Just when a consensus—including certain Republican and cabinet officials—is emerging that electing Donald Trump was a big mistake, a new book shows up to tell us how to make more mistakes like it. It’s from the creator of Dilbert and his crew of corporate miscreants and details how one won the 2016 presidential election. But Scott Adams’ Win Bigly is more than that; it’s sort of a Machiavelli for Dummies meets Fortunetelling for Dummies. It purports to demonstrate how readers can forecast outcomes, as he did of the 2016 election (emphasis his):
On August 13,2015, I predicted that Donald Trump had a 98 percent chance of winning the presidency based on his persuasion skills.
He proceeds to explain the way he came to that conclusion, including the number, and—Sad—how he suffered personally for having done that. Although, he asserts, Blogging and tweeting of The Donald’s inevitability cost him street cred, new licensing deals and speaking engagements, and half his friends, he stuck to his guns.
Except, that is, in mid-October 2016 after the Access Hollywood groping videos, when he briefly endorsed Libertarian Gary Johnson for two weeks. Then, when he sensed the scandal would bring more wind than rain, he re-endorsed Trump. For all anybody knows, Adams says, his renewed support may have helped carry Trump to victory. And oh, back in June he briefly switched allegiance to Hillary Clinton, explaining to his followers that his support of Trump had led some of her supporters to intimidate him in unspecified ways. Love the pragmatism.
Like the homunculus Dilbert, Adams prides himself on his common sense ability to survive and thrive under surreal circumstances, such as the 2016 election provided in bigly quantities. Where others saw in Trump an unhinged madman or horrible monster, Adams saw a “master persuader” at work who knew exactly what he was doing. (Spoiler: this is the incessant central trope of the 277-page book.)
We get to know more than we ever wanted to know about Scott, thanks to wearisome narrator intrusions and quotes from his blog. Some of these revelations are entertaining, others befuddling. He claims, for instance, to possess no psychic powers, but here and there proudly describes a fair number of events and situations that he foresaw with crystal clarity. Sadly, he doesn’t let us in on his divination techniques. The book is one long and winding ego trip that carefully balances its mea culpas with braggadocio and self-justification. Here he is rejecting charges that by lauding Trump he was acting as “Hitler’s Little Helper:”
In Trump I saw a highly capable yet flawed man trying to make a positive difference. And I saw all of his opponent’s fears as the product of heavy-handed political persuasion. No one becomes Hitler at age seventy. We would have seen a lot of warning signs during his decades of public life.
Adams dissociates himself from both Trump’s and Clinton’s policy stances, self-identifying as an “Ultraliberal” who doesn’t vote. He aligned with Trump, he says, because he was the best political persuader ever who was “punching a hole in the universe” that almost nobody could see at the time but would soon enough. It became a game for him to bait liberals by predicting Trump had a 98% chance (an arbitrary meaningless statistic he chose simply because Nate Silver was then giving Trump a 2% chance) of winning. Of course, both Adams and Silver were right; as long as there was some possibility that Trump would win, the number didn’t matter.
Nobody can directly perceive reality, Professor Adams explains. All our perceptions are warped by mental filters that come from indoctrination by parents, religions, schools, media, and yes drugs, of which Adams admits to having liberally partaken and which may have something to do with the punching-a-hole-in-the-universe metaphor. We are, he insists, desire-driven emotional beings who breezily rearrange our perceptions to conform to our filters, all the while believing we’re being rational. And the bigger the issue or decision at hand is, the less likely we will judge rationally. I can buy that. Still, I don’t buy most of what’s marketed to me, so am I being irrational? Maybe there’s hope for me yet.
And I am nearly persuaded that we live in “a world where facts don’t matter” (from the book’s subtitle), in which all news is fake and all facts are alternative. But unlike Adams, I don’t believe this is only the case because humans are irrational and gullible (which they often are). It is, of course, because they have been misled by master persuaders over many decades. Facts certainly matter when influential people hide them from the public to avoid revealing what they’re up to as, for example, the CIA has been doing ever since its inception by systematically infiltrating the ranks of opinion leaders. No wonder our lenses are foggy.
I’m not channeling Alex Jones here. His conspiratorial distortions of reality mirror the neoliberal media’s, separated by holes in the universe that officialdom bored to hide itself from scrutiny. There are conspiracies, but not because “they” are out to get “us.” “They,” aren’t the Illuminati, Masons, or a Jewish cabal. “They” are and always have been the ruling class, and they aim to keep it that way, as my recent article on Harvard and CIA explores.
Anyway, back to Trump, whom Adams tell us sculpts facts (not unlike Ronnie Reagan did) to overstate his points, knowing that by challenging his words opponents will only enlarge their media footprints. That tactic may work as advertised, but what I don’t buy is Adams’ implication that (except for how persuasive they are) all distortions of reality are created equal and that the best we can do is to choose filters that will make us happy and better able to predict the future. (Adams can’t get over the rush he got when his prediction came true and wants everyone to use his crystal ball.)
In order to help us become happier and more predictive, Adams details principles and techniques of persuasion that will help us get ahead in the world. (He’s a “trained hypnotist,” but discourages readers from using mesmerism to build their brand.) Starting from the assumption that “human brains are moist computers that can be reprogrammed if you know where the user interface is” (a.k.a. the “moist robot filter”), he develops his “persuasion filter” concept. In a nutshell, we moist robots are only 10% rational beings, “when our feelings turn on, our sense of reason shuts off.” To persuade people, even of things that aren’t true, appeal to emotion. Don’t bother with debate; it’s not a matter of convincing them. They are yours to reprogram by flipping their mental bits after you’ve gotten their attention. The new reality you instill in them will obediently be rationalized into their worldview along with an imprint of your brand.
Win Bigly should be shelved under Business, not Politics. While the dynamics of the 2016 campaign is its main exempli grata, Adams frames his arguments and advice as self-help, claiming his tactics of persuasion have broad application in business and social intercourse. I’m sure that’s true. Some he highlights are “linguistic kill shot,” “getting away with bad behavior,” “the high-ground maneuver,” and “look for tells.” It’s all delivered with such Dilbertian dispassion that the book might just as well be called “Office Politics for Sociopaths.”
Adams seems uninterested in moral issues. He never discusses whether some ploy in the service of one’s brand is the right thing to do, just its efficacy. He would have endorsed Clinton had he found her messaging game superior—or Bernie for that matter. It’s good of him to let us in on his secrets and deeply held beliefs, but please Scott, What are politics for? What are we trying to do here? If it’s all about winning as bigly as possible, then we’re doomed. He would probably reply yes, we are doomed, but we don’t know that because no master persuader has come along to plant that in our minds.
The road to Hell is paved with self-interested instrumentalities.
Reviewed: advance copy of Scott Adams, Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World where Fact’s Don’t Matter. Portfolio/Penguin, 2017. Goes on sale October 31, 2017.
A version of this post is published in CounterPunch.