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Trump, Dilbert, Wizards, Fear, and Testosterone

Scott Adams is the presidential election’s weirdest, most provocative pundit. And it’s only gonna get weirder.

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AP Images

The Dilbert guy is not voting for Donald Trump. He’s not voting for anyone; that’s how they get you. No, Scott Adams — famous cartoonist, best-selling advice-book author, trained hypnotist, and, lately, architect of one of this election’s most bizarre and fascinating political blogs — is an impartial observer. He sees both Trump and, lately, maybe even Hillary Clinton as master persuaders, and clown geniuses, and wizards, and, yes, master hypnotists. In a sea of apoplectic talking heads and shameless partisans, he is the wokest of them all. He predicts Trump will win in a landslide, and he knows exactly why, and he has some theories about why you don’t.

Adams started drawing the silly, apolitical workplace farce Dilbert in 1989, and it has ruled the comics page and the daily-calendar industry ever since. But his appreciation for Trump’s gonzo persuasion techniques has inspired his more provocative urges. In the past few weeks alone, Adams has raised a ruckus by suggesting that Clinton’s coronation at the Democratic National Convention lowered his testosterone rates, and that he could master any political topic in an hour. Sass him about this stuff, and he’ll sass you right back. From CNN to Real Time With Bill Maher to the Washington Post, his rep as a cerebral, idiosyncratic pundit has only grown. We spoke on Friday over FaceTime about nuclear weapons, sad men, Godzilla, Twitter trolls, and babies. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

You’re on vacation right now, so hopefully you’re not glued to the news, but Trump is having a pretty breathtaking week. Are you up on this stuff? Can you tear yourself away?

Well, I’m watching the headlines, but I’m not reading the details of his assault against babies. So I think the headlines are telling me everything I need to know — this week, anyway.

Is there anything that Trump could do that would change your thinking about a landslide? He said himself that he could shoot somebody and it wouldn’t dent his support. You keep saying that even the craziest things he does are examples of persuasion techniques — does that apply even to murder?

Heh. No, obviously he was speaking hyperbolically. And at that time he was talking to his base supporters, who really were pretty strongly set for him. But if you look at the recent events, what’s different about them is that they’re manufactured by the media for the most part. It’s the spin you put on things.

The fact that he said some things about a baby at a rally can be spun any possible way. Now, if you were at the rally, you probably had one kind of reaction. And if you heard about it filtered through a headline that was mischaracterized, it sounds like Trump hates babies. If you heard that out of context about anybody else, you might laugh and say, “People don’t hate babies, that’s crazy.” But because the Clinton campaign are such good persuaders at this point — and their tentacles into the media are so good, either directly or through their surrogates — the overall message that Trump is evil creates this confirmation-bias trap, where you see every little story as supporting it, no matter how ridiculous it is.

Well, for starters, he does have himself to blame that it’s plausible that he would get in a fight with a baby at a rally. As you say, you wouldn’t really believe that headline coming from anyone else. But so many strange things have happened, he’s created this world where anything is possible.

Now, listen. Listen to your own question. Listen to your own question and then tell me if you are an objective observer. I’ll just repeat it back to you as closely as I can.

Sure.

“Trump has created a situation in which it seems plausible he would pick a fight with a baby.” [Laughs.] Really? Does that sound reasonable to you? When you hear it played back?

It doesn’t sound reasonable, no, but you have to say it does sound plausible.

Plausible?

I don’t know, man, he’s yelled at a lot of people.

Right. But even if he was yelling at the situation, do you imagine that he had some hidden anger toward babies? One hundred percent of the people at that event, and probably nearly 100 percent of the people who heard the story, hate crying babies at events, and are a little angry at the mother who would’ve kept him. What Trump did, the way he reacted, was 100 percent compatible with every observer. And yet! And yet! Somehow doing what every person was thinking and would like to do in that situation, being the most normal a human being can be — it was spun as, he was a monster. Now, if that’s not good persuasion, I don’t know what is.

Did you imagine you’d wade as deep into election commentary as you have? You’re blogging about it with the fervor of someone who’s covering it as a full-time job.

I didn’t imagine it, not ahead of time, because I’m not terribly interested in politics, and I don’t write, in my opinion — I guess it crosses the boundary a little bit — but I’m trying to avoid writing about politics. I’m trying to stick to the question of persuasion, and what you’re seeing here — have you read a blog about what I call “Godzilla”?

