Books Politics Review

How to ‘Win Bigly’? Have no shame

Until about two years ago I knew Scott Adams only as the Dilbert guy. But once he started accurately predicting Donald Trump’s unconventional political path using the lenses of persuasion and hypnotism, gaining critics along the way but scoring on predictions over and over when most everyone else was aghast at Trump’s successes, I figured his new book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter was worth the read.

Turns out it was worth it, if only for an understanding of some of the concepts undergirding the chaos that Trump inspires. He calls Trump a “Master Persuader” using “weapons-grade” techniques to flummox opponents and win admirers. Whether it’s his constant Twitter attacks—”It tells people that being his friend is better than being his critic,” says Adams—or his bombastic hyperbole about The Wall—being intentionally inaccurate but “directionally” true will win supporters and fluster opponents—Adams detects and explains what he sees as the method behind the madness. (The “Persuasion Tips” peppered throughout the book are applicable far beyond politics.)

He repeatedly claims his interest in this subject stems not from his politics but from his lifelong interest in persuasion techniques. (His other chief interest? Scott Adams.) It seems true to an extent, but Adams loses some of that nonpartisan credibility by the end of the book when he’s openly cheering for a Trump win.

Despite his compelling arguments, I knew there was another key element to the Trump story. I couldn’t pinpoint it until I recalled a passage from Jon Ronson’s excellent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about Max Mosley, a race car driver and son of a prominent British Nazi who was outed by a tabloid for his seemingly Nazi-themed sex party. Ronson’s book is about the people whose lives were upended when their behavior went viral. But Mosley survived his scandal relatively unscathed. Why?

Like me, [Mosley had] been thinking a lot about what it was about him that had helped him to stave off even the most modest public shaming. And now, he wrote, he thought he had the answer. It was simply that he had refused to feel ashamed. “As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed,” he said, “the whole thing crumbles.”

A-ha, I thought. That’s it: no shame. That’s the key to Trump not only surviving scandal after scandal, but surviving all the way to the presidency. A normal politician running for president probably wouldn’t have lasted long after insulting John McCain’s war record or calling Mexican immigrants rapists. But he thrived.

(This also explains the vociferous #Resistance to all things Trump. He doesn’t conform to the commonly held assumptions about political behavior, so like a new viral strain or zombie he just refuses to (politically) die. That makes him particularly vexing and infuriating as an opponent.)

Adams basically confirms this shame theory: “I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people. I wasn’t always this way. It’s a learned skill.” No wonder he understands Trump so well! Beyond their persuasion prowess, both men are rich New Yorkers with robust egos but no inner filters. Such a skill set helped build the Trump brand in the business world, and it’s now reshaping politics, the presidency, and the world.

Though reliving the 2016 election through this book won’t sound fun for most people, I recommend it. Adams has written a kind of Rosetta Stone for a less examined aspect of The Trumpening, and I think that’s very valuable and illuminating regardless of your political beliefs.

Notes & Quotes

  • Political commentators without business experience were at a disadvantage when trying to interpret Trump
  • Encourages readers to remain skeptical of his book
  • Trump’s hyperbole “weapons-grade persuasion”: i.e. large opening offer
  • Trump matches emotional state and priorities of supporters
  • Not factually true but emotionally and directionally true
  • Campaign policies are “more persuasion than policy”
  • “When Trump’s critics accused him of laziness, ignorance, and cruel intentions, I saw a skilled persuader who knew what mattered and what didn’t.”
  • Adams has a similar “talent stack” as Trump: hypnotist, New Yorker, rich, doesn’t feel shame: “I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people. I wasn’t always this way. It’s a learned skill.”
  • “Intentional wrongness” paired with something that’s “directionally accurate”, like Trump’s Wall, is powerful persuasion
  • Errors suck up attention and energy
  • Persuasion tip #4: “The things that you think about the most will irrationally rise in importance in your mind.”
  • “A good general rule is that people are more influenced by visual persuasion, emotion, repetition, and simplicity than they are by details and facts.”
  • Persuasion tip #8: “People are more influenced by the direction of things than the current state of things.”
  • Trump is actually thick-skinned, having endured a lifetime of criticism
  • Trump’s constant counterattacking is good persuasion: “It tells people that being his friend is better than being his critic.”
  • A good response to someone’s poor action or words: “Is that the person you want to be?” Higher-Ground Maneuver
  • Says “Fairness is an argument for idiots and children.” [WTF?]
  • Trump’s slogans, branding, nicknames were successful because they were “sticky”, simple, and unusual for politics
America Film Review

