Monday, October 23, 2017

Scott Adams and Peggy Noonan on the Tweeter in Chief

Scott Adams counts as one of the most relentless and successful self-promoters working today. By trade he’s a cartoonist. He calls himself a hypnotist. And now he insists that he has developed a theory about persuasion—which used to be called rhetoric, though he does not seem to know it.

As I have written previously on this blog, being a cartoonist does not make you a competent theorist. Adams’s theories are really disguised self-promotion. We cannot fault him for making a living, but the rest is silliness.

Adams did predict the ascendance of Donald Trump and continues to give himself credit for his prescience. He thrilled to the way Trump seemed to be confirming the Adams genius, though one suspects that he will take credit for whatever happens.

If you agree with Adams that Trump is the master of the art of tweeting, you ought also pay a little lip service to the fact that Trump’s approval ratings are wallowing at around 38%. Given the nature of the Democratic opposition, it might be enough to get him re-elected, but it does not suggest a master communicator or even a master persuader. An even more significant majority has told pollsters that it would be happy if Trump stopped tweeting altogether.

Adams does not seem to know it, but the word “tweet” is an onomatopoeia that is most often associated with little birds. Little birds go tweet, tweet, tweet. Big birds do not. Lions roar; they do not tweet. Bears growl; they do not tweet.

Every time Trump tweets, all newscasters are obliged to say that Trump tweeted. The phrase, containing the word itself, makes him seem small and weak. Adams misses the point entirely. I suspect that he is not alone.

In an article from today’s Wall Street Journal Adams suggests that Trump is involved in the art of smack-tweeting. Does he have no sense of humor at all?

He writes, concerning one of Trump’s tweets:

Consider this one: “With Jemele Hill at the mike, it is no wonder ESPN ratings have ‘tanked,’ in fact, tanked so badly it is the talk of the industry!”

When Mr. Trump smack-tweets a notable public critic—Ms. Hill has called the president a “white supremacist”—it violates our expectations of his office. That’s what makes it both entertaining and memorable. He often injects into his tweets what memory expert Carmen Simon calls a “little bit of wrongness” to make it hard to look away. If the wrongness alarms you, consider that for years he has adroitly operated within a narrow range of useful wrongness on Twitter without going too far. That suggests technique. In the Twitter environment, strategic wrongness is jet fuel.

It is not just about violating the expectations of the office. Trump has taken on someone who is so far below him on the great socio-political pecking order that he has diminished himself. And he has diminished the presidency. A president should stand tall and proud. He should not stoop t the level of Jamele Hill. When he does so he gives people the impression that he does not know who he is or what his job is.

The great majority of American people consider this to be seriously disconcerting. Tweet, tweet, tweet.

As for Trump’s put-downs of his Republican opponents during the presidential primary campaign, Adams loved them because they seemed to prove that Adams was right. And yet, when it comes to passing legislation in Congress some Republican senators who were trashed by Trump have found it very easy to defy him.

Some do it out of personal pique. Some do it for the wrong reasons. But, when you are exercising leadership you need to develop relationships with the people you want to lead. As of now, Trump has had difficulty doing so.

Trump has been one of the most open and communicative presidents in recent history. He speaks to the press far more often than did many of his predecessors. And yet, he often misspeaks or distorts the facts… and this to a press that lives to attack him.

We might want to rationalize Trump’s failure to communicate well or clearly. We might want to understand that his grasp of facts and even of his job is weak, on a good day. If so, he does not need to have Dilbert’s puppetmaster telling him that he is a master persuader or a brilliant communicator. He would do best to stop tweeting and to find someone who can speak effectively for him. A constant pattern of miscommunication does not a great communicator make. Using your tweets to undercut your cabinet secretaries does not help either.

Don’t believe me? Ask someone who actually knows something about presidential communication, Peggy Noonan. Last Friday she wrote this:

He proceeds each day with the confidence of one who thinks his foundation firm when it’s not—it’s shaky. His job is to build support, win people over through persuasion, and score some legislative victories that will encourage a public sense that he is competent, even talented.

Many of Trump’s unforced errors involve tweeting. Some involve press conferences. Noonan continued:

He thwarts himself daily with his dramas. In the thwarting he does something unusual: He gives his own supporters no cover. They back him at some personal cost, in workplace conversations and at family gatherings. They are in a hard position. He leaves them exposed by indulging whatever desire seizes him—to lash out, to insult, to say bizarre things. If he acted in a peaceful and constructive way, he would give his people cover.

