By Wil Forbis
So here we are. Donald Trump is the President of the United States.
Let that roll off the tongue for a bit. Try out a few phrases. “Who is the President? Why it’s Donald Trump.” “I wonder what President Trump will have for breakfast?” “It will interesting to see what President Trump says in his State of the Union.” “President Trump.” President TRUMP!” “PRESIDENT TRUMP!!!”
No matter what your political persuasion I think you will agree: this doesn’t feel quite real.
Let’s further acknowledge that no one saw this coming. When the talking heads and academics looked at the 13 or so Republican contenders a year ago, it’s fair to presume that Trump was at the bottom of their list. And how often did the media predict a Trump implosion when this or that controversy swept his campaign? What about the polls that almost never showed Trump with a lead?
No one saw it coming.
Except one guy did. Scott Adams, creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip, predicted a Trump victory. And he did it back in 2015.
If you’ve read my writing on Adams’ Trump predictions you know the spiel. If you don’t, I will recount it here. Adams is a trained hypnotist who argues that Trump is a “master persuader”---a seducer so skilled he can flip people’s subconscious switches and change their behavior. Adams alleges Trump used a variety of techniques during the election cycle, including…
Does this all sound crazy to you? Impossible? Yeah, it did to me as well. On some level it still does. But who just got elected President?
Corollary to all this is Adams assertion that we humans are “moist robots”---we have no free will. We can be programmed to see the world in a certain way and, once programmed, we grab onto any evidence that supports our worldview and dismiss any that runs counter to it.
When one examines the literature on sales techniques*, one sees that many of Trump’s tools are quite common. Salesmen (and con men) understand that it’s overtures to people’s guts, not brains, that moves products. We all understand that the attractive person in the car advertisement still won’t sleep with us if we buy the vehicle. We all understand that $1.99 cents is basically no different from two dollars. And yet these techniques (and even more subversive ones) are common practice.** It’s not news that we are not purely rational creatures.
* Robert Cialdini’s classic book “Influence” is all about these kinds of sales tools. Adams, during the campaign, alleged that Cialdini was working for Hillary Clinton in an effort to fight Trump’s master persuasion. I hope she got her money back.
** Keep in mind that these kinds of sales techniques don’t need to work all the time or on everyone. Just enough to sell enough product, or get a majority of votes. (Well, majority of Electoral College votes.)
Was Adams right?
Now that the election is over, we can examine Adam’s track record. He certainly got the big one right: Trump is President. For those who have already acclimated to this new universe let me remind you how impossible that idea sounded just nine months ago. Adams bet his reputation on a crazy prediction and it came to pass.
On some of the details, however, Adams was off. He predicted a “Trump landslide” and what we have is far from that. But, as Adams himself would say, nobody pays attention to the details.
It should also be pointed out that Adams changed his prediction several times during the election season. There were a few points when Clinton was doing particularly well and Adams said something like, “If nothing else changes, Hillary will win.” Nonetheless, for most of the campaign, Adams was loudly predicting a Trump victory.
Of course, Trump’s election doesn't prove Adams was right. As they say, a stopped clock is right twice a day. It could be that Adams's master persuasion thesis is entirely wrong and Trump won for other reasons.
Maybe Trump simply won on the issues. I’ve spent some time over the election cycle examining the topics of illegal immigration and trade deals and I’ve come to the conclusion that open immigration and free trade has hurt segments of the middle and lower class. (See support for these views here (on immigration) and here (on trade).) Trump opposed “open” policies on these issues (as did another upstart candidate, Bernie Sanders) and maybe this simply resonated with enough people to win the election. (I’m far from convinced that Trump has any solution to the problems created by open borders and trade, nor has he addressed what I think will be the real job killer of the future: robots and A.I.)
Nonetheless, many are now commenting that what made Trump successful was his mastery of the emotional appeal. Consider this CNN article that lauds Trump’s “ability to provoke and elicit emphatic, emotional reactions to his every utterance.” Adams’s theory is making its way into the mainstream.
I will say that there is one assertion from Adams I still find dubious: that Trump was masterfully in control of the whole process and his various tantrums and meltdowns were staged or at least in some way controlled. As many have observed, Trump seems particularly thin-skinned and I suspect this trait almost cost him the election.
(I will offer a counterpoint to this, however. This New Yorker piece on Trump’s ghost writer (who is now firmly anti-Trump) states that, “Trump would flatter, bully, and occasionally get mad, but always in a calculated way.”)
So was Adams right? I’m going to say, “mostly.” He certainly got the big-ticket item correct, and he did it early on.
And I think Adams is right on the point that certain kinds of reality are malleable. Physical reality may be unchangeable (though even that can be debated) but “social reality” and “political reality”---the realities created out of the gazillions of human interaction in the world---are ever changing. Trump, I think Adams would say, created a new political reality via masterful powers of persuasion. People who saw Trump as a joke, who did not see how he was changing the rules of the game (I fell into this category) got played*.
* This article from left-wing Alternet offers a good description of the bursting of the Democrats’ political reality. Money quote: “Trump’s victory was a rude awakening for Democrats who have become all too complacent within the Washington power structure, and who mistakenly assumed that changing demographics, identity politics and sheer celebrity would be enough to stop the right-wing populism of Trump. Trump didn’t win the election because of a Republican insurgency; he won because of a Democratic collapse.”
This might all seem cynical and depressing but I think there’s something fascinating here. When we admit that we only see what we want, we start to understand some of the baffling behavior of those around us. And we can start to eliminate our own biases and cognitive dissonances. (Completely removing them is probably impossible but “shoot for the moon” and all that rot.) I find myself constantly applying Adams ideas to my own behavior and the observations are illuminating.
Interestingly, rapper (and possible Presidential candidate) Kanye West said something very similar in a recent onstage rant.
“If your old ass keeps following old models, your ass is going to get Hillary Clintoned. You might not like it, but you need to hear it.”
A final note: None of this should be construed to say that I don’t have serious concerns about Trump's election. As said in my first blog post of the election season ), “I’m almost certain a Trump presidency would bring about the destruction of humanity (and probably the earth, possibly the galaxy).” Additionally, I think global warming is a real issue and his take on the subject (despite a recent softening) is troubling. But I think tackling the big problems facing humanity requires a clear view and Adams’ ideas offer important insights.