Sam Harris, the atheist philosopher and neuroscientist, has recently been using his popular Waking Up podcast to discuss Donald Trump, whom he abhors, with an ideologically diverse series of guests, all of whom believe that the president is a vile huckster.
This began to wear on some of his listeners. Wasn’t Harris always warning against echo chambers? Didn’t he believe in rigorous debate with a position’s strongest proponents? At their urging, he extended an invitation to a person that many of those listeners regard as President Trump’s most formidable defender: Scott Adams, the creator of the cartoon Dilbert, who believes that Trump is “a master persuader.”
Their conversation was posted online late last month. It is one of the most peculiar debates about a president I have ever encountered. And it left me marveling that parts of Trump’s base think well of Adams when his views imply such negative things about them.
Those implications are most striking with respect to extreme views that Trump expressed during the campaign. Harris and Adams discussed two examples during the podcast: Trump’s call to deport 12 million illegal immigrants from the United States, a position that would require vast, roving deportation forces, home raids, and the forced removal even of law-abiding, undocumented single mothers of American children; and Trump’s call to murder the family members of al-Qaeda or ISIS terrorists.
Trump took those positions not because he believes them, Adams argued, but to mirror the emotional state of the voters he sought and to “open negotiations” on policy.
Harris expressed bafflement that such a strategy would work:
Harris: If I'm going to pretend to be so callous as to happily absorb those facts, like send them all back, they don't belong here, or in the ISIS case, we'll torture their kids, we'll kill their kids, it doesn't matter, whatever works—if that's my opening negotiation, I am advertising a level of callousness, and a level of unconcern for the reality of human suffering that will follow from my actions, should I get what I ostensibly want, that it's a nearly psychopathic ethics I am advertising as my strong suit.
So how this becomes attractive to people, how this resonates with their values—I get what you said, people are worried about immigration and jihadism, I share those concerns. But when you cross the line into this opening overture that has these extreme consequences on its face, things that get pointed out in 30 seconds whenever he opens his mouth on a topic like this, I don't understand how that works for him with anyone.
Adams: Let me give you a little thought experiment here. We've got people who are on the far right. We've got people on the far left. In your perfect world, would it be better to move the people on the far right toward the middle or the people on the far left toward the middle? Which would be a preferred world for you?
Harris: Moving everyone toward the middle, certainly on most points, would be a very good thing.
Adams: So what you've observed with President Trump through his pacing and emotional compatibility with his base is that prior to Inauguration Day, there were a lot of people in this country who were saying, 'Yeah yeah, round them all up. Send all 12 million back tomorrow.'
When was the last time you heard anybody on the right complaining about that? Because what happened was, immigration went down 50 to 70 percent, whatever the number was, just based on the fact that we would get tough on immigration. And the right says, ‘Oh, okay, we didn't get nearly what we asked for, but our leader, who we trust, who we love, has backed off of that, and we're going to kind of go with that, because he is doing some good things that we like. And we don't like the alternative either.’
So this ‘monster’ that we elected, this ‘Hitler-dictator-crazy-guy,’ he managed to be the only guy who could have, and I would argue always intended, to move the far right toward the middle. You saw it, you know, we can observe it with our own eyes. We don't see the right saying, ‘Oh no, I hate President Trump. He's got to round up those undocumented people like he said early in the campaign, or else I'm bailing on him.’ None of that happened. He paced them, and then he led them toward a reasonable situation, which I would say we're in.
I don’t agree with parts of Adams’s analysis. But as he tells it, Trump targeted voters who’d be attracted rather than repelled by calls for policies that would inflict great suffering; he told those voters things that he didn’t really mean to gain their emotional trust; and all along, he probably intended to go to Washington and do something else. That sounds a lot like the way that Trump voters describe the career politicians who they hate: emotionally manipulative liars who will say anything to get elected, get to Washington, and betray their base by moving left on immigration.
Now consider the most extraordinary exchange in the podcast, when Harris attempts to explain his confusion that not everyone regards Trump as a vile huckster:
Harris: Everything you need to know about Trump's ethics were revealed in the Trump University scandal. This is a guy who is having his employees pressure poor, elderly people to max out their credit cards in exchange for fake knowledge.