About Godzilla? No.

I think I’ve tweeted about it more than blogged about it. There was a report in The New York Times that Obama, during his first election, I think, hired a number of behavioral psychologists to help him craft his message. Now, I happen to know, because of my background in hypnosis and studying persuasion for a long time, that their power is far greater than the public understands. In other words, their ability to craft a message, quickly test it, and find out how to tweak it to make it better or get rid of it, is, in the year 2016, nothing like it was 20 years ago. It’s become a superpower. I can tell you that Clinton’s campaign, before Bernie Sanders went out, did not have any signs of good persuasion. She was talking about experience and facts and policies and all this stuff that doesn’t persuade anybody, because we don’t know about facts and policies. We just pretend we do. But about the time that Bernie dropped out, she went full hard-core persuasion, and dropped all facts and reasons — you don’t hear much about policies anymore. And she went to fear.

Take a look at what Clinton did to change her message. It changed from, “Hey, I’m experienced and he’s not” — which is not terribly persuasive when people want the outsider anyway — and it went from, “Hey, he’s not such a good businessman,” to, “He’s dark, he’s scary, he’s crazy, he’s mentally unstable, he’ll have the nuclear codes.” They went to super-scare. And I would imagine that the top persuaders, and one among them, who I call “Godzilla,” in particular — I think they waded in and said, “Stop doing everything you’re doing, and scare the fuck out of people. And here’s how you do it. You make this guy look like he’s out of control.” So out of control that somebody like you could say, “You know, I think he does hate that baby.” And they pulled that off.

So this report, and it’s unconfirmed, that he was in some sort of meeting, and he kept asking, “We have all these nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?” The report is that he asked that three times. And that’s another thing that people already predisposed to not like him, or to be scared of him, point to as evidence that he sounds like a crazy person. Do you believe that he actually said that?

So that’s the perfect kind of thing that is almost certainly out of context. First of all, it’s unconfirmed. But second of all, I can easily imagine myself, in that meeting, wanting to know all the ways it’s bad.

Sure.

So if I want to know all the ways it’s bad, I say, “Why can’t I use it?” And then somebody will say, “Well, it would kill too many civilians.” So then you can imagine me saying, “All of our weapons kill too many civilians. So why can’t I use it?” “Well, it also would be opening up other people to build nuclear things.” And he would say, “There’s nothing stopping them now. So why can’t I use it?” So I can see even myself asking that question three times, because I want to understand all the ways that I shouldn’t use it. And I want to make sure I’m not missing anything.

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Getty Images

But you know, there’s a reason that every president uses the same language, which is, “We’re not taking any options off the table.” And the reason is, all the options are always on the table, until they’re not. And he was asking specifically, what conditions take it off the table? Because he was trying to get informed. Would you not want the next president of the United States to understand why he shouldn’t use these weapons? And how is he gonna know? Common sense only gets you so far, right? So everybody’s criticizing him for using his instinct and not studying and not asking the question, and then a report that he was asking detailed questions about why he should avoid doing this terrible thing comes out as, “Crazy man wants to use nuclear weapons.” Do you see how easy it is to spin this stuff?

This is not your day job. Are you concerned that your more provocative political commentary might affect the way people perceive Dilbert, or your other books, or just you? Do people still call their hometown newspapers to complain about comic strips?

Well, Dilbert is pretty solid in the newspapers, and on the website, the traffic — I think the readership’s bigger than it’s ever been, historically. But there are lines of my business that suffer directly. So for example, I had a very lucrative speaking career until I started writing about Trump. And that disappeared. Because since I’m associated with him, and he’s associated with Hitler, it’s tough to invite the guy who’s associated with Hitler to your club, or to your corporate gathering, I suppose. So that actually went from lots of requests all the time to just nothing, and fairly suddenly.

But my Twitter account is bigger than ever. I’m kind of new to Twitter, but 50,000 users seems like a lot to me. I’m getting more attention from more media analysts than ever before, The Wall Street Journal is coming over soon to talk to me, BBC wanted to talk to me but I couldn’t schedule it. It’s pretty much a continuous stream. I was on Bill Maher, CNN. I’m playing what I call a system, not a goal.

Right. From your book.

