Dilbert creator Scott Adams, author of the new book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter, joined SiriusXM hosts Joel Pollak and Rebecca Mansour on Breitbart News Sunday to talk about President Trump’s skill at gaining and holding the attention of the public.
Adams explained how he became one of the few prominent observers of the 2016 election to predict Donald Trump’s victory, based on his analysis of Trump’s persuasion techniques.
“I have a background that includes being a trained hypnotist. I’ve been studying persuasion in all its many forms for decades. Candidate Trump, he sort of pinged my radar early on because he started using some of the techniques of persuasion that a lot of people wouldn’t recognize if they don’t study this stuff. But I had, and so I kept seeing almost pitch-perfect persuasion choices: everything from his logo, to the red hats, to the imagery he used, to his nicknames for his opponents,” Adams recalled.
“A lot of that stuff looked to the untrained as being just a random crazy guy who had no shame, but indeed almost every one of his choices were just perfect in terms of persuasion technique. That’s what I saw,” he said.
Adams said some others who have attempted to adopt Trump’s techniques, such as Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), have adequately imitated the “how do you get attention part,” which is the crucial first step in persuasion, because “if people are listening to you, they’re not listening to other people’s messages, and repetition itself is persuasive.”
“So he gets that part right,” he said of Lieu. “I haven’t studied his technique, but I haven’t seen anything in it that told me he’s using real persuasion technique. I think he just knows how to get attention so far.”
Adams said Trump’s attention-getting techniques, most recently including a tweet that dubbed Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) “Senator Jeff Flake(y),” have a tendency to become “almost immediately viral.”
“They stick in your head. They usually have some kind of a physical reminder, or there’s something that the person is going to do that will reinforce it. So any time Jeff Flake does something that’s, let’s say conflicts with the party, people are going to say, ‘Well, that’s a little flakey.’ That’s one of the signs that Trump is doing the engineering of these things right is that you’ll be reminded of them all the time,” he said.
Adams said Trump’s demolition of then-front-running Republican candidate Jeb Bush by dubbing him “Low-Energy Jeb” was his labeling masterpiece since it also played up the contrast between Bush and Trump’s own high-energy approach.
“The moment he’s painted his opponent as ‘low-energy,’ it was such a primal – you could almost respond to it on a biological level. It’s like, yeah, you don’t want a leader that’s kinda droopy,” he chuckled. “And then you knew that any time you saw Jeb in the future, that frame would just haunt him. You’d say, yeah, that is a little low-energy, the way he said that. That one was probably his best work.”
Adams said another element of Trump’s victory was the growing perception of Hillary Clinton’s physical frailty, despite constant efforts by her campaign to downplay evidence that she was ill.
“I had predicted nine months before she collapsed that by the end Trump would be, quote, ‘running unopposed’ because of this health problem,” he recalled. “Now, I didn’t know what the health problem was. It just seemed to be that it looked kind of serious. When she collapsed on 9/11, that’s as close as you can get to a spooky correct prediction, especially when Donna Brazile later confirmed they were actually thinking of replacing her at that late date, in part because of her health issues. That was crazy.”
“I think when people see their leader doing something that’s just physically weak, you can use all the rationalization in the world – say well, this is temporary and well, everybody gets sick, and well, they’re a certain age – and all of that’s true, but still on some deep irrational level, you think to yourself, ‘if my tribe gets attacked by a pride of lions, do I want the strong one of the weak one up there?’ I think that did make some difference towards the end,” he reflected.
Pollak asked how Adams would recommend using the tools of persuasion in the toughest of current political contests, Judge Roy Moore’s Senate race in Alabama, which was derailed by allegations of inappropriate conduct with young girls when Moore was in his thirties.
“Well, I don’t think there’s any way that Roy Moore can win,” Adams said frankly. “It seems to me that the ending is already written for this. The real question is, how do you lose as gracefully as possible with the least amount of blowback for the rest of your life?”
“Maybe his best strategy is what he’s doing, which is denying and just going forward. He’ll be able to blame the other side for creating these, what he will call ‘fake allegations,’ but I don’t think the public is having any of it. I think the public, or at least enough of the public to affect the election, has already decided that he’s guilty with the evidence that they’ve seen,” he predicted.
Adams agreed with Pollak’s prognosis for the 2018 election that “it’s starting to shape up as a Republican massacre.”
