Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World where Facts Don’t Matter, by Scott Adams (Penguin Random House, 298 pp., $27.00)
In 2015, early in the Republican primary season, National Review branded Donald Trump the “clown candidate.” Salon labeled him the “clown in charge.” The Federalist issued a “friendly reminder” that “Donald Trump is a clown.” Pundit Charles Krauthammer labeled him a “rodeo clown.”
But on August 13, 2015 (note: 2015, not 2016), Scott Adams, the cartoonist famous for his Dilbert comic strip, called Trump a “clown genius” for his effective use of sophisticated persuasion techniques. “I’m going to predict he will be our next president,” Adams wrote. “I think he will move to the center on social issues (already happening) and win against Clinton in a tight election.” Later that month, pointing to a projection by Nate Silver that Trump had only a 2 percent chance of winning the election, Adams doubled down, saying, “If I had to put a number on my prediction, I would say a 98 percent chance of Trump winning the whole thing. That is the direct opposite of Silver’s prediction.”
Adams continued to issue bold predictions throughout the election cycle, a spooky number of which actually came true, including the most important one: Trump’s victory. Adams was arguably the most accurate pundit in the last election. Cashing in on his new fame, he has written Win Bigly, analyzing the election and detailing his theories of persuasion.
Adams paints a dim picture of human rationality. Rather than using facts and logic to make decisions, he maintains, most of us decide based on emotion and various illogical heuristics. Human beings are “moist robots” who can be reprogrammed by “master persuaders.” Adams also believes that “mass delusions are the norm.” Among the drivers of human decision-making are reality filters like confirmation bias, with which we interpret new data to uphold what we already believe. “Confirmation bias isn’t an occasional bug in our human operating system,” Adams writes. “It is the operating system.” We also tend to elevate in importance whatever we’re paying attention to, which helps explain the power of the media, which can’t necessarily tell us what to believe but can move certain issues to the top of the agenda. Trump won in part because he made his issues—the border wall, for example—a focus of the debate.
Adams examines the Trump persuasion toolkit, including techniques that he calls “thinking past the sale” and “anchoring.” For instance, Trump would frequently make an assertion that was technically wrong yet directionally correct, invariably drawing a flurry of media attention to “fact check” and correct him—all the while drawing attention to the issues that he wanted to highlight. For example, Trump claimed to be worth $10 billion; critics scurried to prove that he was worth less, unintentionally certifying Trump’s main point—that he was extremely rich. Now that everyone agreed that Trump was a successful, wealthy businessman, the only question was how wealthy. The mere act of focusing on Trump’s relative wealth also raises the perceived importance of Trump’s business success as a reason to vote for him. “The initial number becomes a mental anchor that is hard to move,” Adams says. “That’s why you should always be the first to offer numbers, even if you are talking about an entirely different situation.” Trump pulled a similar trick when he promised that he would get Mexico to pay for the border wall that he planned to build. If your reaction was that there’s no way Mexico will pay for that wall, you were already “thinking past the sale.” You’ve implicitly admitted that there will be a wall; now the debate is over how to pay for it.
Adams took advantage of these techniques himself. He knew that his assessment of the election, in which he gave Trump a 98 percent chance of winning, would attract attention, even if all the coverage was critical. Giving a lower number for Trump’s chances might be more accurate but less attention-getting. He also intentionally chose the mirror image of Nate Silver’s statistical analysis in order to bracket himself with that much more renowned election prognosticator.
Adams is himself a trained persuader, and so his track record looks more convincing than it actually is. His predictions are shaped to benefit from future confirmation bias. In one of his more notable observations, in December 2015, he opined that Hillary Clinton “looks as if she is hiding a major health issue,” and that “I’ll put the odds at 75 percent that we learn of an important Clinton health issue before the general election.” Clinton was caught on tape collapsing at a 9/11 memorial event the following year. Adams declared victory, though his original prediction was intentionally vague, allowing him (and us) to fill in the blanks later. Had Adams, along with the pro-Trump media, not been pounding the “Hillary’s not well” table, her dizzy stumble may not have made such waves. Did her collapse represent an accurate prediction, or an event that achieved significance only because of Adams’s predictions?
In Win Bigly, Adams provides a practical and actionable guide to the field of persuasion. He offers readers 31 “persuasion tips” and summarizes material from books by the likes of psychologist Robert Cialdini and behavioral economics guru Daniel Kahneman. Trump rewrote the rules of politics, he maintains, and should have made us question many of our fundamental assumptions about human behavior—what he calls “ripping a hole in the fabric of the universe.” He urges readers to “think of [Trump’s win] as the moment your entire worldview dissolves in front of your eyes, and you have to rebuild it from scratch. As a trained persuader, I found this situation thrilling beyond words. And I was about to get a lot of company, once people realized what they were seeing.” Indeed, Trump’s victory has provoked an existential crisis for virtually all major authorities and institutions in American life.
Whether you admire our 45th president or detest him, and regardless of whether you buy Adams’s analysis, Win Bigly is an excellent guide to understanding how Trump took down the American political establishment.
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