AS some of you may have noticed, real estate mogul Donald Trump is making his second (or third) run for the presidency (depending on how you count), and has been having quite a good show of it - topping many polls despite saying and doing a lot of things that would have doomed another candidate - such as disparaging American prisoners of war, associating immigrants with criminals, and, most recently, associating his opponents with pedophiles.
As a left-leaning moderate, I’m not fond of many of Donald Trump’s policies. But I am fond of Dilbert, and the excellent blog by Dilbert creator Scott Adams, in which Scott wrestles with many difficult and interesting ideas so you don’t have to (but you should). In the blog, Scott’s been chronicling Trump’s rise to power with what he calls the Master Wizard Hypothesis, which, in a nutshell, says that there are great techniques of persuasion, Trump is an acknowledged master, and most of the crazy things that Trump is doing are carefully engineered to get and keep your attention. Regardless of your politics, Scott says, you should pay attention to what Trump is doing, because you’re watching a master class in persuasion unfold on a national stage.
Scott, a trained hypnotist and student of persuasion himself, goes further to say that a Master Wizard’s persuasion often puts people into cognitive dissonance, where a person becomes uncomfortable when they are presented with information they don’t want to accept. Well, as a trained cognitive scientist, that characterization makes me a bit uncomfortable, because I see the conscious (or unconscious) persuasion embedded in that characterization, persuasion which is in the favor of someone trying to be a persuader: the framing is that someone presented with “information” is “feeling uncomfortable,” hence is being irrational. However, because one thing that can trigger discomfort is someone exhibiting a violation of what you perceive to be a standard, it’s also perfectly possible that you can feel uncomfortable confronted by new “information” that contradicts new beliefs not just because you are inconsistent … but because the presented “information" is wrong. So, in this argument, people could possibly just be upset with Trump not because he’s a Master Wizard … but because they sincerely disagree with him in their judgments about facts and policies.
As it happens, I’ve entertained for a while an alternate hypothesis about what’s been going on about Donald Trump, and it seems like it might be playing out. In fact, I’ve almost been scooped on it, so at first I wasn’t going to write anything. But Scott Adams has done something great with his hypotheses: he’s put his predictions about Trump on the table, so he can be proved wrong later. Feynman argued the same thing: you’ve got to stick your neck out far enough for it to get cut off in order to really see the truth. So, I wanted to go on the record about what I think’s going on with Donald Trump.
For reference, here’s what I think people are saying about Donald Trump:
- Malignant Narcissist Theory: Donald Trump is an insufferable blowhard who’s doing well because he’s an outrageous bully with an ego so enormous he’s resistant to normal modes of shame, and is airing all the dirty laundry of the Republican party that the politer and saner politicians with greater experience have tried to sweep under the rug. Many political analysts hold this theory, and assume Trump will eventually implode somewhere between the debates and the campaign trail because the majority of Republican voters, and certainly most Democratic voters, will never vote for him (and there’s data for that). The idea, you see, is that roughly twenty five percent of people is the most who’d ever vote Trump, so he’s maxed out.
- Master Wizard Hypothesis: Donald Trump is a highly experienced, well-trained businessman, expert at the art of the deal and his own brand management, who’s mastered a semi-secret art of persuasion. His campaign is a sequence of carefully crafted stunts designed to implode his opponents, one by one, because Donald Trump has no shame, merely a cold, calculating, highly trained brain designed to put the whammy on people, slowly convincing them to turn his way so he can ultimately get his way. Scott Adams believes this, and has analyzed in depth how many seemingly weird things Trump does actually make a lot of sense.
- Tell It Like It Is Hypothesis: Donald Trump is a smart, intelligent, conservative man who’s gotten fed up with the way things are going in this country, like many other conservatives, and is gaining popularity because (a) he’s saying what many conservatives are thinking (b) he’s telling it like it is, without a filter (c) he’s got a lot of experience running a successful business and (d) now he’s applying his decades of experience to politics, hopefully making America great again.