From my book. And the system is this: If you do something publicly and well, you don’t know where that’s gonna go. It’s almost certainly gonna create opportunities that are useful. So I am consciously and intentionally cannibalizing my other opportunities for something potentially more useful, or something better. I don’t know what that is. It could be anything. But people are begging me to do a podcast, just for example. I’ve got an offer to do another book, which I probably can sell better now than I could before. Because before, people said, “Hey, he’s the comic guy. Why do I want to buy his book that has words in it?” But now, if they think I’m the Trump writer about persuasion, and they liked it, maybe they’d buy that book. So that’s the system, with no specific goal, and probably a lot of ways that could turn out well. But in the meantime, it energizes me. Keeps me happy, and I’m having a heck of a time.

You’ve written that this Trump stuff, your writing on it, has reduced your income by 40 percent; you add that you’ve gotten threats, and even death threats. If those things are true, why are you doing this? Why publicly talk about this stuff if you’ve got that much to lose?

Well, for the reason I gave. It’s an intentional cannibalization. But I’m also at that age, and place in my career, where there’s a natural inclination to try to be useful to people who aren’t as lucky. And when I saw Trump enter the race, it was clear to me that he would be deeply misinterpreted, all the time. And that his value, whatever it is, would maybe have been missed if he didn’t have someone who wasn’t him explain, “No, these are techniques, not random crazy talk.” Because remember, when he first came in, people thought he was literally just joking. Just acting like a crazy clown. And they kept thinking that until it kept working. And I was explaining it all along the way. You see a lot of other articles now, that are sort of along the same lines of what I’ve been saying, and I think maybe I helped loosen up that line of thinking as legitimate.

A lot of people are pointing to how he focuses energy, and how he activates certain parts of your brain, to turn off your rational thought, stuff like that. I think that, in context, if you say, “My god, he’s hypnotizing the world, that sounds like the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” if you hear me say, “No, we’re all like that all the time, and they’re all trying to influence us; he just has a little better tools,” that sounds like a completely different thing. And I think that’s a valid interpretation.

So everyone who knows that I’m talking to you just wants me to ask you about wizard theory. You’ve declared both Trump and Kanye West to be wizards: They’re hugely successful, out of proportion maybe. They’re perceived as arrogant but they can withstand criticism and the occasional PR crisis. They’re skilled at cognitive dissonance. Are you, yourself, a wizard, or at least an aspiring one?

Well, the way I defined it, I get to be it, because part of the definition is success in a field that you shouldn’t be succeeding in because you don’t have any experience. So I became one of the top cartoonists in the world, and I don’t even draw that well. I became a number-one best-selling author the first time I wrote a book. I’ve tried a number of other business that didn’t work out, so it’s part of being a system and not a goal. But the things that didn’t work out were never because of my skill level. The things I couldn’t control ended up being the fatal things. I’m right in the middle of launching a startup that you’ll hear a lot about, something completely different from the things I’ve done, and it’s sensational. It’s probably gonna be the best thing I ever do. We’re testing that now. It’s amazing.

Anyway, if you judge it by that ability, most of what makes that work is an understanding of persuasion. So if you look at Trump, he jumped from convincing people to build homes, or build buildings and move into them, to persuading somebody he should be on The Apprentice, to writing a book that convinced people he’s an expert on persuasion, and then politics. So Trump is using the same skill set in persuasion to succeed in field after field, and I do the same thing. So the thing that allows me to succeed is usually my understanding of persuasion. It’s in my writing, it’s in my drawings, my speaking.

Kanye’s sort of a special case, because he might actually have, um, some issues. I won’t try to diagnose him. But I will say that he has the confidence and the ability to withstand criticism, the ability to succeed in a field in which he shouldn’t have succeeded — yeah, he seems to have the whole package of persuasions. And I’ve heard his lyrics. They’re pretty great too.

It’s been a week since the Democratic National Convention — have your testosterone levels recovered?

It’s funny — this is another good case of persuasion. The science completely supports what I suggested. As a hypothesis, by the way, not stating a fact. That when people are subjected to things that make them feel victorious and good, their testosterone levels somewhat immediately rise. It’s measurable, repeatable science. As far as I know. I know what I read, right? I haven’t done the experiments myself. And, certainly anecdotally, you know that if you win a big contest or whatever, you’re more likely to want to have sex. I can tell you that as a professional speaker — when I was doing it — if I give a talk to 1,000 people, and there’s a standing ovation, an hour later, I’m desperate to have sex. I can feel my testosterone levels coming out of my ears. And I think other public figures would report the same thing, right?

