"Dilbert" creator Scott Adams started an unlikely second career as a political pundit in 2015 by becoming one of the first to predict that Donald Trump would win not only the Republican nomination but eventually the White House.
The cartoonist argued that Trump was a "master persuader" – somebody far more skilled at communicating his message and shaping the public debate than any of his competitors. Adams has compiled his observations into a new book, Win Bigly, and he shared his thoughts of Trump's first year with the Washington Examiner. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Washington Examiner: Now that you have had a chance to see him in office for a year and see him actually not as a candidate but actually running the country, what is your estimation of him and how well he’s done?
Adams: I think history might judge this one of the most successful first years of any presidency. I'm not a presidential historian, so there may be some other examples that are clearly more. But from a Republican point of view, the number of things that he got done that were important to them is really impressive. I mean, ISIS is beaten down. You know the list, right? Immigration is down. Just by persuasion, it’s down, plus probably stronger enforcement. You see that North Korea might be getting a little flexible. You see the economy’s good. You see the small business confidence level at the highest it’s ever been. Black unemployment is at its lowest rate in a long time. So, it’s hard to find anything that’s not trending in the right direction, at least at this point.
Now, to be fair, I do think President Obama gave him a strong base to start from. We already had our assets in place for ISIS. We already had an economy that had climbed out of a deep hole. But I don’t think there’s any doubt, at least in my mind at this point, that President Trump added an accelerant to what was already heading in a good direction. So, I would say once there's some objectivity to this, once the historians can kind of get some distance from it, it might be judged as one of the best first years a president ever had for his party.
Examiner: He doesn’t have good approval ratings, though. How do you explain that cognitive dissonance?
Adams: There actually is no cognitive dissonance there … In the old days, the person you did not vote for could win, and you could still warm up to them over time simply because they didn't do anything too terrible compared to what you were hoping your own candidate would have done. But those days are over. Now, we have such a gigantic difference between what Donald Trump was promising and what Hillary Clinton was promising that a presidential approval poll in today’s world is really like taking attendance. It’s like, all right, raise your hand if you’re a Democrat. Raise your hand if you’re a Republican. That's your poll, all right? So, there’s no actual information being conveyed in that poll anymore.
Examiner: Now that you’ve had a chance to see him in office, have you reevaluated any aspect of Trump?
Adams: There are not that many things that I’m surprised at because they’re almost precisely what I predicted. I’ll tell you one surprise in particular. So, I did expect that his business background would have brought him into the job more prepared, meaning having more of a team that’s solid and really could hit the ground running. But that might have been more wishful thinking.
Examiner: To what extent do you think how Trump operates is really thought out and planned out? The consensus seems to be that he is just sort of acting impulsively and doing things, just "Trump being Trump," as the saying goes.
Adams: I contend that people who are trained in persuasion, as I am, see it differently. And if you’re untrained, it does look like it’s random and that his brain stem is firing, and then his body does something. And his mouth opens, and you can’t find the pattern. You can’t see why he’d do it … If you do, what you see is that he does it quickly and naturally looking but probably natural in the same way that if you’re a touch typer if you can type without looking at your fingers. Are you typing the letter G intentionally, or are you doing it automatically? It kind of blurs the line once you’re good enough at it.
So, I think the president is at that level where speaking persuasively is simply how he speaks now. He’s incorporated a lot of skill into his normal being so that when people say, “I don’t think he’s thinking about this,” I kind of agree. But that doesn’t mean it’s not like touch-typing where he’s getting exactly what he wants, and it is informed by a lot of skill that he’s developed that just makes it automatic.
Examiner: You had an interesting blog post about the whole controversy regarding Trump’s tweet to North Korea about his nuclear button being "bigger and more powerful," arguing that it actually reduced the chances for some type of nuclear accident. Could you expand on that a little bit?
Adams: So, one of the things that the president does well, which is good persuasion, is he matches the speaking style of whoever he’s communicating with. You’ve seen him talk with little children in the Oval Office, and he talks like a grandfather. You see him talking to people he likes, and he's slapping them on the back. You see him in rally mode, and he’s a whole different character. He's playing a part, essentially.
