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Scott Adams vs. Sam Harris on President Trump

While it is a year old, I found this podcast interview/debate between Sam Harris and Scott Adams (the author of Dilbert) on President Trump to be quite interesting. Both Harris and Adams present powerful arguments for their positions. In this post, I want to focus on Adams’s defense of President Trump.

Adams argues that Trump is a master persuader who employs a variety of tools to significant effect. That is a big part of the reasons why, according to Adams, Trump was elected. People don’t understand this, especially people who oppose his policies. Thus, they underestimate and misjudge him.

Adams focuses on two characteristics of Trump’s style that promote persuasion. First, Trump usually makes a claim that, even if it is factually false, turns out to be emotionally true. What does Adams mean by this? One example he gives is Trump’s claim that Palestinians were celebrating the attacks of 9/11 against the U.S. While Adams says we don’t have evidence of such celebrating, he argues that generally people on both sides of the issue recognize that Palestinians have not been as upset by 9/11 as they should have been.

Second, Trump usually takes a political position in the strongest form possible and does this for strategic reasons. By adopting an extreme position, he leaves himself significant room to “make a deal” by compromising later on. For example, Adams claims that Trump initially proposed deporting all illegal aliens. But over time, the effects of his increased enforcement of the immigration laws has allowed him to drastically retreat from this position (and to bring the strongest anti-immigration people along with him).

I found both of Adams’s claims about Trump to ring true. After listening to Adams, I was completely unsurprised when Trump’s attorneys argued that he could pardon himself. He was adopting a strong position, which he could later compromise on, if necessary.

Apart from the alleged persuasiveness of these techniques, one can also assess them morally. Sam Harris focuses on this aspect, strongly criticizing Trump’s ethics. What can one say about the morality of these techniques?

The first one – the emotional truth example – seems quite problematic. Alas, Trump is hardly alone in employing this device. Consider for example the frequent claim of SJWs that a person on the right is a white supremacist. In a large number of cases, including the attack on Charles Murray, the claim is absurd. But for the SJW it may be emotionally true. Even if Murray does not advocate white supremacy, he appears to advocate a set of policies that – for the SJW – would allow the continuation of the alleged subordinate conditions of blacks and other minorities. Thus, the claim might be factually false, but emotionally true for SJWs.

This tactic is morally problematic. Facts matter. Playing fast and loose with the facts in order to persuade people undermines our discourse. It might be effective, but it is demagoguery and should be condemned.

The second technique – adopting the strongest position while expecting to compromise later – is more defensible. One might argue that urging a strong or extreme policy position is problematic, but it is well recognized that in politics people need to compromise. It is often recognized that the initial proposal is just that – a starting point for negotiations. To the extent that political proposals are like offers in a negotiation, there does not seem much to be object to about this behavior.

Of course, in the political world, political positions are often taken to be more than “mere starting offers.” If people are deceived and they come to advocate an undesirable position that a presidential candidate has proposed, then the tactic may have significant costs. Morally, the best procedure is to propose a policy position that one favors, even if one does not expect to get it passed, and then to be willing to compromise later, to get it enacted. President Reagan was a master at this strategy.

Reader Discussion

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on June 13, 2018 at 07:54:21 am

Pretty fair assessment, I'd say. President Trump is such a difficult fellow to characterize, my impression is he is not the loud-mouth, bombastic buffoon that his Tweetoric or his critics suggest. Much of the loud & wild claims can be (should be) interpreted as a sort of "extreme puffing" so characteristic of sales-people in general, and real estate sales-people in particular, particularly in NYC.

In fact, I would wager, were it not for despising his revolt against the left, many of his fellow New Yorkers would see in him much of themselves, or in somebody they know intimately from their daily life. The sense of outrage is only heightened for those unaccustomed to the east coast urban culture or business/real estate profession.

I think, too, something else is characteristic, and perhaps overlooked, of this President; he is "results-oriented". The response to this assertion might be, "all people who gain positions of leadership are results-oriented, particularly those who manage to become president. And, to be sure, this is true, but their methods do vary.

Trump seems to prize immediate results, perhaps (time will tell) even at the expense of long term strategy; one might say, he's tactical, not strategic.

I would argue, many, most presidents are strategic in their methods. Sure, they want something visible to show their supporters, and to sway their detractors, especially in those all-important "first 100 days", but they will sacrifice or settle for the appearance of immediate results to "stay on track" towards implementing a long-term strategy.

