26 Aug 2016

Unfortunately Scott Adams Isn’t Even Keeping Up With His Own Schtick

Politics 10 Comments

I follow several bloggers with whom I disagree (sometimes strongly). Indeed it is a virtue if they have different conclusions, because perhaps my own view is wrong. But what makes me start losing interest is when these bloggers aren’t even internally consistent.

For example, back on June 28 Scott Adams (the Dilbert creator who has gained new fame for his analysis of Trump’s success) made it crystal clear that the Hillary Clinton camp had finally hit upon the right way to attack Trump:

While the Clinton campaign itself has been notably weak with its persuasion game, the folks on her side have been viciously effective at branding Trump a crazy racist.

Nothing else in this election matters.

Viewed through the Master Persuader filter, the facts of this election don’t matter because facts are not persuasive. The lies don’t matter. The flip-flopping doesn’t matter. Trump’s command of the issues don’t matter. Trump’s insults don’t matter. Policies don’t matter. Trump University doesn’t matter. Even charges of sexism are not enough to derail him.

The persuasion kill shot against Trump is the accusation that Trump is a crazy racist. When you combine crazy and racist, you have a lethal persuasion cocktail. And that’s what the Clinton side has done.

The folks on social media tested lots of accusations against Trump until they found traction with the “crazy racist” theme in all its forms. And Clinton’s campaign team wisely amplified it.

Remember when social media was saying Trump wasn’t serious about running, or that he was a clown, or he was doing it for the money? Those accusations didn’t get traction, and Trump swept them away with his continued success.

But the accusations kept coming, one after another, until the combo of crazy and racist bubbled to the top, as measured by social media virality. The Clinton campaign recognized the crazy racist theme as the best approach and started hammering on it through a variety of “fear Trump” message. Fear works when facts do not. And “crazy racist” is totally scary. And totally working. You can test it for yourself by asking any anti-Trumper to list the top three reasons for disliking Trump. Some form of “crazy racist” will normally come out on top. Persuasion-wise, every other reason is just noise.

Now at the time, I cut Adams some slack–even though I thought it was a bit silly–for this analysis, because he was stressing the combination. I mean, people had been denouncing Trump as a racist since his infamous Mexican rapist remarks. So it would have been ridiculous for Adams, in June 2016, to say, “Ah, Team Clinton has finally started closing the persuasion gap, by hitting on the clever idea of calling Trump a racist. Good thing they have ‘Godzilla’ advising her, who would’ve thought to call the Republican a racist? Excellent brainstorm coming from the annals of hypnotism.”

I hope you all see what I mean. (Incidentally, in other recent posts Adams keeps saying what a brilliant idea this ‘Godzilla’ advisor has had, by stoking voter fears that Trump can’t be trusted with nuclear weapons. Uh, is the idea that this Godzilla knows about arguably the most famous U.S. political ad of all time?)

So anyway, given that the only way I could give myself permission to keep taking Adams seriously was that he stressing the combination of crazy and racist in the “persuasion battle,” you can imagine my surprise when I read the following in his August 25 post:

Clinton will still say stuff about policies, and Trump will still do plenty of insulting. But overall, Clinton has embraced the full-Godzilla approach in which persuasion matters more than truth. Trump is doing something more like the opposite, including prepping for upcoming debates (even if he says he is not), and talking more about policy. He needs to do those things to prop up his brand to “presidential” level.

I heard Clinton call in to CNN last night and preview her new Trump-is-racist persuasion, and I have to say it was strong. Strong enough to win, unless Trump finds a way to counter it.

The Clinton persuasion method will involve dramatic and repeated shouting of racist claims against Trump. Examples:




Trump supporters will try to explain-away each bit of “evidence,” but will fail because of the sheer volume of them, and the limits on TV time. The facts will not matter. What matters is how often voters hear Trump’s name associated with one terrible accusation after another. That’s Godzilla’s persuasion advice, I assume.

See what I mean? He isn’t even bothering to include the “crazy” thing anymore. Now it’s just: “Wow, this Godzilla has finally gotten Team Clinton to call Trump a racist. Man that guy’s good.”

Last thing which pushed me over the edge: The reason Adams is so sure that Team Clinton has begun taking advice from “Godzilla” is that their strategy vis-a-vis Trump turned on a dime, right after Sanders dropped out. According to Breitbart:

Adams told Breitbart News that he believes that Cialdini may have sat out the Democratic Party primary — or perhaps worked for Sen. Bernie Sanders — then joined the Clinton effort once it became clear she would be the party’s nominee.

While Trump had been more effective at using persuasion techniques, he said, “the Clinton persuasion game went from non-existent, which I reported on for months, to solid-gold, weapons-grade, almost instantly, as soon as Bernie Sanders dropped out.”

Sanders had been outperforming expectations, and Clinton had been underperforming expectations. “Wherever you see somebody exceed expectations by that much, either they are a persuader, like Trump is, or they have somebody helping them,” Adams concluded.

That stopped, as soon as Sanders yielded to Clinton.

Adams explained: “Clinton stopped talking about her boring policies, and details, and her experience, and she went to pure persuasion. She went to the bigger scare,” which was the image of Donald Trump with his finger on the nuclear button.

The result, he said, was a lift in her poll numbers, and the ongoing slump in Donald Trump’s performance.

It would be “surprising,” he said, if Cialdini, or one of his students, weren’t helping Clinton, given his past involvement in the Obama campaign.

“His fingerprints are all over this.”

But is the above really a sign that a new advisor came on board right after Sanders dropped out? Or, is the more straightforward explanation that Team Hillary first had to knock out Sanders–which required a certain approach to appeal to idealistic and (sometimes) wonkish progressives–and then turn attention to Trump for the general?

