One of the many unexpected twists of this election has been the emergence of Dilbert creator Scott Adams as one of its most insightful commentators. Long before most other pundits were even treating Donald Trump's campaign seriously, Adams was arguing that his campaign was conceptually brilliant and would result not only in Trump's nomination but also a "landslide" victory in November.
Adams has long mocked business management techniques in his comic strip, but has made a point of examining what works and what doesn't. He argues that Trump is engaging in a master class in the arts of negotiation and marketing that is running rings around his political competitors. And Trump knows exactly what he is doing.
After speaking to the Washington Examiner last week, Adams endorsed Hillary Clinton in a post on his official blog while maintaining his prediction that Trump will win. He said the decision was prompted by riots caused by anti-Trump protesters. "[M]y safety is at risk if I am seen as supportive of Trump. So I'm taking the safe way out and endorsing Hillary Clinton for president," he wrote.
Washington Examiner: Let's start off with one thing to clear the air. I think you have mentioned this in other interviews but I wanted to give you a chance to state it more clearly: You're not actually a Trump supporter, you're just sort of an admirer of his handiwork, is that correct?
Adams: Yeah, my politics don't really line up with any of the candidates, Trump or anyone else. I don't even vote. Part of that is intentional. I don't belong to a political party and that is to keep my bias level at a minimum.
Examiner: You've been much more accurate than other pundits so far. You have predicted that Trump will win the election. Are you still standing by that?
Adams: Yeah, I actually predicted that he would win the general election in a landslide last year. That was when people didn't even think he would get nominated. So, the first part happened. Just waiting for the second part.
Examiner: You've called him the "master persuader" and you have said he is actually using the art of hypnosis as part of his campaign. Can you just give some of the examples of what you mean by that and how he is working this tool?
Adams: Well, it is really the tools of persuasion, of which hypnosis would be a component. Normal advertising and sales, negotiating; those are all, in my view, part of persuasion.
Just to give you a general idea of the things that he does, he likes to pick really visual images, because the mind just goes to visual. It's what you remember. So when Trump talks about his policies, he says, "I am going to build a big, beautiful wall with a door," so you've got this perfect mental image.
If he is talking about ISIS, he doesn't talk about, "Well, we are trying to beat an idea," or anything like that. He says, "They're cutting off people's heads and they're putting them in cages and drowning them." So it is this visceral, visual image.
If you compare that to, say, [Kentucky Sen.] Rand Paul, when he was in the race, it is hard to remember what Rand Paul was for because although his ideas might have been terrific, they didn't have a visual component. What does the Federal Reserve look like? Something, something, the Fed. That's just one example.
Another thing that Trump does really well is, he will drain the attention away from wherever he doesn't want it to put it where he wants it. You see this vividly when he controls the news cycle by coming out with something that is controversial about once or twice a week, almost on a schedule.
My favorite one — obviously, the favorite of most people — was his first moment in the spotlight during the first debate when he was asked about his past comments about women which, to anyone else in the world, would have been a total trap. But Trump said, "Only Rosie O'Donnell."
Now remember, she is visual. She is a human, so it is easier to take your attention to a human than to an object. She is a person that doesn't have a lot of love in the Republican Party. So, she was perfect to draw both emotion as well as a visual. It just sucked the energy out of the question and out of the room. It became the thing that everyone quoted.
Now, you might think, "Oh, that was just a random thing. He got lucky and spontaneously said something." But then you go to a few months later and Chris Cuomo was interviewing him about some comments the Pope made about capitalism.
The Pope said some negative things about capitalism. Now, look what a trap this is: The question poses for Trump the option of disagreeing with the Pope — that's not good — or saying that there is something wrong with capitalism, which goes completely against his brand. So what does he do?
His answer to the question what do you think about the Pope's comments on capitalism was, "I think the Pope should be worrying about ISIS taking over the Vatican." Now, can you imagine anything more visual than that? In your mind you are already seeing the movie in three acts. You are seeing Gerard Depardieu or somebody. Somebody, Gerard anyway. I forget which one ...
