2016-08-01

Vanity, My Favorite Sin


Way back in ancient times, August 2015, Scott Adams of Dilbert fame blogged something interesting about Donald Trump's presidential candidacy. That post argued, in essence, that the reason Donald Trump keeps succeeding despite what other people see as blunders is because he's using a series of sales tricks that convince people to associate his name with good things.

Adams gives some examples. One is that when people dispute Trump's actual net worth, the average American subconsciously associates "fabulous wealth" with Donald Trump, even if it turns out that Trump lied about or overstated his real net worth. Another example was Trump's feud with Rosie O'Donnell - when Trump was called out for being sexist, he "set the anchor" at Rosie O'Donnell, who almost nobody likes, and then casually admitted that he may have said bad things about other people. This might cause people to think, "Trump says bad things about bad people" (which is not bad), rather than "Trump says bad things about innocent women" (which is terrible).

It was a compelling analysis of Trump's candidacy, and it probably went viral or something. I first saw it linked-to on Robert Murphy's blog.

Reasonable people have plenty of room to disagree on the veracity of Adams' analysis, but if I operate under the assumption that it is true, it occurs to me that Donald Trump's egotism presents a real risk that his candidacy may implode for similar reasons.

A perfect example of this would be Trump's ongoing spat with the Khans: ordinary, humble Pakistani parents who have allowed themselves to become tools of the Democratic Party. Whatever the merits of their son's sacrifice might be, and however nice the Khans themselves are, the simple fact of the matter is that by continuing to engage with them, Trump is setting the anchor way too low. What could the Trump Campaign possibly seek to gain from winning a PR war against a couple of old Pakistani immigrants?

Similarly, when Trump won the Republican nomination, he gave a weird speech in which he antagonized Ted Cruz. I'm no Ted Cruz fan, but what does Trump have to gain from using his victory speech to smear a campaign loser?

These are strategic missteps even according to Scott Adams' unconventional analysis of Trumpism, because they attach the Trump brand to losers, not to winners. Perhaps Trump's egotism is so strong that he has to make a point to verbally berate anyone who does him wrong. Okay, but that won't help him get any votes. While he continues to engage in this kind of banter, he damages the public perception of him as a candidate. People like tough guys and winners; they don't like thugs who always punch down.