Exclusive: ‘Dilbert’ Creator on Trump, the ‘Master Persuader’
LifeZette talks to Scott Adams, author of a new book, 'Win Bigly,' which shines a fresh light on our communicator-in-chief
Scott Adams has spent the past two years or so changing the way many people view modern politics. He’s gone from the cartoonist behind the popular “Dilbert” strip to an authority on President Donald Trump.
Adams was one of the first to publicly predict a Trump presidential victory — and it was for a unique reason.
Trump is a “master persuader,” he says. While others have mocked the president and some of his more colorful comments over time, Adams has taken to his blog and Periscope to break down exactly what’s behind the theatrics of a man who shocked the media and the world when he bested Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
Adams, who lives outside of San Francisco, is the author of “Win Bigly,” a new book that shares details about the persuasive techniques Trump has used to sail to victory time and time again. Adams himself has long studied persuasion and hypnotism and says he recognized some key qualities in Trump very early on.
One highly successful strategy used by the former real estate mogul and television star: “He tells stories in pictures,” Adams told LifeZette in an exclusive interview, specifically referencing Trump’s insistence during his campaign on referring simply to a border “wall” instead of more detailed border security — as well as describing ISIS by the visual aftermath of their actions.
Visuals, Adams said, are a much better way to communicate to a large group of people; they leave a lasting impact.
Another example of Trump’s visual style was his controversial answer in the first GOP presidential debate about previous negative comments he’d made in regard to women. Trump responded to that jab at him with “Only Rosie O’Donnell.” It played well with the audience, as it provided them with an image most of them could agree to stand against.
It’s Trump’s mastery of persuasion and negotiation, Adams argues, that’s behind a lot of the hysteria coming from the political world today.
“I don’t know if there’s ever been a point, at least in modern times, where people were really objective. When [Barack] Obama was president, there was a certain amount of partisan opinion, but Trump just takes everything up a level so our emotional state is attenuated in every way with him,” said Adams. “He makes his supporters love him extra hard and his haters hate him extra hard.”
Though some may laugh off the opinions of the creator of “Dilbert,” Adams actually has a wealth of knowledge and an informed background that he’s used to ride a wave that ultimately landed him as a trusted political pundit and analyst. He has an MBA in economics and management from Berkeley, and holds bachelor of arts degree in economics from Hartwick College in upstate New York.
Adams has also built several businesses, including the “Dilbert” brand, which has extended from the still-running comic strip to a television show, a video game, and more.
It’s mainly his study of persuasion, however, that has so many people listening when Adams jumps on Periscope or Twitter to try to break down the latest in politics and Trump’s rise to power.
Some have criticized Adams for believing Trump is so calculated in his comments and actions, but Adams sees things through an interesting filter.
“There’s no way it’s just natural [Trump’s persuasion methods], but there is a natural component,” he said of the president. The “natural component,” he said, comes down to Trump’s humor. He happens to be funny, something he often takes advantage of on Twitter.
“I think his tweets have become a little bit more clearly entertainment-oriented.”
“Lately he’s been winking at us. I think his tweets have become a little bit more clearly entertainment-oriented, and yet they’re still functional,” Adams said, though he stressed they’re “not entertaining for the sake of entertainment. They’re entertaining for function.”
They have become an effective tool for the president. Adams used the president’s recent shot at LaVar Ball as a perfect example of this.
Trump tweeted that the father of the recently released basketball player was ungrateful after the president negotiated his son’s release from Chinese authorities. He even made the comment that he perhaps should have let LaVar Ball’s son, LiAngelo, stay in jail. While some may be pulling out their hair at that comment, Adams sees it as effective persuasion.
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Trump did two things well in that tweet. He proved he gets things done (getting LiAngelo released); and he proved he doesn’t get enough credit for getting things done.
Though Adams has received loads of backlash for refusing to jump on the “Trump is Hitler” bandwagon on which many entertainers find themselves, he said it’s all worth it, as we’re living in a unique cultural period in modern history, and it’s largely thanks to Trump’s mix of entertainment and politics.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen this level of skill.”
