Book Reviews, Charles, Life Advice, Political Discussion & Analysis, Practical Skills, Social Behavior
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Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter (Scott Adams)

Would you like to read a book about Scott Adams?  Then this is your book, especially if you want to hear Scott Adams talk about how awesome he is.  Would you like to read a book about persuasion techniques?  This book may shed a little light, maybe two pages’ worth.  Would you like to read a book about how Donald Trump got elected, which is what this book is supposed to be?  You are mostly out of luck—unless you want to be told that Donald Trump got elected primarily because of Scott Adams, in which case you are again at the right place.

I came to this book expecting it to be notably insightful, which may be part of the problem—disappointment breeds resentment.  I like “Dilbert,” Adams’s cartoon creation—who doesn’t?  “Dilbert,” of course, is anti-political correctness without being conservative (Adams is very emphatically not a conservative).  Then, during the 2016 campaign, I often saw references by sensible conservatives to Adams’s prediction that Trump was going to win.  I was predicting the same thing, so I assumed Adams was a genius, and thus I developed a vague feeling of goodwill toward Adams.  More recently this feeling was reinforced by coming across his term “linguistic kill shots” for dishonest behavior in framing political issues (though he ignores that the impact of this depends on the media’s cooperation, so it almost always only benefits the Left).  My indefinite conclusion was that Adams likely had a lot to offer.  He may, but not in this book.  Stick to Dilbert.

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Win Bigly is very padded; much is repetitive, and much is reprints of blog posts from 2016.  There is a basic structure of five parts, but they’re pretty much indistinguishable from each other.  You can boil the whole book down to a few sentences:  Facts don’t matter if the speaker is adequately persuasive.  The author can see this because he is a “trained persuader”; as such he recognizes the techniques Trump used.  In any given happening, whether Trump’s election or anything else, there is no way to tell what really caused it, because any answer depends on the filter one places on one’s view of the world, and no filter can be shown correct (though some can be shown incorrect), because of confirmation bias and other forms of intellectual defect, including the effects of persuasion.  Hypnotism is cool and Scott Adams is an excellent hypnotist.  (No, I don’t know why this is relevant either.)  Trump has a great “talent stack,” in that he is not the best at any one thing, but excellent at very many things, from understanding publicity to public speaking to high energy to being tall.  And Scott Adams made Trump the President, and you should therefore recognize his genius.  The end.

So yes, Donald Trump gets mentioned a lot.  I just don’t think that this book tells the reader anything relevant about how Donald Trump won.  Adams’s basic claim about Trump is that he is a “master” or “weapons-grade” persuader, a deliberate or instinctual user of a range of persuasion techniques that Adams (or his sensei, one Robert Cialdini) tells us can be used to manipulate others.  Adams only cites a few other “master persuaders” by name.  Four, to be exact.  Two seem unexceptional—Steve Jobs and Tony Robbins, though I am not sure about the latter, not having spent my days watching him (but he was hilarious in Shallow Hal).  The other two are just bizarre—Madonna, and . . . Peggy Noonan?  Huh?  I can assure you that I’ve never felt myself being magically pulled to believe what Noonan has to say; she’s merely a reasonably competent columnist.  And Madonna may be good at surfing the cultural Zeitgeist, although now she’s mostly just pathetic, but I can’t fathom what exactly Adams thinks she’s persuasive about.  (It seems to me that a much better example would be Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos.)  Probably these other famous people are mentioned to support the main point of this book, that Adams himself is an incredible persuader, responsible for Trump’s election.   Giving as examples people obviously not master persuaders makes Adams look better.  (Adams refers to himself as only a “commercial-grade persuader”—but that is false modesty, since he very clearly doesn’t think he’s anything but world-class.)

As far as what the book has to say, it’s pretty rambling.  Adams outlines various persuasion techniques, such as “pacing and leading” (i.e., suckering your audience by agreeing with them on something unimportant so they trust you before you lead them in a fresh direction).  Most of those techniques are basic variations of redirection and lying, which Adams tries to spin up into more than they are.  He intermittently relates them all to Trump’s actions during the campaign, though he’s unable to tell us if Trump is deliberately or instinctively using them.  To hold the casual reader’s attention, throughout are inset boxes with “Persuasion Tips,” most of which are egregiously obvious, such as “When you identify as part of a group, your opinions tend to be biased toward the group consensus”; “Display confidence to improve your persuasiveness”; and “Persuasion is strongest when the messenger is credible.”  Like most self-help books, I suppose Adams offers something of value for some people, but as an explanation for Trump’s success, it’s all pretty weak.

Still, here and there are some modestly interesting thoughts.  For example, Adams advises strongly against associating your brand with bad images, especially actual visual images, regardless of the reasoning behind it, because your actual message gets lost.  Carly Fiorina erred by describing an aborted baby during a debate; it associated her with dead children (though Adams is eager to repeatedly assure us what a big abortion supporter he is).  Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi erred by supporting Obamacare by appearing next to a giant sign, “Make America Sick Again.”  And Adams points out that excessive, or in some cases any, apologizing is bad, especially groveling—your message gets lost, and you look weak, so if you apologize, you should be vague while changing the context, and thus the topic, to something to your benefit (Steve Jobs was very good at this).  But it’s pretty clear Adams has nothing original to say; his thoughts are derivative and second-hand.  For example, his breathlessly announced insight that we “make our decisions first and then create elaborate rationalizations for them after the fact” is merely cut-rate Jonathan Haidt (not that he mentions or cites Haidt).  So I suspect Adams does not deserve any credit for what he presents as fresh insight.