Obama, for instance, in my view, was/is very strategic; he is an ideologue always with an eye on the long-term realization of his ideal. Ideologues possess a very specific and well-articulated goal, and a very well-defined strategy of how to achieve it. So, he will lay the ground-work, deliberately, systematically, towards achieving a future goal (in his case, based on a progressive, globalistic worldview). For strategic thinkers, especially strategic ideologues, they are content to wait for what they want, even if that means it will not come to full fruition under their own leadership.

Trump is very different; he wants immediate tactical results, ones that he can cobble together towards achieving a very generalized, loosely defined strategic vision, that is subject to sudden and significant adjustment according to, and in order to take best advantage of, changing circumstances.

I think in part, this difference in leadership approach can explain much of the "deranged-ragement" we are witnessing among Progressives, because they are seeing their well-laid, intricately planned ground work, so methodically implemented towards achieving that final goal, being wiped-out and away nearly overnight.

Therefore, we have people like George Soros making statements like, "Everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong", and how he can accuse that Trump, "“is willing to destroy the world.” - what he actually means (as Rappaport so well characterizes, and may be considered as Soros' emotional truth) is that Trump is willing to destroy Soros’ world, or rather his worldview.

And, why we also see this in Bill Maher's reaction when he can say, "bring on the recession", if it will ruin Trump, and seemingly really believe, that its either recession or "you lose your democracy" - again his emotional truth - he really means, lose his worldview of democracy.

They react this way because they realize, it may take years and years to put back in place the steps towards their goal that Trump has undone. Notice, I didn’t say that they have lost faith that they will achieve their goal, only that all their hard work has been undone and now needs re-done!

They are all about the long-term goal, Trump is all about the deal at hand, very different approaches, and extremely perplexing, but more so, enraging, to an ideologue.

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Paul Binotto
on June 13, 2018 at 10:11:32 am

Politicians have to use demagogy to get shit done. People can't handle facts.

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Boris
on June 13, 2018 at 11:27:24 am

Professor Rappaport's otherwise excellent article is marred by at least one piece of misinformation:

"Adams focuses on two characteristics of Trump’s style that promote persuasion. First, Trump usually makes a claim that, even if it is factually false, turns out to be emotionally true. What does Adams mean by this? One example he gives is Trump’s claim that Palestinians were celebrating the attacks of 9/11 against the U.S. While Adams says we don’t have evidence of such celebrating, he argues that generally people on both sides of the issue recognize that Palestinians have not been as upset by 9/11 as they should have been."

If this is indeed what Adams stated then the statement is factually incorrect. In other words, it does not accurately reflect what Mr. Trump actually said.
At a November 21, 2015 rally in Birmingham, Alabama, Trump said:
"I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down," And I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering."
The next morning, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, he was asked if he misspoke, given that there was zero evidence of such an occurrence. Trump replied:
"It was on television. I saw it. It was well covered at the time, George. Now, I know they don't like to talk about it, but it was well covered at the time. There were people over in New Jersey that were watching it, a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down. Not good."

As Professor Rappaport says: "Facts matter. Playing fast and loose with the facts in order to persuade people undermines our discourse. It might be effective, but it is demagoguery and should be condemned."

I quite agree. I think it therefore instructive to note that Trump did not " claim that Palestinians were celebrating." He claimed that he "watched,'" on television, "thousands and thousands" of Arab-Americans cheering the fall of "that building" (sic). In fact, the word "Palestinians" was never uttered.

As far as I can tell, Trump's statement is, in its blatant mendacity, a perfect example of his demagoguery, and I therefore condemn it.

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john petrella
on June 13, 2018 at 12:36:04 pm

HaHa!
Good to see that the "Power" of Norman Vincent Peale's "Positive Thinking" continues to influence Boris.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on June 14, 2018 at 13:07:45 pm

"....a perfect example of his demagoguery, and I therefore condemn it."

right up there with "You can keep your healthcare!!!!

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on June 14, 2018 at 13:28:36 pm

The commenter must condemn Trump's "blatant mendacity... and demagoguery."

Haha the virtue signaling hypocrisy!

The Democrat Party was founded on them and has thrived on them and would be at a loss for principles and for words if it could not rely on mendacity and demagoguery, and "blatant" is its only speed.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on February 15, 2020 at 09:33:02 am

I found this article - and your comment - very helpful. Thank you for taking the time to articulate. Now that the impeachment process is over, I’d love if Sam Harris had Scott on again to see if anything has changed.

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David

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.