“The two forces I see that are the big ones are, even the people who are Republicans may want a little bit of check on the president’s power,” Adams speculated. “I think the people saw that Congress, even when it was a Republican Congress, the fact that it was even close, that it was just a bare majority in the Senate, that was enough to keep President Trump from getting what he wanted. I think people actually like the gridlock model, especially when there’s a strong president, so I think some people will be voting for gridlock, which you would not necessarily get in every election, at least not to this extent.”
The other great force Adams perceived to be at work in the 2018 election is the women’s vote. Despite her shortcomings, he credited Hillary Clinton with “breaking the glass ceiling” by running for president and inspiring a sense that “it’s just the right thing to do to populate the bench and make it more of a fair fight next time” by voting more women into Congress.
Pollak asked what might happen if a deeper Democratic bench produces a candidate far more adept at persuasion than Clinton to run against Trump in 2020, prompting Adams to issue a prediction of Democratic victory that disappoints Trump voters in his audience.
“I’m getting ready to demolish my fan base pretty soon,” Adams replied with a laugh. “I’ve got some things coming up that are going to make people really unhappy. The only thing I can promise everybody, both the people who like anything I’m doing at the moment or hate it, I’m past the point in my life where I need to do it for myself. Really I’m only going to do things that I think are going to have some net benefit to the country, the greater good. So you’re going to see me jumping the fence back and forth a few times – and yes, I would expect that the net effect of that would be to make me completely unemployable by the time we’re done with all that.”
Mansour asked if Adams had any tips for dealing with political arguments around the Thanksgiving dinner table in these contentious times.
“Well, I’ll give you a few tricks. I’ll put some context on this: I probably lost 75 percent of my friends over just politics, so my problems are much less than other people. I have fewer people to run into now,” Adams replied humorously.
“Here’s what I would do: The first thing I’d do is, of course, bring a copy of my book to give to your crazy uncle who just desperately needs it,” he continued. “I would try to keep the conversation to questions, not statements. The ones that get you in trouble are, ‘My candidate did this great thing.’ That’s trouble. But if somebody makes some comments about your candidate, you could say, ‘Well, what would be your top priorities for example, if you were in charge of the country? What would be, say, your top five priorities?’”
“Now, most people are going to say, ‘Well, you know, the economy, and ISIS, and terrorism, and jobs.’ It turns out that those are all the things that Trump is doing well,” he continued.
“One of the top five things that he’s doing poorly on is race relations. I think you need to give the other side that one, and just say, ‘Okay, he is doing terrible on race relations.’ Now, I think he can turn that around, but at the moment that’s a weak spot. So I would first say you need to go into your family gathering acknowledging that this is not a perfect situation. You might like the net of it, but there are some holes, and there are some things that are really good points,” he said.
“Make it more of a question, less of a statement, acknowledge that there are some holes. I would actually encourage people to listen to the other side,” Adams advised.
“And here’s my best advice: you could probably win a lot of money on Thanksgiving because almost nobody knows the real facts, and if you run into someone who’s only reading one side of the media – either they’re getting their news all from the left or even all from the right – you can win some serious bets on facts. Those people don’t know the facts. But if somebody is actually sampling both sides, don’t take a bet with that person,” he said.
Pollak asked what Adams thought of President Trump’s active presence on Twitter, where he is often criticized for commenting too quickly or in an unpresidential manner on breaking events, or engaging in personal squabbles with other media and political figures.
“President Trump has merged theater with politics in a way that we’ll probably never see again,” Adams responded. “One of the things I predicted long ago is that as obnoxious and scary and chaotic as he seems, over time people get used to almost anything.”
He mentioned Trump’s current Twitter feud with sports personality LeVar Ball, deemed ungrateful by Trump for the president’s efforts to get his son out of Chinese prison. In one of his tweets, Trump mused that maybe he should have left Ball’s son and the other basketball players incarcerated for shoplifting in jail.
“Here’s the thing: if you had heard that even, let’s say, six months ago, it would have seemed a lot worse to you,” Adams pointed out. “But he’s sort of taken us on this ride where at first people weren’t sure: was he crazy, was he just reckless, why was he tweeting like this? But we knew that it was funny a lot of the time. Now he’s kind of, I would say he’s opened the hood and let us look underneath, and it’s obvious that it was always meant to be humorous, and effective at the same time as theater. This one really drives that home, because there’s nobody that says, ‘Okay, the president was really going to leave three Americans in jail because of some insult or something.’ Nobody thinks that’s serious. But a few months ago, they would have. That’s a big, big difference. I predicted we would get here if we waited long enough.”
