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Scott Adams’ Moist Robots

Scott Adams is the cartoonist who draws “Dilbert.” He also claims to have vast business experience and a marketing MBA from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business; to be a hypnotist and “weapons grade” expert in techniques of persuasion; and to have what he calls “F-you money”—sufficient wealth not to care what people think about his views. And now he has written Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter, in which this self-avowed “ultra-liberal” and supporter of Democratic presidential candidates in the 1980s and 1990s fawns over Donald Trump’s rhetorical skills.

Adams tells us early on that he never supported Trump’s policies or liked his politics, only that he admired his persuasive technique. He confesses that when he started spouting this line on his blog during the campaign, he got flak from people who could not reconcile his admiration for Trump’s technique with the fact that he was boosting Trump’s electoral prospects. The flak was totally justified. Of all the people Adams names in the book who predicted a Trump presidency, he is the only one who disavowed an affinity with the man’s views; yet his obsession with technique at the expense of substance morphed into his ultimately going “all in” for Trump anyway—after having first endorsed the Democratic candidate and then the Libertarian one. It is a series of decisions he not all that delicately claims helped Trump to win.

This odd metamorphosis of 2016 bleeds into Adams trying in 2017 to induce the reader to think that Trump’s Oval Office bite was always bound to be much less worrisome than his campaign bark. This is because, he assures us, Trump was not speaking literally but “directionally,” the typical voter being so obtuse that only wild attention-getting exaggerations can penetrate their dense heads—and that’s the way to get elected. Having gotten elected, Trump has moderated all his campaign views, Adams claims, and so is normalized for all practical purposes. Case closed.

Indeed, if the book has an overarching theme, it is a gloss on P.T. Barnum’s famous remark that “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public”;  to wit: No politician ever erred by underestimating the willful ignorance of the American electorate.

Full disclosure: I have always found the surreal misanthropy of “Dilbert” strange. My wife says the reason the strip doesn’t make me laugh is that I have never worked in bureaucratish cubbies, but I sensed that its strangeness transcended that datum. I could never before put my finger on why, largely because I didn’t much care. But thanks to Win Bigly, my finger is now firmly put: The whole book is not so much conventionally bad as strange in an eerie, disturbing way, for it seems to emanate from a worldview best described as antifoundational postmodern nihilism laden with drug-tempered hedonism.

Adams thinks reality may be just a simulation, and that free will is almost certainly an illusion. The large amount of marijuana and magic mushrooms he admits to having ingested in college may explain some of this, but I digress. Adams claims further that the human mind cannot grasp reality, but that it doesn’t matter since “evolution cares” only that we be happy enough for long enough to procreate.

In sum, he sees the Eloi of H.G. Wells’s Time Machine (1895) as about as high as humanity can reach. And of human dignity, the fundament on which liberty itself rests? Adams never mentions either noun.

This radically dour view of human beings is why facts and logic don’t matter in politics, as the book’s subtitle says. It is why real-world policy outcomes can never be predicted no matter who becomes President, and why cognitive psychology deployed for political marketing purposes thus becomes the master science. (He includes 31 “persuasion tips” in little gray-background boxes in the text, all of them Marketing 101 fare.) “Moist robots” is the term he uses for our species, a species easily “programmed” by “Master Persuaders” like Trump and even by less masterful ones like Adams. All this is perfectly consistent with Michel Foucault’s deconstructionist axiom “il n’y a que le texte”—there is only the text (for Adams, the messaging), and power relations flow based on who achieves hegemony over it.

This Adams attempts to prove. The intended audience here is the “deplorables”—his word choice, not mine—who loved his campaign-period blog and were rooting for him to be right that Trump would win. He tells us as much in the acknowledgements. And this shapes the book’s structure and tone: short numberless chapters with lots of single sentence paragraphs; a roughly seventh-grade vocabulary with lots of catchphrases; a sizable number of exaggerations, errors (for example, Mike Pence was not a senator but a congressman before he became Governor of Indiana), and yawning simplifications; the insertion of many old cartoon strips and blog excerpts to diversify page visuals; and a generally snarky timbre throughout.