And in any case those interesting thoughts are more than counterbalanced by errors and tedious detours into what Scott Adams thinks about irrelevant matters.  Adams says, while spinning why he was repeatedly and totally wrong about who Trump’s pick for vice president would be, that “Quayle didn’t even stay on the ticket when Bush ran for reelection.”  That’s wrong; Dan Quayle was Bush’s running mate in both 1988 and 1992.  We are repeatedly treated to slyly placed self-congratulation about Adams’s success with women (he’s sixty-one, not that we’re told that, but we are to be clear that he is still virile).  We hear Adams preen himself multiple times that he, and other men, should not be permitted to have an opinion about abortion (presumably neither now nor earlier, when their mothers were deciding whether to kill them).  We hear Adams tell us that he, and everyone else, “never has enough data to form competent opinions” about “complicated issues about economics and foreign affairs.”  I doubt very much if he really thinks that, and as a blanket principle, it’s ludicrous.  (He is on stronger ground on a sub-claim, which is that we can’t trust what we are told about global warming because of the financial and other benefits those pushing it as a problem receive, while anybody who opposes the so-called consensus faces “a high degree of career and reputation risk,” and thus climate “science” is most likely a mass delusion, a set of points I’ve made as well.)

Another annoying element of the book is Adams’s repeated insistence that he would have killed Hitler or any “top Nazi.”  This is in the context of bleating about how unsafe he felt because people were mean to him on Twitter, such that for a time he endorsed Hillary Clinton, explicitly because he felt endangered.  He had to do it, don’t you see, because he lacked Secret Service protection, though a Very Important Man like Scott Adams certainly needed it.  He’s a “top-ten assassination target,” you know, because he was perceived as Trump’s Goebbels.  Not only is this silly self-aggrandizement, it’s not even true that he would have opposed Hitler.  As Jordan Peterson notes (because it’s been a fascination of his as a professor for decades), the reality is the vast majority of people in totalitarian regimes resist not at all—Peterson’s point to his students is that they would almost certainly have eagerly participated with Hitler or Stalin or Mao, and to think otherwise is failure to think clearly and a distorting way of thinking.  Adams, though, overtly believes he would be a hero.  He probably keeps a cape in his closet.  Satin, with gold trim.

The last chapter is wholly devoted to showing how Scott Adams was the key to Trump’s election.  Knowing he would be laughed at if he simply made the claim, Adams uses some of his own persuasion techniques to convince the reader, though all of them boil down to cherry picking anecdotes that suggest his desired conclusion and doing hand waving around them, along with enough demurrals that he can retreat to plausible deniability if directly challenged.  “Moments ago I was doing a live stream on Periscope and asked my longtime readers if they thought I was the first person to bluntly say in 2015 that facts don’t matter when it comes to picking a president.  My audience on Periscope unanimously agreed they heard it from me first.”  Look at that!  An audience consisting exclusively of Scott Adams fans tells him what he wants to hear!  Surprise, surprise.  “I asked on Twitter [where he keeps telling us how big his following is] how many people decided to vote for Trump because of something I said.  Thousands of respondents claimed I was the reason they voted the way they did. The Twitter poll only reached a tiny fraction of the people who were exposed to my Trump persuasion [Adams maintains that the entire media followed his lead by adopting all his terms and concepts].  That means I might have moved tens of thousands of votes.  Maybe hundreds of thousands.  There’s no way to know.”  But we all know that we’re supposed to conclude that there is a way to know.

Now, perhaps the joke is on us.  One of the persuasion techniques Adams pushes is lying to associate oneself with someone famous, as in his own trying to associate his predictions with the pollster Nate Silver, though there was no actual connection.  So maybe all his talk about how he elected Trump is just that, an attempt to hitch his wagon to Trump’s star.  Adams makes his money largely from speaking engagements, as we know from his complaining that his intermittent support for Trump harmed his livelihood, so maybe this is all just a sales technique, to convince buyers that even if Adams is responsible for the monster Trump, his power is so great that it’s worth paying to hear what he has to say.  I doubt if this will be successful, since I suspect the derangement that Trump incites is much more powerful than Adams’s persuasion techniques.  Either way, though, spending your money on this padded-out pamphlet is unlikely to give you a return on your money.

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  1. Pingback: Book Review: “The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United… – Reacle

  2. Emperor Eternal says

    Hi Charles,

    I am wondering if you, the Maximum Leader, have any reading suggestions for becoming a great orator.