The Big Short


The scene in The Big Short that encapsulates the entire sad, tragic, enraging economic failure it covers is a short one. After Lehman Brothers collapses, the dejected horde of laid-off employees are shown streaming out of the building, bewildered and holding their bankers boxes of personal items, as an executive (which in the script is described as “diminutive”) shouts robotically:

“Go straight to your transportation! Do not talk to the press! Go straight to your transportation! Do not talk to the press!”

I don’t know if this actually happened or not, but it sure sounds like it could have. The Move along, nothing to see here attitude pretty much sums up the events in the film, and the Great Recession in general. Malfeasant banks, obeisant credit agencies and watchdogs, reckless homebuyers, deceitful executives all agreed there was nothing wrong, that bad things are only done by bad people and not Good Americans just doing their jobs.

I was a junior in college when the crash hit in September 2008, so I was largely (and luckily) isolated from its worst effects. By the time I was looking for a “real” job, after a gap year and two years in grad school, it was 2013 and economic conditions were much more favorable. Still, I remember that time very well: GOP presidential nominee John “The fundamentals of our economy are strong” McCain, the bailout, the bonuses, Jon Stewart vs. Jim Cramer.

People my age have witnessed many events over the last decade and a half that I think will remain deeply instructive for our foundational understanding of the world: 9/11, the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, the Catholic Church sex abuse, Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession, Trayvon Martin, and the NSA a few among them. Controversies like these often reveal the partisan fault lines that determine what you ought to believe about them, depending on whether your county is red or blue. But to me they all proved, just as The Big Short proves, that the game is rigged, that the truth is not as it is reported to be.

Move along, nothing to see here.

This is a lamentable conclusion. The film dresses it up with good actors delivering savvy exposition at a caper’s pace, but it is there nevertheless. At the heart of this film are farsighted money-men trying to profit off the greed of shortsighted money-men. This makes them no better than Captain Renault in Casablanca, and yet we root for them because they’re not Major Strasser.

I wasn’t planning on getting so down while writing about this film, but the underlying melancholy that pervades it stuck with me, and ought to. Perhaps that’s why I responded to this much more than The Wolf of Wall Street, which treads similar territory yet repulsed me. (I get that Scorsese was trying to do that: congrats, I feel disgusted by Belfort and his life; now I will never watch it again.) The Big Short made me understand and made me give a damn; The Wolf of Wall Street spat in my face. Who would have thought Adam McKay would create a more well-rounded take on American avarice than Martin Scorsese?

Politics Writing

The Meal

Back in 2007, the Iraq War was experiencing a “surge” courtesy of the U.S. military and I was a college student sitting at a dining hall table, wondering how I could capture the political debate of the day in metaphor through a short film script. Thus, the following piece of trenchant political satire was born. The three characters in it—George, Harry, and John, creatively representing George W. Bush, Harry Reid, and John McCain—I recast as students at a dining hall table stuck in a debate that seemed quite similar to the one occurring at the same time in Washington. I recently found this in my files and just had to let the world see its genius. Get your popcorn out for:



Three guys are sitting at a table eating lunch. The conversation is pretty heated.

America Media Politics Presidents

The Absurdity Of Campaign ’08

Presidential elections, for all their consequence, can get laughably ridiculous. This year we’ve been subjected to conversations about pigs with lipstick, arugula, Paris Hilton, and field-dressing moose. Standard fare, these days, but at least these trivialities don’t stay in the news cycle for too long.