Indeed, Win Bigly tries to work at two levels: to teach the reader about the techniques of political persuasion while at the same time deploying key techniques against the reader. This architecture itself illustrates not just one but a few of Adams’ persuasion hints, several of which do enable insights inter alia into several specific campaign episodes. Some readers will detect his efforts to manipulate them, and some won’t—but Adams (thinks he) wins either way. He fools the typical moist robots at the same time that he impresses the “higher” moist robots with his persuasive skills.

This corresponds to Adams’ advice to have a system wherein you can win either way—as opposed to a goal, where you have only one way to win and lots of ways to lose if you fail to achieve it. But here is the rub: A goal is outcome-oriented and usually concerns others as well as oneself, whereas a system of the sort Adams posits is merely transactional and personal. At one point he acknowledges that facts and logic do matter to policy outcomes in the world at large, just not to the arts of political persuasion. But he doesn’t care about outcomes, just about who wins and how they do it. Fairness? “Fairness is an argument for idiots and children,” writes Adams.

The most telling of his persuasion tips is the one on “strategic ambiguity.” The idea here is to leave proposals large and attention-getting but devoid of detail, and people will fill in what they want to see. Best Trump example: the synecdoche of the “big, beautiful wall” that encapsulated Trump’s message about immigration.

Being strategically ambiguous can lead to verbal gymnastics, which readers will see amply demonstrated when they get to Adams on religion. He tells of how he contemptuously abandoned the Methodist Church as a youth (his beloved mother brought on his disillusionment by neglecting to explain to him that not all Hebrew Bible stories, such as Jonah and the whale, are meant to be taken literally) and he fairly plainly considers religion to be a variety of irrational magical thinking.

But on pages 85 through 89, he concocts the most bizarre gimmick in the book, linking a vague story about an ancient wizard with the words “We the people” displayed in late-18th century font, with these, in turn, linked to just four words on an entire facing page, displayed in standard King James Bible font: “Turn the other cheek.” In other words, the holy writ of the American Republic flows from the words of Jesus. How? Let the credulous reader fill in the blank.

So is Adams a believer or not? Readers get to think whatever they want. The author seeds “evidence” for both conclusions—that’s the trick embedded in the “strategic ambiguity” win-win method.

Same with patriotism. Adams claims that all early political socialization is brainwashing, and admits he never says the words to the Pledge of Allegiance or sings the national anthem. He also says he doesn’t vote because he doesn’t want to trap himself in a “confirmation bias” loop. He also asserts that democracy is “more of a mental condition than a political system.” Yet he defends brainwashing on the grounds that if our government didn’t do it to us, some invader government ultimately would, and he claims to be a patriot, if an irrational one, anyway.

So is he a patriot or isn’t he? Again, readers fill in whatever they want.

Win Bigly also surreptitiously deploys other persuasion tips. One of them explains its many tedious repetitions of certain language nuggets (see persuasion tip 26). What fun, for Adams, and perhaps for some fellow persuasion voyeurs; but what a predatory way to have fun.

Alas, the author appears be an unwitting victim of his own theory. He so wanted to call the election correctly that he allowed his urge to cognitive consistency and the workings of cognitive dissonance (of which he makes much, in an oversimplified way) to easily override any substantive disagreements he had with Trump.

But there is more. Adams’ outsized hubris paints him as a megalomaniacal narcissist who strategically dispenses flecks of humility hither and yon to offset the dominant impression he deliberately makes in an attempt to establish his credibility as a master persuader (see persuasion tips 10 and 16). So it is no wonder that he, like Michael Flynn, felt a deep affinity for Trump—the master megalomaniacal narcissist of them all. Adams is well aware of the promiscuously associational nature of the human mind, but failed to detect it when it affected him. In the end, the trickster himself is the one tricked.

We really didn’t need another book on the myth of the rational voter. We have plenty already. We certainly don’t need these days a cunningly manipulative book about manipulation that bears such undisguised contempt for the core concept of human nature on which American liberty depends—a book that would drive a stake through the hearts of Abraham Lincoln’s “better angels” if it could.

When you get right down to it, Win Bigly is such a grab bag of noxious malarkey that you can almost see individual words trying to crawl off the pages and over the margins toward freedom so as not to be rendered guilty by association with it. I wish them well.