Examiner: Jean Reno, perhaps.
Adams: Yeah, you see somebody saving the Pope. It is so visual and it is so fantastic that your brain goes there and it just cannot get back. He does that over and over again.
My favorite thing that he is doing is that from the first months of the campaign he was building in our minds the impression that he is already in the job. The first example of when I noticed it was when he went on "Saturday Night Live," which a number of the candidates did. But of course you have to assume that they approved the skit that they were in. They just don't say, "Whatever you want me to do."
Examiner: And he had the one where the Mexican president comes and actually gives him the check.
Adams: I believe that skit actually had Trump as president in the Oval Office. So, it made you think that. Now, look at how many times you have thought of President Trump or you even see a lot of people in the news accidentally saying President Trump instead of candidate Trump.
Now you actually see the Clinton campaign asking us, as an anti-Trump campaign, they say, "Imagine President Trump doing this. Imagine President Trump in the situation room." I think her tweet today was, "Blah, blah blah, Donald Trump isn't president" and then it said in parenthesis "yet." This is actually a Clinton tweet.
Now what did [Speaker] Paul Ryan say about Trump when he was asked whether he would endorse him several weeks ago? He said, "I'm not there yet." At which point I tweeted well that just told us you are going to get there because nobody uses the word yet unless they have absolutely already made the decision.
Clinton has already made the decision that Trump is the president. Now, I know the layperson would not jump to this conclusion, but this is literally something we learned in hypnosis class: When somebody makes a slip like that, some might call it a Freudian slip. I wouldn't call it that. I would call it somebody just revealing what they really think. I believe that she thinks she has already lost because it is revealed in her language.
Examiner: Do you really think that this is all really clever and deliberate by Trump? Because a lot of the anecdotes in stories suggest that he really does fly by the seat of his pants and does stuff on the fly. That he doesn't have a clear, thought-out strategy.
Adams: I think it is a hybrid of spontaneity and talent that is baked into his personality from decades of practice. Remember, he wrote the book The Art of the Deal. And even if you think his ghostwriter wrote it, I'm sure he at least read it. Negotiating is persuasion. It is psychology. He tells us in those words.
He says, "I am a good negotiator. I know psychology." I would say, from my own experience, if you ask me how much of my own persuasiveness is some kind of technique and how much is just spontaneous, I've lost the sense of that because the knowledge of how to be persuasive is just baked into my personality. I wouldn't be able to turn it off if I wanted to. It is simply the way I know how to present information.
Examiner: One of the other things you have said about Trump that I thought was interesting was that he is one of the most transparent candidates ever. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Adams: Well, he has told us that he uses hyperbole for effect. It is in his book. He said it during the campaign. He has also said that if he hadn't acted the way he has acted, he probably wouldn't be where he is today. I think most people would agree with that. He wouldn't have gotten the attention, he wouldn't have gotten the emotion that brought the crowds.
He is doing a most interesting thing because he has to run for president of a country that is mostly dumb people who aren't paying attention and maybe a few smart people who are. He has got to get all of those groups on his side because the smart people might have the money and the dumb people have the votes. So you kind of need both of them.
So what he is doing really is he is running two campaigns simultaneously and he is not hiding any of it. He is saying outrageous things because some people like to hear those and they'll vote for him because of it. At the same time he is winking right at the camera and saying, "I say things for effect. I'll probably be more presidential."
Now, there is no other way to interpret that than the fact that he is being a little bit outrageous right now to suck all of the attention away from the competition, which is working. He is running as a common-sense conservative. He is basically saying, "I am going to do what makes sense, what works and I am going to do it right in front of you."
So there is almost nothing about what he does that is terribly surprising. Even the fact that his facts don't add up in the fact checking, in the normal world, what I call the "2-D world," where people imagine that reason and data and logic all make sense, in that world it would obviously be bad to say things that aren't true and to say them so often.
But anybody who is trained in persuasion already knows that nobody ever changed their mind because of facts. Facts don't have a place in persuasion. It's just what you learn. As soon as you think that they do, you lose your ability to persuade. You turn into Rand Paul. He is a guy who knows lots of facts. I am sure that he does his very best to make sure that his facts are accurate. It gives him exactly zero persuasive ability.