Adams: Well, hold on. You understood that to be a license deal, right?
Harris: Yeah, but I understand that to be the kind of thing that he would have to know enough about to know what he was doing. If he only found out about it after the fact, that's not the kind of thing you'd defend, it's the kind of thing you'd be mortified about. And you would apologize for and pay reparations for if you're this rich guy who has all the money you claim to have.
Adams: Unless you were a master persuader who knew that if you ever backed down from anything, people would expect you to back down in the future from other things.
Note that Adams hypothesizes that Trump would not back down even if he were in the wrong and innocents were hurt as a consequence, because it might hurt him personally. A person who wrongs innocents, then hides it because he puts a higher priority on preserving his public persona than justice, is not a person to be trusted with power!
Harris: But what you're describing is a totally unethical person. This is the problem for me. So let me just give you a couple more points here. People will say that all politicians are liars, or all politicians have something weird in their backstory. But there are very few politicians walking around with something that ugly in their backstory that they haven't repaired.
Adams: Let me just clarify. When I said that it was a license deal, as opposed to a business that he was actively running—in the Dilbert world, I do a lot of license deals. And have in the past. The nature of those is that you're giving your brand and your name and then you're not really paying attention to the management of the company. So there are two possibilities here. One is what you described, that he knew the details and he was okay with it, which would be problematic for me, and I'm positive it would be problematic for 100 percent of Trump's supporters if that was the case. Now, if it was a typical license deal where you don't really know exactly what people are doing and you're not paying attention because you've got, in this case, 400 companies with his name on them—
Harris: His whole life is a license deal for the most part––even his real estate empire is a license deal.
Adams: So if it were the case that he were treating it like every other license deal there's a high likelihood that he didn't know about the details until it was too late. Now once he found out the details, how he handled it in court is yet another separate case.
Let’s pause here. What Harris understandably didn’t know off the top of his head is that Trump University was not a typical licensing deal. According to The Washington Post, court documents revealed that the Trump Organization owned 93 percent of Trump University. As well, “beginning in 2005, New York State Education Department officials told the company to change its name because they deemed it misleading.” And Trump appeared in ads for the enterprise, where he said, “I can turn anyone into a successful real estate investor, including you.” Obviously, Trump did not believe that anyone who saw the advertisement could be turned into a success in real estate, and the ad represented that Trump would be doing the turning.
Harris: But even granting you that, it's another separate case that says everything about the man's ethics.
Adams: It says everything about his ethics if he was aware of it at the time.
Harris: No, no, if you're aware of it in the aftermath. If I created some deal, you know, The Sam Harris Waking Up Podcast University—I mean, first of all, the fact that he would license it out to other conmen who were unscrupulous, and not do proper vetting but claim he had, I mean there's a whole commercial with him talking about how these are the geniuses who will be instructing you in this incredibly expensive but profitable enterprise.
If you did all that you're already a schmuck.
But imagine I had done that, and I'm so busy, I've got 400 different businesses, and I just didn't really understand, I got conned, and got lured into doing this with people I didn't totally vet. In the aftermath, I would be horrified! If I found out that someone had their life savings ripped from them by conmen who I had licensed, right, and I'm this billionaire, I would atone for that as much as could possibly be done. I mean, you have to do that!
Adams: Now Sam, when you say you would atone for it, let's talk about the financial part of that atonement. Would you then negotiate with the people who were complaining to figure out what was an appropriate payment?
Harris: It would be obviously indefensible, and I would immediately pay back everything that was lost, and probably more, because there's all the pain and suffering associated with it. You have to make people whole.
Adams: But would you give them whatever they asked for? Like hey, give me 10 million dollars––
Harris: Well no, there has to be some rational consideration of what the cost is. But again, you know the spirit in which he defended this, right? He hasn't admitted that this was a sham. It's of a piece with everything else he has represented about himself. He's a genius whose done nothing but help the world and the world is ungrateful because they can't recognize it. And all the rest is fake news.
Adams: But let me ask you again—and by the way, I want to be very clear that there's nothing about Trump University that I defend.