The bigger issues like sexism and which candidates have more experience don’t really go away, however. In fact, with Sarah Palin now in the mix and the campaigns’ attacks going into overdrive, the back-and-forth about sexism and experience within the media and between the campaigns have revealed two deep hypocrisies both campaigns and parties want to ignore.

For John McCain and the Republicans, it’s sexism. Up until August 28 of this year, the GOP had no problem tearing Senator Hillary Clinton down in every way. Her politics, her appearance, her personal life, her gender-nothing was sacred. Whenever Clinton or her surrogates cried sexism, they were told to stop whining. After all, if a woman candidate couldn’t handle criticism from the press, she wouldn’t be able to handle being president.

Then, on August 29, everything changed. John McCain chose Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. Suddenly, Republicans were feminists. A bit on “The Daily Show” spliced footage of conservative commentators ripping into Hillary from months before and then defending Palin on the same grounds later. It was ridiculous. I sat there watching, aghast at the blatant hypocrisy and hugely selective memory of Karl Rove and Sean Hannity and Dick Morris.

Part of the calculation of the Palin pick was to win over some women Clinton supporters who are still bitter about losing to Obama. But my guess is that those same supporters also have not forgotten how poorly Hillary was treated by the same people who now support McCain. The pick may eventually backfire, or it may not; but it still won’t make McCain and the Republicans champions of women’s rights. At least in the eyes of Hillary supporters.

The second Grand Hypocrisy of ’08 involves Palin too, but instead of sexism, it is about ‘change vs. experience.’ In terms of narratives, it was pretty much established that ‘Obama is to change as McCain is to experience.’ Each candidate bludgeoned voters with their respective catchphrases at every debate and every stump speech.

But Obama was the first to stray from his own manufactured narrative by choosing Senator Biden as his running mate. It was a logical and safe choice for him to have a respected expert on foreign policy on the ticket in order to reassure voters of his readiness to lead. Even if the pick did pollute his message of “change,” the very foundation of his candidacy, it mostly went under the radar.

Then McCain broke with his own message by choosing Palin, just as he claims he breaks with his own party (maverick!). There were probably few vice-presidential contenders on either side of the aisle with less foreign policy experience than Palin had, yet McCain chanced polluting his own message by picking her anyway.

This is where the hypocrisy kicks in: the Obama campaign released a statement in response to the Palin pick ridiculing the governor’s lack of executive experience and foreign policy credentials, conveniently ignoring the nearly equal lack of experience Obama has. In a way, Palin has more experience than Obama because she was a mayor and a governor (if only for a short time) which are positions that equip the politician with executive experience.

Both campaigns have ignored these double standards, of course, because they are on one-track minds-tracks that lead to the White House. It’s politics, after all. You don’t run for president to be nice to everyone all the time.

This whole election has become absurd, hasn’t it? Important and historical, certainly, but absurd nonetheless. It’s no wonder many people throw up their hands in disgust and dramatically declare they’re never voting again. Never!

But vote we must. After what essentially will have been a two-year campaign for president, what we do on Election Day will be the collective response to everything we’ve learned, endured, and debated in that time. It would seem even more absurd to allow ourselves to be subjected to such nonsense and not have the final say on November 4.

So keep that in mind as the mud flies to and fro. Both candidates will be dirty when it’s all over, but we get to decide which man will be able to shower in the White House.

America Politics Presidents

And So It Begins…

Barack Obama and Joe Biden versus John McCain and Sarah Palin. Now this is a race.

The first thing I thought when I heard the news of McCain’s VP choice was that it was brilliant on his part. Not only is he trying to siphon Hillary supporters away from Obama with the choice of a younger woman, but he announced it the day after Obama’s convention speech in order to neutralize his post-convention bump.

Then, as I read up on Palin and read a few opinions of the choice, I see a fascinating paradigm between the two tickets. First, there’s Obama and Biden. Obama, an unconventional and historic candidate with limited legislative and foreign policy experience, pairs with an old seasoned Washington insider who is an expert on foreign policy.