Also, note in the above excerpt that (at least if the paraphrase is correct) Adams wasn’t even talking about “crazy racist,” instead he was saying more generally that Team Clinton was trying to use fear and the nuclear button approach.

In summary, I’ll still read Adams’ blog, which is unique and entertaining, but I’ve stopped humoring the possibility that he has a brilliant system of campaign analysis that most other pundits are missing.

10 Responses to “Unfortunately Scott Adams Isn’t Even Keeping Up With His Own Schtick”

  1. Andrew Keen says:

    I agree with your summary. I thought it was pretty impressive that he accurately predicted that Trump would win the primary back when everyone else was questioning whether he was even serious about running. But since the primaries have ended, he’s hedged so much on his original positions that it’s becoming hard to take him seriously.

    His most common theme lately seems to be, “Hillary is on track to win, unless something changes, and things change a lot.” That’s a lot less interesting than when he was analyzing persuasion in terms of identity vs. definition and explaining how candidates were using techniques like “thinking past the sale” to win votes.

    I wonder if his turning off his comments section has hindered his creative criticism feedback loop. I get why he did it: the comments were being overrun by trolls. But I feel like he got a lot of writing ideas from the comments back before the trolls took over.

  2. Gene Callahan says:

    The issue was not whether ANYONE was calling Trump a racist in summer 2015. The issue is when the Clinton campaign turned to that as there main campaign theme.

  3. Craw says:

    The claim that Trump is a racist, or more importantly that Trump supporters are racists, has been there from the beginning. This same accusation would be made if Martin Luther King Jr were running as a Republican.


  4. E. Harding says:

    I don’t get Bob’s point in this post. Scott Adams is generally (~80%) correct. Bob Murphy is generally ~40% correct.

    • Andrew_FL says:

      E. Harding is generally ~50% correct.

  5. Tel says:

    Dilbert was funny because he pointed out the things that everyone knew were broken, but the people who wanted to keep their job didn’t talk about it, or they just muttered quietly over a drink after work.

    It wasn’t some deep and ground breaking work of philosophy, it was the boy who couldn’t see the Emperor’s clothes.

    I rather suspect that Scott Adams believes there is something a lot deeper to it than that.

  6. darfferrara says:

    I think that Adams doesn’t worry about being consistent because it isn’t necessary for being persuasive. That makes it tricky to understand him when he is making truth claims.

    I do think that he is interesting and learning persuasion is something libertarians don’t do nearly well enough.

  7. Rory says:

    I also find Adam’s commentary interesting – or at least novel – but this has frustrated me too. It’s one thing to modify predictions based on unanticipated developments, it seems quite another to be deliberately obtuse so as to evade criticism. Some examples just off the top of my head:

    1) Scott made a prediction about Trump running the table in the primaries, but then when Trump loses Iowa (or perhaps it was Colorado) suddenly it is the most obvious thing in the world that the polls would be rigged.

    “As I often say, wherever you have large stakes, an opportunity for wrong-doing, and a small risk of getting caught, wrong-doing happens. That’s a universal law of human awfulness. When humans CAN cheat, they do. Or at least enough of them do.” (http://blog.dilbert.com/post/138925920596/new-hampshire-election-fraud-prediction)

    Often enough that it didn’t come up prior to Iowa, I guess. Apparently this ironclad law of rigging elections was not relevant in an analysis of political primaries before Trump’s loss in Iowa. But then it was brought up in reference to New Hampshire, which Trump then won (if memory serves).

    2) Scott has long predicted modifications of Trump’s behavior (http://blog.dilbert.com/post/146042196361/wheres-that-trump-third-act) and has also referenced Trump saving the best of his attacks for when they would have the most effect (see the Bonus Thought here http://blog.dilbert.com/post/146605145036/persuasion-update-clinton-vs-trump). However, NONE of this sort of thinking is applied to Clinton. In other words, Scott has long factored in to his prediction a Trump “turn”, strengthening Trump’s position in his rhetoric against Clinton. But despite it being so clear that Trump will improve his political stature, Clinton was assumed to continue at her primary pace and tone throughout the generals. Of course, this discrepancy manifests itself afterwards as “oh well if things change then predictions should update, like for example if Clinton also saves her best game for after the primaries as I have predicted for Trump”(???). Scott is also pretty sure that Cialdini is working for Clinton now, and makes sure to note that he knows this in part because Cialdini had some connection to the Obama camp – then what did he think Cialdini (or his students) would be doing this time around, sitting on their hands?

    I imagine this is similar to a commentator coming Fox Sports and saying that Team X is going to win the Super Bowl because they’ve won all the preseason games so far, and they won those games without playing their starters much! Oh wow! At which point someone says “I don’t know, could they beat New England when Tom Brady comes back from his suspension?” The first guy chuckles and says “I wasn’t saying that, if there’s a new development like other teams playing THEIR starters, then circumstances have changed. Also, the games are rigged until they’re not”.

    And here’s a bonus thought: it also tremendously annoys me that Scott made such a big deal of voter information (I can’t remember where that is in his blog posts, but his line was something like ‘think about how many times you’ve been right about what a President has done’), yet now he is approvingly speaking of Trump being possibly the most democratic president ever (http://blog.dilbert.com/post/149321013966/the-direct-democracy-president). So the public at large is too stupid to pick the right person to pick the policies, but we can accurately judge the right policies? I actually think he may have point blank said we cannot trust our ability to pick good policy, but I’ll have to dig for that one.

    Adams’ has some good points and I’ll still follow him, but his analysis has become less adept than it seemed at first glance.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Great stuff Rory. Yes, I totally get what you mean in all of these examples.

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