“It’s the first time we’ve seen this level of skill [of persuasion], but the people who are in the ballpark would be President Obama, President [Bill] Clinton, and probably President Kennedy, and I’m assuming Lincoln just based on his writing,” Adams said.
He added of the current president, “[Trump has] blended theater and politics in a way I doubt we’ll ever see again because he just has this facility for both of those things right now.”
Need more examples of Trump’s mastery of persuasion? Adams cited the president’s use of the “power of contrast.”
“What he does is he sets up a situation where if you do something he likes, he will praise you more than most people would get praised, and if you do something he doesn’t like, he will attack you harder than most people would ever attack, so the difference between being on his side and not being on his side becomes fairly stark,” said Adams, citing those folks who have sharply gone against the president and failed big time, such as Senator Jeff Flake. This, he said, is in contrast to other presidents who try as hard as they can to be political and nice — even to those who oppose them.
Adams revealed another persuasion technique: Trump’s constant talk of the future. When he recently spoke about the nation’s GDP, Trump made sure to mention it could have been higher if not for the recent hurricanes — and that he had great faith it would rise even further in the coming months.
This helps the economy, he argued, because moving people’s brains to the future gives them more faith in investing.
Adams’ book “Win Bigly” explains persuasion techniques in further detail, addressing such topics as cognitive dissonance — which is broken down in a spooky chapter that will have readers seeing political arguments on social media or in real life through a completely different lens.
Adams also uses the book to take readers through his own journey from cartoonist to political pundit and the colorful responses he’s received along the way. It’s a book people of all political stripes should read. Adams is a rare cultural and political observer who tackles issues from the middle — and dissects Trump in a way few have shown the emotional restraint to do.
Knowing the intricacies of persuasion is also a “utility” that can greatly benefit people in their personal lives and their study of politics, said Adams. “I feel sorry for people who don’t understand this kind of stuff,” he added, and he reiterated that those able to dive into his book and keep politics separate will find the tools he presents as a “great advantage.”
Asked whether Trump, the “master persuader,” has any potential challengers with similar communication and negotiation skills that could give him a legitimate run for his money in 2020, Adams responded, “There’s no standard politician on the Democrat team who has a chance.”
That comes, he cautioned, with caveats. Adams is closely watching the situation in North Korea and with health care — these could wind up as signature victories for the president.
Outside of “standard” politicians, he does see contenders who have persuasion skills that are perhaps equal or close to Trump’s level. “Shark Tank” star Mark Cuban is one; Cuban has mentioned the possibility of running for president.
“I think he said something about how he would run as a Republican if he ran, which is just another way to say that he is not totally partisan when he runs as a Democrat,” Adams said. The statement was a clear move to present himself as an alternative to Trump in conservatives’ eyes, the author argued.
Adams added that Cuban would be “slaughtered” if an election were held today, but he has three years to prepare. He’s a “wild card,” according to Adams. However, he has skills similar to those of Trump, and both men have succeeded in multiple fields with ease.
Though Adams has become a trusted voice in certain corners of social media and network news, he will forever be known to most people as the creator of “Dilbert,” the comic strip that dryly but accurately looks at the 9-to-5 workdays of most Americans. The strip can still be read on Adams’ site, and “Dilbert” has jumped into plenty of other media in the past. Perhaps most famously, the character became the focus of a two-season animated series from 1999 to 2000, a show that has gained a cult following over the years.
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Is a reboot of the show in the character’s future? Adams said he’s more than open to a television series or movie with his character, but acknowledges that he is not exactly accepted with open arms by the Hollywood community these days.
“My brand is so tainted now,” Adams said, repeating something many Trump supporters and right-of-center voices have long said — doing anything but condemning the president spells bad news for artists in the entertainment industry.
Yet he believes that “time heals all wounds” — and that people could come around to Trump and his voters if the president pulls off some undeniable victories.
Said Adams, “If our GDP is 6 percent and [the leaders of] North Korea are our best friends, I’ve got a feeling the odds of a ‘Dilbert’ TV show go way up.”