    I purchased and began reading Win Bigly when it came out in 2017, but I wasn’t impressed. Moreover, I am skeptical of any person or book that claims to teach persuasion. It may be possible to win friends and influence a few people with clever and obvious techniques, but it seems to me that gaining mass support and moving people to act on the grand stage requires something (e.g., an understanding, even if unconscious or instinctual, of the human soul and a natural ability to connect with people) that the self-help genre is incapable of offering. For that reason, I’ve arrived at the opinion that reading great historical speeches is the best next step. I actually discussed this with a professional orator on Friday (my second most interesting meeting of the week), and he agreed. What do you think?

    And by the way, I won’t believe you if you tell me that you don’t have any suggestions—your writings are strong evidence that you’ve paid some attention to developing great rhetorical talent!

    • Charles says

      Ah, a great question. I appreciate the compliments, but I distinguish rhetorical talent from writing talent, although they can overlap, and I do try to be sonorous, which tends in the direction of rhetoric. (Some people, though, call it florid and overblown!)

      1) I am keenly interested in developing rhetorical talent. It seems to me that like many other things, such as leadership or ability in persuasion, that relies both on natural talent and on developing that talent. I think, however, that of those three, leadership is the least teachable and most inherent, and rhetoric the reverse.

      The need for developing rhetorical talent, for me or for anyone focused on writing, is that practice makes perfect in rhetoric. Thus, I could today be dropped in front of a crown of 10,000 people, given a random topic, and I could extemporize a speech, and I could debate someone on that topic with no preparation (assuming at least some familiarity). BUT I would not be nearly as good as I think I would be. Without practice, including delivery, mental organization of points, and so on, talking is simply a different thing, even for those (like me) with ice in their veins.

      Related to this is rhetoric in different arenas. That is, organized, neutrally refereed debate with intelligent, logical people is one thing. Appearing, say, on a television show, where the moderators are hostile and your interlocutors and other speakers are of low intelligence or lacking in logic, or both, is a totally different form of rhetoric. (We can assume that no person of any sense would appear on any such television program that is taped for later editing and display, where you are certain to be held up dishonestly to contempt. Only live television.)

      Whatever the forum, rhetoric require practice to achieve excellence.

      2) The best historical model, the Greeks, relied very heavily on rhetoric and developing rhetoric. This continued up until the modern day, but by the twentieth century was mostly dead. Certainly, today it is totally dead. Even a few decades ago, college-level “debate” bore little resemblance to rhetoric; now organized debate is a clown show of woke poetry slams.

      3) And, of course, today’s politicians are not rhetoricians. Who might be considered good at rhetoric today in America totally escapes me. Certainly not Obama, who was said to be an orator, but read speeches other wrote and could not extemporize his way out of a paper bag, not to mention he never convinced anybody of anything and was only admired by people who agreed with him (or who wanted to signal something about themselves by praising him).

      True, I watch no TV, so maybe I am missing somebody.

      4) There seems to me to be no forum for developing organized political rhetorical ability today. I have looked for one. I have looked for trainers. The only thing even distantly related is Toastmasters, but that’s really completely different.

      5) If I were to, or if someone I knew wanted to, develop his rhetorical ability, he would have to find a way to practice it against motivated, highly intelligent people. Again, where you can find that, I don’t know. If I could find it, I would do it, but it would have to be very high level, since I don’t want to waste time.

      Thus, your reference to a “professional orator” is intriguing, and suggests you’ve been thinking along these same lines.

      6) Ward Farnsworth has written a book on Classical English Rhetoric. Highly recommended. He gives specific examples from great speeches (I think your idea is correct there—do you have any collections to recommend?) (Farnsworth also has a book on metaphor, and one on Stoicism.) It’s not practice, but you will be fully informed if you read it and absorb it (which I have not, sadly).

      7) I suspect the Man of Destiny will be a great orator, though there are many possible different manifestations of that, ranging into demagogues. The dumbing-down of the people, along with the bread and circuses that surround us, may preclude a great orator getting traction, though. Plus, he would be deplatformed wherever possible, again limiting his reach, at least initially, since most people receive oratory nowadays through platforms like YouTube. Still, the right person in the right circumstances could break through. He would have to have practiced, though!

  3. Emperor Eternal says

    Hi Charles,

    Very helpful, as always. I could say much, much more in response to your points above, and I probably will eventually, but I have decided to take a short vacation from commenting on (but not from reading) The Worthy House. Prior to now, I commented as your equal—at least in my own mind—which was great fun. But I am now your servant, and it is no longer appropriate to call myself Emperor Eternal in your presence.

    I hope you’re enjoying your weekend away from Columbus!

    • Charles says

      I encourage continued commenting! But since you will be working 22 hours a day for profit, I understand if you don’t have as much time. And you can call yourself whatever you want, as far as I’m concerned!

      • Good and Faithful Servant says

        Ha, hilarious—and hopefully not far from the truth. I will try to avoid commenting between working hours of 1 am and 11 pm.

        Once I have conquered our industry, I will change my Worthy House name back to Emperor Eternal. Until then, I expect to be swimming in cash and luxury shampoo.

  4. April Harding says

    This is a wonderful review. It helped me sort out my view of Adams. My view evolved similarly to the trajectory you’ve elaborated. I’m grateful you spared me having to read his book to sort it out. Thanks for writing and sharing your thoughts.

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