Monday, November 2, 2015

Dilbert on Donald: I'm Not Persuaded

Comment withheld
Along with many, the Donald Trump phenomenon fascinates me. He comes across as a bombastic, narcissistic demagogue, mostly (but not entirely) full of hot air and baloney. On the other hand, he was until recently the favorite of most Republican voters. Many political commentators have attempted to deconstruct the Trump phenomenon. Is his popularity the result of his personal characteristics? Or is it the result of a miasma in the political air that has infected Republican voters? (I’m happy to note the Democrats and sane people seem immune to the Trump airs.) However, one assessment of Trump that has caught my attention comes from Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip.
Dilbert creator & hypnotist Scott Adams

Scott Adams wrote How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of My Life Story, a book that I enjoyed. (My review here.) In that book, Adams writes about many topics, but his distinction between goals and systems is worth the price of the book. But the book has much more than that. Adams is an open-minded and inquiring fellow, and he’s willing to try ideas and techniques to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Among the many practices he’s tried is hypnosis, and he finds it effective. I’ve been doing some reading on my own about hypnosis as a part of my interest in all types of persuasion, influence, and power. And while I don’t have any training in hypnosis, Adams does, and he writes about it in his book and in his blog. He defines hypnosis broadly, and like me, he’s interested more widely in persuasion. As a part of this interest, he’s been writing about Donald Trump. Adams describes Trump as one of the “Master Wizards” of persuasion (His Master Wizard—or Master Persuader—Hypothesis is an offshoot of his Moist Robot Hypothesis. Read his book or go to his blog for details.) In his ongoing commentary on Trump and the Trump presidential campaign, Adams entertains the possibility of a Trump landslide in the coming presidential election. By the way, Adams doesn’t claim that Trump would necessarily be a good president, just that he’s in a good position to win because he’s exhibiting the ways of a Master Wizard. I think that Adams is onto something, but I find Adams’s hypothesis has severe limitations.

In reading about hypnosis via The Rogue Hypnotist and Kreskin, as well having done some background reading on Milton Erickson, I believe that there are situations where conversational hypnosis can work. Also, there’s the whole topic of advertising and propaganda as a form of mass persuasion, which relates to hypnosis. Kreskin, for instance, claims there is no hypnosis in the sense of a pure trance, only suggestibility, and from what I’m learning, that’s probably an accurate characterization of what goes on. Kreskin reveals that in his shows, when he “hypnotizes” someone on stage, he makes a point of choosing a volunteer who is readily open to suggestion (which he’s learned to identify quickly). Some people are more much open and suggestible than others.

I believe that I’m on the less suggestible side of the scale. I’m WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) (courtesy of Jonathan Haidt), and I’m also a lawyer with over 30 years of experience in negotiations, hearings, trials, and appeals. In other words, I have a professionally trained crap detector. This is not to say up never been bamboozled (I have), but at least in the arena of a courtroom I know how to ask probing questions and deploy appropriate skepticism. This attitude carries over, at least to some extent, in other aspects of my life.

For instance, this skeptical-inquiring mindset, which is so handy in cross-examination, kicks on when watching a Republican presidential debate. The amount of free-flowing crap is immense. I'm not suggesting that the Democrats don’t dispense it, just that it's not the same magnitude of volume. Some people may accuse me of being close-mindedness, but I believe that reality has a well-established liberal bias. (Please take the statement with a large grain of salt as I stated it with tongue-in-cheek. Oh! How I love a good cliché!) Of course, someone will say that this is merely my liberal bias shining through, but I started my life as a Republican and only left that fold slowly and without rancor towards family, friends, and acquaintances that remained within the fold. (I learned in the most recent debate that I’m over three decades ahead of Ben Bernanke.) I’ve changed other beliefs and practices as well, and these changes didn’t occur as a matter of whim or some spooky, undue influence. In other words, careful thought and reason play a role in my life and can play a role in the lives of others. It can play a role in politics.

So the question becomes, “How much baloney can a candidate dispense and still garner a majority of the votes?” This a vital question because it goes to the viability of democracy itself. Some have defended democracy as good enough if people are smart enough to vote for their own interests. (I think Richard Posner makes this argument in Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy.) Of course, self-interest or organized group interests do carry significant (often inordinate) weight in political decision-making, but even granting that weight, many decisions aren’t compelled or even influenced by financial self-interest (narrowly defined). Most issues about cultural and ethics discussed in the political realm, such as gay marriage, abortion, and marijuana legalization, aren’t issues that affect the pocketbooks of most voters. Yet, many hold strong views on these topics. If those views are not informed by reason and inquiry, and not shaped by self-interest (narrowly understood), then how are they shaped? Visions informed by habit, fear, or hope quickly fill any void. In the arena of values (culture war) politics, we see and hear political pitches aimed at fundamental beliefs, fears, and hopes. (Alas, fears trump—pun intended—hopes as primary motivators.) In this arena, the candidate with the best skills for suggesting—without arguing—for a position will probably come out ahead. But can the candidate who fools a lot of the people a lot of the time win over enough of the voters?