Harris: But that should mean something to you!
There were, in fact, things about Trump University that Adams was defending. In an effort to persuade, he was portraying himself as an expert on licensing deals, and suggesting that Trump may well have been innocent of any wrongdoing beyond not knowing what the folks who licensed his name were getting up to. Because Adams is not a master persuader, Harris was able to knock down that argument, even without knowing some of the facts that made it obviously wrong.
That’s when the conversation arrived at a place Adams often inhabits: claiming he doesn’t defend vile or hucksterish behavior from Trump, but continuing to act as Trump’s booster.
Adams: But I also think it needs to be put into its clearest context. And the clearest context is, there were people who used the legal system for his complaints, and Trump used the legal system the way it was used, to negotiate, and part of that negotiation is, 'Hey, I'm taking you to court.' 'Well, go ahead, I'll take you to court.' So that's how you negotiate in the legal context. When it was done he paid them back as the legal process probably was going to come out that way whether he was elected president or not.
Harris: It shouldn't have had to go to court. The fact that it had to go to court is a sign of his litigiousness, his defensiveness, his not owning the problem. And who knows how many other scandals like this are in his past where the people couldn't afford to go to court? We actually know a lot about the way he built buildings, insofar as he actually built them—and he screwed hundreds if not thousands of people, and these are people who couldn't afford to take them to court. This guy's reputation is so well known.
At this point Adams repeats a persuasive tactic he had already used—on Trump University, he mentioned his own experience of licensing Dilbert, as if it gave his opinions special weight; in this next part, he casts himself as a construction expert. Factual context for the following part of the conversation can be found in this USA Today investigation.
Adams: Have you ever been involved in a big construction project? Because I've done a few. And what do you do when a subcontractor doesn't perform the way that you want them to perform?
Harris: That's one description of what has happened, but again, you're ignoring the fact that he has a unique reputation for screwing people. And this is something, journalism didn't do its job before the election to get this out––
Adams: Well, I would agree he has a reputation. But what is the source of that reputation? It's the people that didn't get paid, right?
Harris: But again, the fact that Trump University exists, and the fact that he handled it the way he did, tells me everything I need to know about him. Everything. Literally everything Scott.
Adams: Did you just change the subject?
Harris: No. I can see his real estate career through the lens of Trump University. If you give me Trump University, I can tell you what kind of developer he's going to be. And how he's going to treat his subs.
Adams: Well, that's another analogy problem, that Trump University is an analogy––
Harris: No, it's because people's ethics tend to cohere. If you think you can screw someone mercilessly when they're under your power in one context, you are the kind of person, I will predict, who will be screwing people under your power in other contexts, unless you've got some kind of multiple personality disorder.
Adams: Are there no stories you're aware of in which President Trump has done things which he was not required to do which were considered a kindness?
Harris: Well, I'll give you two other points which I think aren't entangled with these wrinkles, which kind of make the same point … So take his career as a beauty pageant host and owner, and the stories well attested of him being the creep who keeps barging into the dressing room so he can look at the beauty pageant contestants, these 18-year-old girls who are essentially his employees, so he can catch them naked. So there's doing that over and over again.
And then add his career as a pseudo-philanthropist. So here's a great example. There's this ribbon-cutting ceremony for a children's school that was serving kids with AIDS. This was back in the ’90s. And he’s pretending to be one of the big donors, and just to get a photo op with the mayor of New York and I think the former mayor of New York, and the real donors to this charity, he jumps on stage, pretends that he belongs there at the ribbon cutting. He never gave a dime to this charity! No one knew he was coming, he literally crashed this party to pretend that he was this big-time philanthropist. Well you may say, this is brilliant PR, right?
It's completely immoral PR.
If I had done this you wouldn't be on this podcast. If you found out these things about me, Sam Harris pretends he gives to charity when he doesn't, he barges into the dressing rooms of his teenage employees so he can catch them naked, and he's got this thing called Harris University that he had to get sued to apologize for, in fact he never apologized for, those three things about me, you wouldn't be on this podcast, and for good reason. But yet you're saying you would elect me president of the United States.
Adams: Yeah I would go even further and say that if you even knew the secret life of any of our politicians we would impeach all of them.