Whereas a good persuader — Trump, anybody who has the same training as I do — knows where the emotion is and knows how to pick the right topics. By the way, it is no coincidence that he picked immigration and jobs, the things that people are going to be the most excited about and get the most emotion into. That is the job of persuaders is to know what topics to pick.
Examiner: The conventional wisdom among pundits in D.C. is that he is still likely to be undone by the demographics of the nation, that he has alienated too many individual groups from Hispanics to other minority groups and women. Do you disagree with that? Do you think that the vote, as it ultimately turns out, is still going to still swing his way?
Adams: Well, I would put that in context. The first context is that these are still the same people who said he would not get the nomination. So 100 percent of those people or close to it have been wrong about everything so far. So the odds that they suddenly turned smart about Trump ... I assume they are smart people and in many cases they have great track records, but Trump is the model breaker.
He is very much the way Reagan was. He is probably going to put together some coalitions that you don't expect. Now this would be getting further into politics than I have any claim to expertise, but I would say that if he wins men by enough, he wins. Clinton had been running the "women card" campaign pretty hard, which he backed her off of by mocking that out of effectiveness.
Now she is on her "risky-risky-risky" play, which is probably going to backfire because risk is exactly why people like him. People are trying to hire a hand grenade. And Clinton saying, "Watch out for the hand grenade. It might explode." And the voters are saying, "No, that is the whole point: We want an explode-y hand grenade. We are throwing it into Congress. We are going to blow up some stuff and we think we can fix it [that way]."
So, if you put it all together: The incompetence of the Clinton campaign on just the persuasion level — I am sure they are very competent on the standard stuff — you combine that with looking at Trump's the highest level persuasion that I have ever seen seen. You look at where his numbers were and where they have come to, and you look at the fact that he hasn't really started hard on Clinton yet.
I have predicted that the reason why he will win in a landslide is that by November it will feel as though he is running opposed. There will be so little left of her I am not sure that she will be a viable candidate. The email scandal might be enough without doing anything. There are lots ways for him to win. Most of them have to do with the old saying, "You don't have to outrun the bear. You only have to outrun your fellow camper."
He is racing against the slowest camper of all time when it comes to campaigning and persuasion. So when people say, "Can he outrun the bear?" No, but he is not trying to. He is trying to outrun her.
Examiner: Let's talk a bit about the branding and messaging that Hillary Clinton has been using. What do you think of her campaign slogan, "Ready for Hillary?"
Adams: Well, first of all, is that her campaign slogan now? Because there have been quite a few of them.
I would say that "Ready for Hillary" carries no message whatsoever. It sounds to me like on first impression like it is just "her turn." It sounds like, "I'm entitled to it." That's the vibe I pick up from it. What else is it supposed to mean? In what other way is the country ready except that she is a woman? Is that the hidden message in there?
Examiner: Well, the message is, "I'm with her." How do you think that plays as a message?
Adams: You know, it's funny, if Obama had not become president, the first woman president would be a big deal. The interesting thing is, and let's give Clinton credit, I don't really hear people say that a woman cannot be president. I believe Clinton has sort of single-handedly removed any sense that there will ever be a roadblock in the future to a woman being a president.
I think people are judging her entirely on her record and comparing her to Trump at this point. She definitely is not going to lose for being a woman, so I think that glass ceiling has been broken and she broke it. I think she'll always have credit for that.
Examiner: One of the things about Trump is that he is a very easy person to caricature. He has that sort of abnormal skin color. He has that combover that everybody loves to make fun of. How does that impact his image? Does it work to his advantage? Does it make him more memorable? Does it make him easier to mock? How do you think it plays?
Adams: I don't think that anybody knows the secret of Trump's hair, what he is thinking, what is going on. But I will make a general observation: Quite often, you will see a charismatic leader have something about them that is just not like other people. With Trump, it is his hair.
