump supporters anything other than what they want to hear — but with his ‘guru’ cap on, he intimates not only that what his readers want to hear is the truth about the election (though he cynically hedges his bets by declaring that he’s not, strictly speaking, a truth-teller — whatever), but that they are actually special people for hearing that truth. He doesn’t state this directly: the seduction has to retain at least a gloss of subtlety for the one being seduced. But it is simply impossible to interact with his fans on social media and not perceive that this is the effect he has on his loyalists. The logical extension is that the guru has the most truth of all, and anyone who was also right about what the guru was right about could have only been right because their reasoning so happened to overlap with that of the guru.
Of course, it could be that what we see is what we get. It could be that Mr. Adams is a true-blue Trumpian charlatan who truly thinks he’s an elections-analysis guru. In this case, his work is best read as unconscious autobiography. For instance, when he makes a claim like “Trump is a master persuader,” we should instead read this as: “Trump is a master at persuading me, Scott Adams.” If he says “There are lots of Shy Trump Voters,” all it means is “I, Scott Adams, am a Shy Trump Voter.” In this interpretation, Mr. Adams recognizes a fellow charlatan-entrepreneur in Trump and is convinced that being a bullshit artist always pays off when it comes to wealth, prestige, and power. Adams fundamentally agrees with P.T. Barnum and H.L. Mencken that there is a sucker born every minute and that no one has ever gone broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American people. Basically, then, Adams is just rooting for one of his own.
Let us now examine at his piece about the first presidential debate:
Clinton won on points. She had more command of the details and the cleaner answers. Trump did a lot of interrupting and he was defensive. If this were a college debate competition, Clinton would be declared the winner. I call that victory on the 2D chess board. But voters don’t care about facts and debating style. They care about how they feel. So let’s talk about that.
Adams strongly implies here that he has special insights into what we could call voter psychology. He provides not a shred of empirical or theoretical evidence for this — just an emphatic tone (“Believe me!”). He also props up a false dichotomy — that the question before us is either about facts and style, or else feeling — rather than being about a mixture of many factors. He takes the dichotomy he made up as obviously accurate and simply moves on.
For starters, Trump and Clinton both seemed “presidential” enough. That mattered more for Trump. We haven’t seen him off the teleprompter lately. So Trump passed that test by being sufficiently serious.
Says who? According to what? Not the opinion polls. But, alas — we cannot interpret the polls without the help of the guru, since the guru knows something special about the polls; therefore, no appeal to evidence to the contrary will do, since other analysts lack the guru’s unique interpretive methods.
Clinton looked (to my eyes) as if she was drugged, tired, sick, or generally unhealthy, even though she was mentally alert and spoke well. But her eyes were telling a different story. She had the look of someone whose doctors had engineered 90 minutes of alertness for her just for the event. If she continues with a light campaign schedule, you should assume my observation is valid, and she wasn’t at 100%.
Adams can ‘just tell’ — based on his private reading of what her eyes looked like — and if Clinton’s campaign schedule continues as it is (which is likely!), we must assume his irresponsible and empty speculations are true because — because — well, because we just should..!
Clinton’s smile seemed forced, artificial, and frankly creepy. I’m already hearing on Twitter that mentioning a woman’s smile is sexist. I understand the point. But when someone goes full Joker-face and tests the uncanny valley hypothesis at the same time, that’s a bit different from telling a woman to “smile more.” My neighbor Kristina hypothesized that Botox was making her smile look unnatural. Science tells us that when a person’s mouth smiles, but their eyes don’t match the smile, they look disingenuous if not creepy. Botox on your crow’s feet lines around your eyes can give that effect. But whatever the reason, something looked off to me.
Here, Adams puts a fig-leaf over his completely arbitrary and childishly nasty insult by appealing to a ‘hypothesis.’ The specifics of the hypothesis are irrelevant; what’s important is that he is able to appeal to one at all. A gross insult becomes somehow legitimate if the guru can attach a ‘hypothesis’ to it. It gives his insults the gloss of Science.
By tomorrow, no one will remember what either of them said during the debate. But we will remember how they made us feel.
Clinton won the debate last night. And while she was doing it, Trump won the election. He had one thing to accomplish – being less scary – and he did it.
Really? No one will remember what they said? No one will remember what Trump said about his birther crusade, his tax returns, Rosie O’Donnell, his failure to pay contractors, or his obnoxious interruptions? Really? I suppose one mustn’t doubt Mr. Adams…
I cannot say with any certainty whether Adams is not pulling one over on us. But there are throngs of intelligent and thoughtful people who take his writings at face-value. Most of them are Trump supporters enjoying rallying around a writer who keeps the faith alive that their candidate knows what he’s doing and will ultimately prevail. They do not perceive themselves that way: they perceive themselves as having access to the special insights of a master analyst of a master of persuasion. This is clearly not true — again: Trump is profoundly unpopular, and Adams’ reliance on pop-psychology and marketing rhetoric is impossible to take seriously once it’s perceived for what it is. But whatever is at the bottom of things, Adams’ act makes him the Donald Trump of punditry — a transparently phony con artist who relies on forcefulness, repetition, sleight-of-hand tricks, and marketing gimmicks rather than depth of insight. He saw Trump coming — but he was not the only one. Whatever he has said that’s right is better expressed elsewhere, and what he gets wrong he gets horribly wrong. His wager that many people cannot tell the difference between his act and the real deal is, alas, at least to some degree, true.