So the hypothesis is about as reasonable and normal as you can possibly get. But the response on Twitter — and other places, I’m sure — is, “My god, the cartoonist thinks looking at women succeed will sap his testosterone.” Sort of the sarcastic, mocking things. But my guess is it’s not as simple as that — probably some people are getting the opposite response. If you were a man who was a die-hard Democratic supporter, then all you were watching was a victory. So you probably had a spike in your testosterone. If you were on the other side, the opposite — and if you were neutral — probably it would decrease your testosterone. If you were just thinking, “Hmm, men used to be more important.”

And by the way, I’m not saying they should’ve been more important. I’m just pointing out that it was like this before, and it’s like this now, and the normal way that people would perceive that — on an emotional level, not a rational level, not with any sense of social justice, but just how they feel it — “I feel a little less important, relative to other people.” Not everybody can be the president.

In terms of maintaining or even elevating current national testosterone levels, what advice would you give Hillary? How can she soothe men, if she’s currently rattling them?

If I were advising her, I would tell her to do nothing different. Because she’s way ahead in the polls, as I understand it. She simply has to keep with the fear. I use the analogy that you don’t have to outrun a bear, you only have to outrun the person you’re with. So to win, she just has to make Trump look increasingly scary. And it appears that that will be easy to do, and she’s been very successful at it.

Just glancing at your Twitter account, you seem unfazed by any insults or backlash that you get: You’ll go back and forth with people who tweet at you. Do you read all that stuff, the social media stuff, the angry blog posts? Does any of it ever get to you, or change your thinking?

In terms of changing my thinking, if I read them — and I don’t always read them — if there’s a good point in there, it might change my thinking. I can’t think of a specific example where that’s happened. Normally the critics do what we’re talking about here, which is they interpret what I said as something that I didn’t say, by conflating things, or taking something to its extreme, or simply not understanding why I said what I said. The “learning any topic in one hour” tweet was meant to confuse dumb people so they would talk about it. [Laughs.] It was the purpose. If they got into a conversation about how hard it was to learn the job of president, then my message got through.

I didn’t take you for the sort of guy who would tweet a shirtless photo of yourself at someone who was publicly criticizing or assailing your health or your fitness, but you do that, occasionally. Is there a point where you worry you might wade too far into the Twitter muck?

Well, here’s the way I laughingly describe this. These are people who have chosen a verbal fight with someone who writes humorous things with the fewest number of characters, for a living. That’s literally my job. If you were to name some famous people who’re the best at writing short sentences of humor, I’d be on the short list. Top 100, I think. It’s what I do for a living. So to me it’s always hilarious that people pick a fight with me in public, in a realm in which I’m overarmed and they’re underarmed. So for me, I always just consider it part of the entertainment for my followers, that they can see how I respond.

In your Reddit AMA, you led with the fact that you’re a trained hypnotist. I’m wondering how that manifests itself in your everyday life.

So I took the course in hypnosis when I was in my 20s. And I was trying to learn, really, how the mind works. And I figured it would apply to everything I did.

So you look at Dilbert, for example. You’ll notice that — well, you wouldn’t notice until I told you — you’ll notice that I’m using a hypnosis-inspired technique. Which is, Dilbert doesn’t have a last name. His first name is one you’ve almost never heard. Very few people have that. He doesn’t live in any town that’s specified. The company name is never mentioned, it’s a workplace. You don’t know how old he is. You don’t know his boss’s first or last name, or any of that. And that’s a hypnosis technique, where you stay general, and you let people fill in what they want to fill in. And I did that so people would say, “Hey, that’s my job.” Because I haven’t given them reasons to exclude it.

Remember when we were talking about the Clinton camp saying that Trump was dark? That’s hypnosis. That is deep technique. I believe that if you study the tools of persuasion, you can be a little less susceptible. So for example, I don’t register for any political party, and I don’t vote. That allows me to have a little more objectivity than someone who had. Because we know there’s a joiner effect. As soon as you join, you just imagine your side is right all the time, even if they aren’t. So likewise, when I heard the word dark, I realized it was a trap, and so every time someone falls into the trap, I can mentally say, “Ah, that’s one of those trap things.” And discount it. So knowing hypnosis allows you to view the world in a whole different way. It’s like you take the lid off, and you can see the engine. And when something breaks, you know why.