I would argue that Hillary Clinton has a style of fashion that is all her own. I've said positive things about her for the same reason. It is almost a uniform. Some people have described her look as a "sci-fi emperor." I'm not a fashion critic, so I am not going to say it is good or bad.
But in terms of persuasion, I like it a lot because it brands her as standing out. It is not too girly, but she is not trying to look like a man. Fashion-wise it is a home run, I would say.
Examiner: One of the other things about Trump is that he has been all over the map ideologically. As recently as 2012, he was giving Mitt Romney a hard time for having been too hard on immigrants in his campaign. Why hasn't that had more of an impact and been more of a problem for him?
Do voters really just not care about the minutiae of a person's political positions as much as those of us inside the Beltway might think they ought to?
Adams: People don't care about issues. People have never cared about issues. It has always been about personality, emotion, feelings, fear, that sort of thing. The other thing is that Trump is very clever and very deliberate about becoming what I call the "human Rorschach test." So if you watch him take a position on almost anything, you can hear both sides.
He'll tell you that he is for it, but in some cases he is against it, but he is definitely for it, but he is sort of a little bit against it. At the end, the people want to be for it say, "Well, I guess he is for it." The people who want to be against it, they hear something else.
Take his deportation stance. If you want to hear that he is going to physically round up people and move 11 million people out at great cost and horror, he has said things that would sound a little bit like that because he has said pretty much that.
If you want to believe that he is a reasonable person who is saying things in the primary and the election that when he gets into the office he is going to say, "All right, what is practical? What is common sense? Now what do I do now that I am really here?" You can hear that, too.
Because that is actually what I hear. What I hear is, "I am going to say this,'" but he is saying as clearly as he can, "We are going to make it easy for the good ones to come back," meaning, I guess, the ones who do not have a criminal record or something. When I hear that he is going to make it easy for them to come back well, what is easier than keeping them here in the first place?
I had an idea, I'll throw this out: Suppose the United States just said let's temporarily turn all of our Post Office facilities [into] a Mexican embassy just for the purpose of deportation? Then have anybody who wants to voluntarily go down and fill out some forms, the moment they walk into the Post Office they are on Mexican territory, they are literally deported — legally, practically, physically — because that is what an embassy is.
They fill out some forms and then we have their address so then they can just walk out. Then the United States takes its time checking people out and figuring out what to do to give somebody some kind of status if they have been behaving themselves.
When I imagine what could actually happen, I imagine it more like that because I say that, "Common sense is going to rule. The country would fall apart if busloads of your neighbors were being shipped across the border. That is just not going to happen." But if you think that that needs to happen, you can believe that. So he has given you both things to believe.
Examiner: Why haven't we seen somebody campaign and say and do the kind of things that Trump has in previous campaigns? I mean, why has it taken so long for somebody to realize that it could be done this way? Or has it been done this way in the past but just not by the right person? Can you give any thought on that?
Adams: There is sort of the rule consistency. If Trump is always Trump — meaning that he will say what he needs to say and he'll change his mind tomorrow — then you'll say, "OK, That is what I am getting. I'm getting somebody who is going to sort work it out and look at the facts. Who is not wed to one side. He'll just figure it out."
'Cause obviously he has been doing that for five decades in his business. He has figured out entirely different businesses. Building golf courses is not building apartment buildings or skyscrapers. It is not "The Apprentice." It is not these licensed companies. He has figured out a lot of stuff and made almost all of it work. 90 percent, I think.
So, I think on some level he is selling himself as a businessperson who is going to go figure it out. As long as he is consistent with, "I am a businessperson. I am going to figure it out," people aren't looking too much for the facts because remember they didn't care about them in the first place. They do want him to go blow up the system, get the people with money out of the system or at least ignore them for a while.
He can probably do that, 'cause we have seen him push around news organizations. We've seen him push around the Republican Party. So he can clearly get things done. I think people are saying, "Well, the thing we want done is to just blow up the current system and we want somebody who can figure out how to build something after you do the demolition phase."
Trump has built a lot of stuff. He has built a lot of different stuff. He knows how to figure it out.