These all seem like alternatives, but they’re actually closer than you think. They’re all based on the idea that Trump has no shame (which isn’t likely true), has a lot of experience at business (which is almost certainly true), and is saying things that the Republican base wants to hear. The spectrum seems to be whether you think some of his more colorful antics are because he’s an arrogant bully (politicos), a skilled persuader (Adams), or a genuine conservative (the Republican base).
Now my hypothesis.
- Genius Brand Management. Donald Trump is a billionaire whose greatest asset is his brand, and he’s an American who cares about his country. Running for President, while it costs money, gives Trump an enormous amount of free publicity - he’s getting an enormous force multiplier from all this media attention, far more than he could by building more hotels or casinos, starting another reality TV show, or running ads. While doing this, he decided to - sincerely - raise all the issues he really cares about in the election, or at least the things he cares about which resonate with Republican voters. Trump simultaneously gets an enormous brand uplift and sets the tone of the presidential campaign to be about issues which matter to him. If he’s elected, great: he’s run a mammoth multinational corporation, and can handle the Presidency. If not, he’ll bow out … just as he’s bowed out of every other flirtation at candidacy since 1988.
So, under this theory, Donald Trump would likely implode sometime between the debates and the campaign trail (where a majority of votes, not just topping a poll, matters, and a mammoth grassroots organization is needed), but regardless of whether he implodes, he’s going to have a huge uplift in his brand, and will have set the course of the campaign.
Last week, Trump appears to have imploded with a long winded speech, different from his usual polished self, in which he ranted about his opponents, outlined his policy approaches about just about everything, and ultimately finished with "How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?” His opponents have gone wild, and Janell Ross wrote an article which crystalized what I’d already been thinking: Donald Trump might be self-sabotaging. You read it there first, folks, but just so I would have the opportunity to be proved wrong, here’s what the other people predict.
- Malignant Narcissist Hypothesis: The arrogant blowhard’s finally imploding. Example: at HuffPo.
- Master Wizard Hypothesis: Trump’s now moving against Carson. See Scott Adams’ analysis, in which he points out Trump’s engineered a linguistic kill shot comparing Ben Carson’s pathological temper to incurable pedophilia.
- Tell It Like It Is Hypothesis: Trump is just speaking from his heart, and won’t be hurt by telling it like it is. See this New York Times article "Republican strategists in the state were skeptical that Mr. Trump’s latest over-the-top outburst would seriously erode his support."
And now my take:
- Genius Brand Management: Trump, having watched campaigns since the eighties, is fully aware that at one point half of Republican voters said they would never vote for him, and that falling behind Carson at this point could cost him the jockeying position he needs to get the nomination. So he makes an impassioned plea for attention, simultaneously trashing his rival as a last ditch hope, giving his brand one last spike - and reiterating what he thinks is important about the campaign.
As Scott might say, I remind you I don’t know who’s going to be President. I’d be a dumb man to bet against the author of Dilbert; I literally have his book on systems versus goals on my desk at work. (I haven’t gotten to it yet, but soon - I get the gist from his blog). And other politicos certainly are more practiced at this than me; I’ve only been following politics closely since, oh, when Bush was running. Bush Senior. The first time. Remember, against Reagan? I do.
SO anyway, the best hypothesis will win, because you can’t fake reality any way whatsoever. I’m going on the record saying I think Trump is bowing out of the race. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. But if Trump has started to bow out, I’ll think about my Genius Brand Management hypothesis, recall that I said to myself that a smart man wouldn’t just use all this free publicity to pump his brand, but to make a statement to the American people about what he cared about. And then I’ll think about this phrase from his speech:
"I've really enjoyed being with you," Trump said. "It's sad in many ways because we're talking about so many negative topics, but in certain ways it's beautiful. It's beautiful."
Sure sounds to me like someone who has issues he cares about, bowing out after he’s said his peace.