Now look at the McCain-Palin ticket. McCain, the old seasoned Washington insider who is a self-proclaimed expert on foreign policy, chooses Palin, an unconventional and historic candidate with limited legislative and foreign policy experience.

Within each ticket, the contrasts are stark. One is a young black man, the other is an old white guy. One is an old white guy, the other is a young white woman.

Clearly, McCain wanted in on the Change narrative of the election. If he had picked Romney or Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman, there would not have been anything special about the ticket. But now McCain has something to offer those who want to see some sort of change.

Time will show if the Hillary Hold-Outs will actually defect and vote for McCain simply because he will have a female vice president. But that also brings up another thought: with McCain’s health and age in question, America will have to wonder if they want the possiblility of having a female Commander in Chief. We’ve just assumed that question concerned Hillary Clinton. But not anymore.

Who is Sarah Palin? We’ll be finding out shortly. She’s going to have to debate Joe Biden, who’s foreign policy experience is deep and respected. But in an election that has quickly become a mandate on the economy more so than the wars or anything other pressing issue, both tickets will be fighting for supremacy.

There are approximately 67 days until the election. It’s going to be a long 67 days, that’s for sure.

America Politics Presidents

Liveblogging History

I’ll be updating this post throughout the night, reacting to the candidates speeches…

John McCain’s speech tonight is painful to watch. It has nothing to do with what he’s saying, but rather his delivery and the crowd’s reaction. Have you ever noticed how he smiles awkwardly after taking a jab at an opponent or says something clever?

He’s a competent public speaker–though not as good as Obama–but sometimes it’s just painful sometimes. What’s more weird is his supporters at the speech. At various times, they’ve chanted “Go John McCain” and “John McCain”. I don’t know–it’s just kind of funny to me.


As of 8 p.m. on Tuesday, June 3, 2008, a black man is a major nominee for president. I’ve been watching the cable news responses to the historic moment. I’ve heard comparisons to the moon landing, mentions of RFK and Dr. King.

Though I won’t commit to a candidate until another time, I can say that I’m proud to be an American who appreciates the historical significance of this night. As a 20-year-old, I don’t see race the same way as my parents or grandparents, so I’ve been frustrated when race becomes an issue in the campaign. It doesn’t make a lick of difference whether the President of the United States is a black man or a white woman or a white man. The person who wins the presidency will win it for a reason. That’s just true.


This is even more interesting: Clinton supporters started chanting “Yes, she will!” Contrast that with the Obama refrain “Yes, we can!”

Fascinating. It’s not about the people with Hillary. It’s about her actions, her politicking. Plus, it implies the classic politician’s false promises, that things will get done. History shows that campaign promises are bullshit. Obama’s chant doesn’t focus on him and it doesn’t make any promises. Given his past as a community organizer in Chicago, this makes sense. It’s about trying and working.

—Great Scott. Clinton supporters are chanting “Denver! Denver!” Yeah, that’s a good idea. Might as well shout “President McCain!”


Obama, the presumptive nominee, walks out to his speech to U2’s “Beautiful Day”. The lyrics, fittingly, go, “It’s a beautiful day. Don’t let it slip away.”

Wow. Compared to Clinton and McCain, Obama is so composed and even. He barely even smiles. You would think that would be a negative, but McCain and Clinton visibly react to their own lines, which weakens their performance.

It’s so funny to watch and listen to the supporters at each of the speeches. Whenever the candidate mentions the other, the crowd boos and hisses. But then they qualify their jab with a noble statement about their opponent, and the boos turn to polite applause. I don’t know…I just think it’s funny.

Obama’s speech was pretty different from the others, mostly in terms of presentation and rhetoric. But that’s nothing new. I just keep thinking about how much Obama’s slogans and platitudes are larger not about him at all: “Change We Can Believe In”, “We, Yes Can”. He’s more focused on a larger movement.