Let me ask you this: If you were hiring a CEO for just a regular Fortune 500 company, you were hiring him today but his first day of work wouldn't be for six months, would you expect him to have a detailed turnaround plan for the company? You wouldn't because he doesn't have access to the information. Everything is going to be different in six months anyway. He'll have better advisers during that time. He could work it out then.
I cannot think of any problem that a president would deal with that he could not be fully briefed to the point where an executive needs to understand it in three hours. Probably three hours for almost any topic if the best people in the world are sitting on each side and say, "Look, here is the best argument for it. Here is the best argument against it. Now, discuss." There's no way they'll last for more than three hours.
Examiner: One of the running themes of your own comic strip has been the idiocy of people running American business. That they really don't know what they are doing. In fact, I think you once said, "Capitalism works because the idiocies cancel each other out and produce cool stuff that we like, like Snapple."
That being the case, is Trump sort of the exception to this? Is he the one who has figured it out while everyone else is wrong? How do you square his abilities with the way you generally perceive how businesses are operated and run?
Adams: Capitalism is this huge failure machine. Most projects fail. Most products fail. Most companies fail in the long run. People don't hold their same job forever. People get fired. So there is all of this failing but while people are failing they are also getting paid. So they make money.
They buy things. So every once in a while by pure luck, some start-up works. Some company makes a hit product because an engineer was good and some CEO takes the credit.
Now, if Trump was the head of a company that did one thing once and it worked out really well, I would say you don't know anything about Trump. But the fact that he has failed several times at several companies and, I think, 400-500 entities that have his name on it, he has gone through failure. He has worked through failure. He has succeeded in lots of different companies.
So he simply has more tools than other people do because he has seen more situations. Most management is some kind of pattern recognition: "I've been in this situation. This is what works. This is what didn't." So nobody can predict who would be a better president, which is one of the reasons why I don't endorse anybody.
I don't think humans can say, "Hey, this one will do a great job and this one won't." We are terrible at that. Humans are terrible at predicting who would be good at even a regular job, much less the job of president.
So I would say that the best thing you can do if you are trying to manage your odds is to find somebody who has touched enough things at a high enough level that they have the tools. They can see around the corner a little bit because, "Ah, I have been there. I have been in this situation. The way I push back against this is this."
And by the way, Trump has given us the best job interview of all time. What he is selling is, "I am selling my persuasive ability, my ability to get things done in a broken government." What he did was to take over the entire Republican Party without being much of a Republican while we watched. He did that right in front of us. Every part of that he did in front of us.
Then, when the news organizations began piling up on him, he basically bitch-slapped Fox News to where he needed it to be. CNN, it still has maybe a little pro-liberal bias people would say, but they are not terrible to to him. They are not terrible to Trump. They are giving him a fair shot at this point
So, if you look at the number of things he has co-opted, right down to Paul Ryan finally getting on board with an endorsement today, you've never seen a better job interview. He is literally doing the things he said I could do for you. Watch me make these things that were broken work again. He fixed the Republican Party, in a sense, because he took it over.
Examiner: You have cited social scientists to make the argument that free will itself is an illusion, to get really intellectual for a moment. Do you really think that is the case, that people are just that wired to outside stimuli? And is Trump really that attuned to that?
Adams: The answer is yes. On day one of hypnosis school — when I was in my 20s I took a class to be a certified hypnotist — on day one the hypnotist told us that free will is an illusion. If you don't understand that it is very difficult to be a persuader or to be a hypnotist, because if you keep expecting people to act as if they have free will or if reason and common sense are part of their experience, then nothing makes sense.
But as soon as you say that people are what I call these moist robots and respond to different stimuli, then you can do persuasion. Trump understands it like no one I have ever seen understand it. The total disregard for facts that you see is [him] operating in the third dimension. He is operating at a level far higher than the people who are observing him because he knows that the facts were never important to the result.
Now, I know that too because I have the same kind of background and training. I also know that free will is an illusion. The science is starting to back that, but that has always been known to hypnotists.
Watch the full interview below.