She continued:

This week Sen. John McCain famously gave a speech in Philadelphia slamming the administration’s foreign-policy philosophy as a “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.” Fair enough—the famous internationalist opposes Trumpian foreign-policy notions. There are many ways presidents can respond to such criticism—thoughtfully, with wit or an incisive rejoinder.

Mr. Trump went on Chris Plante’s radio show to tell Sen. McCain he’d better watch it. “People have to be careful because at some point I fight back,” he said. “I’m being very nice. I’m being very, very nice. But at some point I fight back, and it won’t be pretty.”

FDR, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were pretty tough hombres, but they always managed to sound like presidents and not, say, John Gotti. Mr. McCain, suffering from cancer, evoked in his reply his experience as a prisoner of war: “I’ve faced far greater challenges than this.”

That, actually, is how presidents talk.

In truth, when his time came, John McCain did not know how presidents talk. He did not know how to conduct a presidential campaign himself. He seems to be voting out of spite to bring down the Trump agenda. And yet, Trump showed himself to be petulant, as one might see in the schoolyard. It is not the sign of a great communicator.

Noonan rejects the idea that it’s just the Trump style:

But the problem is not style. A gruff, awkward, inelegant style wedded to maturity and seriousness of purpose would be powerful in America. Mr. Trump’s problem has to do with something deeper—showing forbearance, patience, sympathy; revealing the human qualities people appreciate seeing in a political leader because they suggest a reliable inner stature.

Here you have it. Scott Adams toots his own horn, proclaiming to the world how smart he is. The truth is: he doth protest too much. If you have to use that level of self-aggrandizement, you are an empty rhetorician.

On the other side, Peggy Noonan’s analysis accounts for Trump’s sagging approval ratings and for the fact that most people, supporters and detractors, think that he is bringing himself down to the level of a Jamele Hill by his incessant tweets.

Tweet, tweet, tweet.


Ares Olympus said...

A good summary of the Trump mystery. There is nothing about Trump that is "presidential" and Tweets most of all, yet he manages to hold ~38% approval, about the same as W had in the last 2 years in office, which is actually astounding in itself, given we were stuck in a unprovoked multitrillion dollar war with Iraq because "He tried to kill my daddy" and a collapsing Housing market bubble and stock market. Bill Clinton said "It's the economy, stupid", but not even Trump's $5 trillion stock market gains are enough to offset Trump's tweets.

Yet if you ask a vast majority of Republicans today whether they'd prefer Tweet-in-chief Trump or Hillary Clinton, there's no contest. Clinton has been painted as the source of all evil in the world, so no matter how bad Trump is, they will feel like they made a necessary choice, and at least they got a 30 year Supreme Court Seat safely refilled for Conservative America. And Adams expressed this in the idea of "Framing", where people are simply watching different movies.

I don't know if I believe Adams "Master persuader" argument, but Adam's is also an entertainer. Whether Persuader or Rhetoric, I agree neither term clearly applies to someone who's power is more in being hated than not, although populist FDR tried that "I welcome their hatred".

It only makes sense at all if you consider Trump's virtue isn't his ability to lead constructive change as Noonan wants, but rather like what Michael Moore said, Trump's ability to express their rage to give the big FU to a system that no longer works for everyone, even if most won't say it that directly, and prefer to say "He's a business man" against all evidence there is any business except celebrity itself. So it is more "Master branding" which is the modern corporate motto.

The Trump began from the beginning as facade, as they say, Trump acts the way poor people thing a rich person is supposed to act. He plays the part, even if the NY wealthy never accepted him. And Trump can be honest, he says "I don't want a poor person to run the economy" so in some strange irony, he's the New York elite outsider, fighting the elite with the approval of elite for the needs of the elite, by the will of the people who will never be elite, and are satisfied to have their own chosen elite to lead them.

Anyway, of course Peggy's right, and of course Trump will never change, even if he has a few scripted moments, its boring to him, and boring for us, his fans and haters alike. And I think Adams is wrong, Trump won't make it to the end of his term, and it'll be the "elite" GOP that sinks him, because they're terrified at losing everything, so all they're doing now is milking him as the great Distractor, and hoping all the shame can stay on him, and not mark them as well after he's gone. But really however pitiable the Democratic party looks now, the open civil war of the GOP looks more deadly, to the party, and the country.