So, when you see him effortlessly change his mode of communication to perfectly fit the vehicle or the situation, that gives you comfort that this is his intention. He’s doing what hypnotists call pacing the person that he’s trying to influence. Now, pacing means you match them. So, on Twitter, he gives the same kind of Twitter attitude that we all give. He just does it bigger and better.
Little Rocket Man, or Kim Jong Un, tends to speak, in his public pronouncements anyway, like a Twitter troll. He has the same technique as the president does. So, the president, basically, just matched him rhetoric for rhetoric while also conveying the knowledge that he’s not gonna back down, and we have a big nuclear deterrence. And who knows? We might use it. At least, that would be the threat he would want to convey.
So, it seemed to me that not only by speaking directly to Kim Jong Un, which is a big deal because Kim Jong Un went from [the] tiniest little country that probably has a chip on its shoulder to suddenly having a peer-to-peer conversation with the president. It elevated Kim Jong Un to the level of the president in a weird, collegial way because they were arguing with each other, and they both gave as well as they got. If you see the president’s past statements about Kim Jong Un, even though he talks tough about what we need to do as a nation, he’s actually giving him credit for being a capable leader who probably had to have some skill to hold that country together after he took over. So, the president has actually given Kim Jong Un a degree of respect on Twitter, in a weird way, by crap talking each other.
Examiner: People have called Trump a hypocrite for not sticking with some positions or appearing to modify them along the way. He doesn’t seem to view that as an issue or a problem. Is he sort of changing that understanding of dealmaking in Washington?
Adams: So, one of the things he consistently does is he says things in a way that gives everybody something to grab onto and like, and he does that in all kinds of context. So, you might say we’re gonna get real tough on X, but nobody wants to get tough on X. But sometimes you have to get tough on X, but we love X. We wouldn't hurt X if we had anything to do, but sometimes you gotta get tough on X. And then, everybody goes away.
And some people say well, he’s gonna get tough on X, and the other people say he loves X. He said so. And they both hear what they want. So, it does allow him to get into a room and have everybody act like there’s something bipartisan happening.
Examiner: How do you think the whole Russian investigation is playing? Is it having an impact?
Adams: In the early days of this, every day that went by was bad for the president because it meant that the headline was once again something blah, blah, blah, Russia, blah, blah, blah, Trump. But it’s gone so long now, and nothing has even been leaked. And we imagine something would have been leaked if it was going to bring down the presidency. It seems like the credibility of the FBI is eroding instead of the credibility of the president because we’ve heard all the Russian stuff, and we’re not getting much new about him.
Examiner: The tax cut, is that a pure win? The Democrats believe that they can spin this as something that hurt ordinary voters because, in their estimation, it was primarily a tax cut for the wealthy. Republicans believe that because adjustments to tax withholding are taking place, people will actually see it as directly benefiting them.
Adams: So, I take the Newt Gingrich view of this, which is when somebody gets a raise, essentially a raise because they either got it from their company or they got it directly in fewer taxes on their withholding, when they’re looking at that pay stub or that paycheck, that’s a physical, visual, personal advantage. … People are more influenced by what affects them personally, what they hold in their hand, what they can touch, what they can see, smell, and things like that. So, I think the president has an enormous advantage in that the things that people will feel are gonna be positive to them, and they’re gonna attribute that to something the president did. But the things that they may have objected to are sort of conceptual. And you can’t buy anything with a concept.
Examiner: Trump is consistently doing things that no president has ever done and things that a lot of people thought presidents never would or could or should do, like the playground-style Twitter exchanges. So, he's certainly changing the way people perceive the presidency. Is he changing it in a good way? Is this gonna be a legacy that will help future presidents?
Adams: I think he's terrible for future presidents because everybody's gonna compare any future president, at least for a while, to Trump on a variety of levels. And every future president is gonna be boring. They will be both boring and timid and low energy compared to him, so he's got that going for him. In terms of permanent legacies, I would say that his Twitter use is almost certainly a one-off. If somebody else tried to be Donald Trump-like on Twitter, it's hard for me to imagine that they'd feel comfortable in their skin doing it, the public would accept it the way they have grudgingly accepted Trump's tweeting, at least half of the country.
So, it's hard for me to see him setting precedent just because he's so unique. I expect the next president will just go back to being regular old normal presidents like we've had before.