Scott Adams, the Donald Trump of Punditry
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:
…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:
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.
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.
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..!
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.
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.