A couple of times now I have alerted readers to the work of cartoonist Scott Adams, an unusual political observer who dismisses the idea that Trump can be usefully evaluated on conventional political lines (ie. as a politician with qualifications and policy positions), and who insist that we must instead take Trump seriously as a performer and a persuader.
Personally, I don't disparage the more traditional frame of reference for evaluating Trump. James Fallows, for instance, is running an important Trump Time Capsule series on his blog which evaluates Trump's behaviour and positions against what is traditionally considered acceptable in American political discourse. If you haven't seen it, you won't be shocked to hear that Fallows' tone is one of near constant exasperation that Trump is still the GOP candidate, given all the rules he is breaking.
But of course what the Trump candidacy has exposed is the fact that these 'rules' are not really rules at all. They are traditions, conventions, norms. This is the true damage that Trump has wrought. These traditions, conventions and norms are a delicately woven social fabric. They persist not because anyone has the power to enforce them, but because societies over many generations make a collective, implicit decision that they are authoritative. Trump has trashed these traditions and opened the way for others to do the same.
Still, merely understanding what Trump is doing is obviously not enough. The conventional framing of Trump can expose the weakness of his policy positions, and alert us to just how far outside the political mainstream he has gone. But it won't help us understand his appeal or help his opponents defeat him.
This is where videos like the one above are so useful, and also why it is worth extracting some quotes from Scott Adams' latest interview:
...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.
What's that reference to hypnosis about? Adams explains:
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.