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.