Harris: That's not true.
Adams: The problem is that people tend to be fairly despicable when you drill down.
Harris: Do you think Obama is trailing things of this magnitude? Manifest character flaws of this magnitude?
Adams: Well, I won't name names, but I would say it would be more common than not common, for especially males to have sketchy behavior with the opposite sex.
Harris: Not this level of sketchy behavior. I mean, I'm not going to go to the Billy Bush groping tape which I think is––
Adams: Keep in mind that President Trump's past is far more public than other people. So you're going to see the warts as well as the good stuff. But let me stop acting as if I disagree with the general claim that you're making, that he has done things that you and I might not do in the same situation, and would disapprove of. That is common and would be shared by Trump supporters as well.
Notice the pattern here.
Harris offers an indictment of Trump; Adams tries to undercut it; Adams fails; Adams asserts that he has been misleading us about his real views in the course of doing so; then Adams grants the original indictment, but insists there are mitigating factors:
Harris: But then you seem to give it no ethical weight.
Adams: Here's the proposition. He came in and he said in these very words, ‘I'm no angel.’ But I'm going to do these things for you. Now he created a situation where for his self-interest, if you imagine he's the most selfish, narcissistic, egotistical human who ever lived, he only cares about himself, he put himself in the position where there was exactly one way for any of those things to go right for him, which is to do a really, really frickin' good job, and to imagine that he wants to do anything but the best job for the country now, now that he's in the position, and probably even when he was running, is beyond ludicrous.
It is fascinating that Adams counts the pronouncement, “I’m no angel,” as a point in Trump’s favor, as if unapologetically acknowledging moral depravity lessens its weight.
And that isn’t even the most ludicrous part of his argument.
Upon being elected, it is in the interest of every president to do a really, really good job. As Harris put it, “I will grant you that he cares about his reputation to some degree, and his reputation would be enhanced if at the end of four years or the end of eight years more likely, he was described as the greatest president we ever had. I think he would like that. If you could give him a magic wand and he could wave it in any direction, he would want to leave being spoken of as the next Lincoln or the next Jefferson. In that sense, his interests and the country's interests would be aligned.”
So Trump shares that incentive with every president. And as Harris added, there are other ways in which Trump’s interests depart from America’s interests far more than other presidents: the profits and overseas dealings of the Trump organization, for one thing, and Trump’s murky relationship with Russian oligarchs, for another.
All that aside, even perfectly aligned incentives are worthless if a politician lacks the moral compass and practical skills to govern well. The strongest anti-Trump argument is that he is unfit, regardless of what he wants for Americans—that he is governing about as well as he managed the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, a property that he wanted to succeed but that ended in ruin.
Stripped of all the evasive rhetorical tactics, Adams’s case for Trump amounts to this: Trump is a master persuader, as evidenced by his success manipulating voters with morally odious positions that he didn’t believe and never intended to execute—but Americans shouldn’t be bothered by the vileness or the hucksterism, which Adams regards as mostly harmless, because it’s in Trump’s personal interests to be successful, and as Adams later argued, Americans should want a guy who will succeed in the White House more than a guy who is moral or honest.
Now, personally, I don’t believe that Trump is a master persuader. I think he’s a guy who started out with unusual amounts of money, name recognition, and media coverage, three hugely important factors for a pol; ran against an unusually disliked opponent; and still managed to lose the popular vote by a margin of almost three million. But whether or not Trump is a master persuader is really beside my point here.
My point is that Harris had been using his podcast to discuss Trump with an ideologically diverse series of anti-Trump guests who believe the president is a vile huckster—and then, when he agreed to host the pro-Trump guest who his pro-Trump listeners flagged as Trump’s most formidable defender, that guest essentially conceded that Trump has done all sorts of vile things and rose to power via lies, but that it’s all for the best because he has an incentive to do a really good job. To accept all that would be to cede any grounds for objecting to future politicians who behave immorally, inject cruel policy proposals into the national debate, and lie to get elected. If Adams truly is the most formidable defender of the Trump presidency, then the best defense of the president is grounded in corrosive moral nihilism.