Scott Adams suggests that Donald Trump is bluffing about immigration to establish an opening negotiating stance, or that Trump’s actions are the opening act in a three-act play will bring about a happy ending for both the protagonist (Trump) and illegal immigrants. Tragedy will turn to Romance. Maybe. Adams may argue (and I haven’t seen this yet), that candidates throughout American history have campaigned saying one thing and then doing quite another. Sometimes this is a matter of duplicity, sometimes the result of a change in circumstances, and sometimes the result of a genuine change of beliefs. However, it must remain a fundamental tenet of electoral democracy that we believe that a candidate will act consistently with what the candidate says during the campaign. When this doesn’t happen, such as Nixon’s pledge to “Bring Us Together”, it causes a profound rend in the body politic. Thus, the most fundamental question becomes one of the degree of trust we can place in a candidate to do what the candidate says he will do. Alternatively, as some voters tacitly suggest, should we grant a candidate carte blanche upon entering office? Most voters do this by not paying any attention to candidates. They base their choice on the flimsiest of reasons, such as whether the voter would like to sit down and share a beer with the candidate (typically men) or whether the candidate would “keep us safe”.

Trump reminds me of the former Italian leader, Silvio Berlusconi and the current Russian president Vladimir Putin. Both of them were elected leaders, with Berlusconi often playing the clown and accomplishing very little. Putin is quite severe, actively increasing the power of the state and pushing a nationalist agenda. Other elected leaders who provide a negative role model are Hitler and Mussolini, both of whom came to power through electoral process (they both immediately threw overboard after having gained power). Note! I’m not saying the Trump is a Hitler and a Mussolini. I’m only citing them as examples of the efficacy of some types of political rhetoric and persuasion. Hitler was able to persuade a many in the German nation to follow him. Of course, he killed or imprisoned those whom he could not persuade. Persuasion that draws upon nationalistic rhetoric, triumphalism, and fear, can—in certain circumstances—prove extremely persuasive. No matter how persuasive Trump may be to some, to support him for his persuasive abilities (if they do hold up enough to get him even nominated), is not an indicator of this fitness for office. (And, again, Adams has not endorsed Trump.)

A general reservation that I hold about Scott Adams’s Master Wizard Hypothesis is that it doesn’t address democratic eloquence. For instance, the current incumbent two-term president, Barack Obama, is often quite eloquent in formal speeches, and quite measured in his interviews. In rhetorical style, he’s the anti-Trump. And so for that matter is Dr. Ben Carson, Trump’s current chief rival for the Republican nomination. Despite significant obstacles, American voters have twice elected Obama as president of the United States. (And remember wooden Al Gore outpolled the affable George W. Bush.) If we look throughout American history, the greatest and most effective presidents, Lincoln, Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, are all displayed a high level of verbal intelligence and eloquence. In the modern era, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt could speak movingly to large crowds, but their off-the-cuff bombast – well, I can’t think of any examples of that. The era of presidential debates started in 1960 with Nixon and Kennedy. Neither of those two candidates displayed the verbal sparring and insult that we hear now between the Republican candidates. In fact, both were courteous and respectful toward the other. While not always the case, the verbally eloquent and articulate presidential candidate defeats the opponent with a greater amount of bombast, even those who may have used some of the techniques of hypnotic suggestion that Adams find so empowering in Trump. From what I can discern from my study, hypnosis works in a significant way when the receiver wants to be open to suggestion. We may thus conclude that many Republican voters want to receive the suggestions the Trump (and the other Republican candidates) want to purvey.

All this may prove moot, as some national polls, as well as most recent Iowa poll showed the Ben Carson is now ahead of the entire field. Mild-mannered Dr. Ben Carson, another anti-Trump. Or is he just more subtle in his choice of language and staging? It appears that people are attracted to Carson precisely because of his mild, understated manner. How does this work with the Adams’s Master Wizard Hypothesis about Trump?

In one blog, Adams notes that someone measured Trump as speaking at a fourth-grade level. Adams thinks that’s a part of Trump’s communication wizardry. Any effective speaker must know the audience and match the appropriate linguistic register to that audience, but how low should you go? For instance, listen to Obama talking to and about “folks” when he’s in a small group or informal setting and compare that to the more literary register of his formal speeches. Or think of Lincoln telling humorous tales and bawdy jokes to his friends sitting around a cracker-barrel and then penning the immortal words of the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. Did Churchill bring the English language to war by using vague phrasing at a fourth-grade level to rally the British people in their darkest hour? And that later became their finest hour in part because of his eloquence. All of these speakers used powerful images and sophisticated language that resonated with widely held beliefs shared by their audiences. So does Trump do this so well? Has the American electorate been dumbed-down? I’m not persuaded yet.

Based on my years of study and practice of persuasion, I don’t believe that there is a Holy Grail of persuasion. There are many little things that you can do to increase your odds of success, but nothing guarantees success. We are subject to the whims and caprices of that most implacable of gods, the Audience. Even the Master Wizard Gerry Spence, who’s Win Your Case: How to Present, Persuade, and Prevail--Every Place, Every Time, that Adams has read (if it follows Spence’s earlier How to Argue and Win Every Time I’ve read) says you can’t win every time—at least not in the sense of getting everything you hoped for through persuasion. (Spence’s titles go in for hyperbole, but he is very persuasive and credible.) You have to choose your battles as best you can. I believe that Trump’s success to date is more a function of the hopes and fears of his audience. Or more accurately, their hopes that he can deliver them from their fears. I believe that this Washington Post article, assessing Trump’s appeal as a function of his audience provides greater explanatory power about Trump’s success to date than does Adams’s Master Wizard Hypothesis.