“One of the things I predicted when I first started writing about him and seeing that he was going to, as I said, ‘rip a hole in the universe so that we could look through to sort of a deeper understanding of the human condition,’ if you will – if you had asked anybody, if you had said two years ago, could somebody tell five untruths in public a day and become president, I think everybody would have said, ‘Of course not, that’s ridiculous.’ But we watched it. Could anybody tweet the way he’s tweeting from the presidency, or even running for president, and still get elected? Almost everybody would have said, ‘No way, there’s no way people are going to put up with that nonsense,’” Adams contended.
“He’s made almost every rule that we thought was a real rule, he’s shown that it isn’t, and that you can actually sort of craft your own reality if you have enough of a will, and you get enough of people’s attention, and you’ve got enough skill to do it. I mean, he’s destroyed two dynasties, the Bushes and the Clintons. He’s changed politics forever. He’s making a huge impact with the executive orders and the courts and everything else. He probably will be one of the most consequential presidents of all time when he’s done,” he predicted.
“It’s still going to look like a surprise to some people, but he really came with all the firepower and all the tools,” said Adams. “They just weren’t the ones that people are accustomed to seeing. That’s why it was a little bit invisible to the untrained, I’d say.”
Pollak brought up a conversation he had with Adams where he said Trump voters would feel motivated to re-elect him in 2020 to validate the decision they made in 2016 and reaffirm the importance of the issues, but Adams said he wasn’t certain Trump would run for re-election.
“I’m expecting that he’ll have an unexpectedly successful four years, meaning that he’s going to get a lot done that at least Republicans wanted to get done, and given his age, and given his expertise with branding, it seems to me there’s a really good chance that he would want to go out on top,” Adams elaborated.
“If he has a strong four years, the economy is looking good, the last thing you want to do is be still president during four years when something really unlucky happens because it always does,” he added. “There’s always an economic downturn that nobody saw coming, there’s a war that nobody saw coming, a terrorist act that nobody saw coming. If he has a really good four years, he’s probably going to say, ‘I’m not going to gamble with my health’ – because at a certain age those concerns are much bigger, especially mental health. He might want to go out on top. That would be the ‘branding’ thing to do, and it would be kind of spectacular in its own way.”
“Now, arguing against that, he’s one of the most competitive people that we’ve ever seen. If he has something to prove, if he’s not done, if there’s just something he needs to make a point about, he might stay in there. I think he would be almost impossible to beat for a second term,” Adams predicted.
He added that Republican primary challengers would have difficulty contrasting themselves against President Trump in a way that captures the attention of voters.
“It’s like President Trump is Technicolor times ten. Put him in the White House and what’s already big and impossible to look away about him just gets even bigger. I can’t even imagine somebody standing on the podium next to him. It’s like they would have no energy at all. They would just disappear on stage at this point. It would be a terrible contrast problem to try to solve,” he explained.
Looking at potential Democrat challengers who might be able to generate enough star power to overcome that contrast problem, Adams predicted that actor George Clooney would be “dragged down” by the Hollywood sexual harassment crisis, but added that “he has all of the master persuader skills.”
“He’s got the charisma, he’s got the phrasing, the wording. He’s got the visual language. He’s got the full package. So if he wanted to, and he were not a Hollywood product, he could really make a dent. But the Hollywood thing is going to hold him back,” Adams said.
“Mark Cuban is interesting,” he continued. “I think he said he was interested in running as a Republican. I hope that was a clever thing to say so that Republicans will think fondly of him, should he decide to run as a Democrat, because then people would say, ‘Well, he’s practically a Republican, not really a Democrat, he’s just running because it’s easier over there.’”
“He’s what I call a ‘learning machine’ – meaning that if you said, ‘Is he ready right now?’ I’d say ‘Absolutely not.’ If you said, ‘Would he be ready in three years?’ I’d say, ‘Get out of the way,’ because he probably will be, if he wants to be. There’s probably nothing that he can’t master between now and the next election that would be important. I think he’ll have the full arsenal by the time he gets there,” Adams said of Cuban.
Adams made a concluding observation that Donald Trump is exceptionally good at speaking like the people he is “most interested in getting to vote for him.”
“It’s brutally effective. Early on in the race, people were saying, ‘He’s talking like a sixth-grader! How could we have a president with a sixth-grade vocabulary?’ I was saying right away, ‘Oh, man, you’re totally missing this story,’” he recalled.
“By the way, all of the people who have my same training – the linguists, the cognitive scientists – they’ll tell you the same thing. His simple, repetitive language is easy to quote, it’s viral, it’s easy to understand. People just eat it up. That was one of his biggest strengths, which the people who missed everything for two years imagined would be one of his biggest weaknesses,” said Adams.