Jim Sweeney said...

Ms. Noonan's column also struck at Trump's "intellectual" deficiencies several times. I failed to see intellectual acuity in prior presidents over my long life. LBJ anyone? Clinton? Intellectuals usually make poor national leaders. Thus, while broken clocks are sometimes right, Noonan harps on Trump like a nagging wife which may account for her spinsterhood.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

The clear advantage of Twitter is to avoid the corrupt filtering of information by the mainstream news organs of multinational mega-media companies. You'll remember during the Iranian Green Revolution (that Obama virtually ignored) that the Iranian people were using Twitter to communicate, coordinate and reach outside Iran because the theocrats couldn't control it. Same thing is at work here.

Those of us who are genteel may cringe when President Trump takes to Twitter, but I suspect it works. If everything was coming to us solely through the media cabal, we wouldn't be hearing anything POTUS says without the media's dizzying spin and distortion. And I think the NFL issue is a good one, and a valid one, for an American president to take on. If one wants to speak to an issue that the majority of working class voters (read: the voters who got Trump elected) care about, it doesn't get any better than morons taking a knee every Sunday because they feel somehow feel aggrieved as millionaire players supported by their billionaire owners. Cry me a river. Can't wait to watch the Left destroy the vaunted "amateur" college football system next.

If we dislike our politicians, distrust our political class and detest the mindless bureaucracy, why then do we constantly give them more money, more power and more control over our lives? Whenever a farthing is cut from the deficit-spending budget we cannot afford, people go insane and the rent-a-mobs stage their carnivals of protest, pain and woe. The problem is the government's growing impact on our lives in large and small ways, and our dysfunctional politics reflects a clown corps hard at work. I don't care what Trump tweets if he can somehow contain, reverse or dismantle this unaccountable leviathan on auto pilot... any of it. No politician has succeeded in my lifetime.

trigger warning said...

During the run-up to the election, Adams was right and Noonan was wrong. These days, it's almost de rigeur to disparage Adams as a "cartoonist". In fact, he has a degree in economics. Most people consider economics to be more rigorous than journalism, Noonan's concentration.

Adams worked at PacBell and turned his resonant insights into a gold mine. Noonan worked for Dan Rather (whom she admires) and turned her talents into a government job. A "higher calling", I suppose, since the government builds everything. :-D

The Republican uber-punditry is still bitter that millions of Americans completely ignored them. I haven't seen cut-glass sneering of similar quality since I left the UK, ground zero for upper-class snobbery. Hopefully, there's an American Evelyn Waugh waiting somewhere in the wings.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I am not a fan of credentialing, and am not a fan of ad hominem arguments. If Trump were doing a good job communicating with the nation and the world, if he seemed to have command of his twitter feed, the argument would make more sense. A goodly part of what Noonan mentions involves Trump's failings at communicating with the people and about presenting himself as presidential. Those were the issues I addressed. Trump's approval ratings are awful... and if you want to blame that on the messenger, be my guest. Frankly, I do not care what degrees Adams has...or how rich he has become. None of it makes him a competent theorist. About that he is a grand poser. As I pointed out, and perhaps one should read things more carefully, his analysis ignores too many salient details to be worth much of anything.

Sam L. said...

G.W. Bush did not fight back against attacks from the Dems and the media. Where did that get him? Mr. Trump did, and does. Many of us like that.

Anonymous said...

I think Trump is a patriot who cares about America and its people.

He's not a Davos Man. Or Global Healer. Or Elite Establishment. Which is why both parties loathe him.

I'm starting to worry tho. Tweeting trivia wastes time, is un-Presidential, distracts from the Big Issues. Which are myriad.

He's my age. Not enough sleep. Too much travel & rallies & stress & spats. Probably poor nutrition.

I want him to succeed. Don't get me started on Noonan - we were both members of "The Silent Profession". Ha.

I hope he improves his style, routine, disposition, and focus. -- Rich Lara

Kansas Scout said...

That's a great analysis of Scott Adams. I was watching him on his daily video blogs and I saw all this. Finally I had enough. Great posting. I want to tell you how much I appreciate your blog postings. I always learn something new. Please keep going!