When I was a kid, Dilbert was my favorite comic strip. In retrospect this is kind of weird, as some small-town 6th grader couldn’t possibly know anything about the business world in which the strip takes place. But I developed an obsession with it anyway, constantly renting out the Dilbert books from the local library, then spending my birthday money on the ones they didn’t have. My wall was filled with my own taped-up drawings of Dilbert panels – anything I found particularly funny or clever, doubling as some sort of practice for what I perceived as a future career. See, Scott Adams was an idol of mine. He couldn’t draw (it says something that 11-year old me could replicate those panels fairly well), but he had a great sense of humor, and to me that was all that counted. It made me laugh and nothing else in the paper did (this was before Get Fuzzy), so that was that.
Back then, you didn’t really get to know Scott Adams until you read his books. I remember three – The Dilbert Principle, The Dilbert Future, and The Joy of Work. It was through those books that I started to feel a certain kinship with Adams. Not only was he funny but he was a big thinker, the sort who approached everything in life as a puzzle, which was pretty much the way I saw the world too. His M.O. – find amusement in stupid people who are easy to manipulate – was just the right kind of message for an unpopular middle schooler with Math Bowl trophies. Not because I disliked the people around me, but the environment I grew up in didn’t exactly prize smarts a lot. I guess I just felt like I understood where he was coming from, and frankly I felt like he got me too. Middle school was tough for me and I’d be lying if I said his books didn’t help a lot with that.
After a few years I stopped following him, mostly because I didn’t find the new strips as funny as the old ones (to be fair, post-2000 Dilbert was pretty much 100% office jokes, whereas the Dilbert I liked had a variety of settings). But there was another reason – the guy’s ego was starting to put me off. I’ll give you a couple of examples. The Dilbert Future, his 1997 book, was based around 65 predictions of what Adams envisioned what the future some indeterminate number of years from now would be like. The predictions are meant to be mostly punchlines, the sort of whimsical blurbs that you can read on Twitter today (Example: “In the future, it will be illegal to threaten yourself, and the penalty for doing so will be death.”) But regardless, his next book (The Joy of Work) took time to pat himself on the back for being right about some of them, in particular this one – “In the future, the media will kill famous people to generate news that people will care about.”. He was referring to Princess Diana, proceeding to claim was maybe, possibly, perhaps she was intentionally killed by the paparazzi. Even I knew he was being pretty insensitive and disingenuous there – yeah yeah it’s just one person and this kind of thing happens every day, but clearly Lady Di meant something to a lot of people and using her death as a way to boost your predictive powers (especially when your prediction still isn’t remotely true) felt boorish to me.
The other thing was a story which he later posted online – I swear this was in one of his books at some point but maybe I’m just misremembering. Entitled, My Best Story, it is a tale of him sitting on a plane next to someone reading The Dilbert Principle:
The guy starts reading. He laughs. Phew. I’m glad he likes the book. He laughs some more. He’s really getting into it now. I look to my right. The fellow directly across the aisle pulls out a book to read: The Dilbert Principle. Now I have them on both sides, and the plane hasn’t crossed Arizona yet. Damn. There’s no way one of them won’t recognize me from the book jacket.
Now the guy on my left is convulsing. He’s wiping tears from his eyes. He’s having the time of his life. But he realizes his laughter is disturbing me. So he turns to me and says, “I’m sorry. It’s this book. Have you read it?”
I don’t know why exactly this bothered me, but I remember reading it and thinking, “this sounds made up”. And it wasn’t a good feeling, since at that point I still idolized Scott Adams, to some degree at least. I’m not claiming that this never happened but there is something about the way it was written that reminds me of those copypastas you see on Facebook (“…and then everyone stood up and clapped…”). I’ve read The Dilbert Principle and it is funny, but not exactly laugh-out-loud-till-you-convulse-on-an-airplane funny. And I’ve never seen two people on public transport reading the exact same book, much less two people seated to the left and right of me. My suspicion was that parts of this story were true – I’m guessing he did once sit next to a stranger reading the book who didn’t recognize him, but it sounds like he took a good story and tried to turn it into an insane moment of serendipity. I feel this way because I used to do stuff like this myself – tell amazing stories that were only half true, turning a simple coincidence into a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m not proud of that, but I was a teenager desperate to be liked.
Does all this remind you of someone? If not, let me point out that Adams has recently been in the news for his theories on Donald Trump, having been one of the few people who correctly predicted that he would win the Republican nomination (not exactly the boldest of predictions – the polls had him leading all the way – but he was certainly one of the few who thought it could actually happen). He argues that Trump is perhaps not the hateful buffoon that the media portrays him as, but rather a world-class strategist using techniques that only master hypnotists (such as Scott Adams himself, as he always seems to be reminding us) have even heard of. Which led me to the realization that Scott Adams and Donald Trump are in many ways the same person. Adams congratulating himself on Princess Diana’s death feels a lot like Trump congratulating himself on the Orlando shooter; his plane story reads a lot like Trump’s claim that he saw “thousands and thousands” of Muslims celebrating on the rooftop after 9/11.
Now I’m going to congratulate myself: I put the connection together a few months ago. It happened upon reading what I consider my favorite story (thus far) of the entire Donald Trump run – the allegation that he was, for a time, acting as his own publicist under the name John Barron, calling up newspapers to brag about Trump’s massive success, what the media was getting wrong about him, and bizarrely, his sexual conquests. I loved the story because seriously – who the hell does something like that? And then I remembered – Scott Adams did something like that! In 2011, a Gawker affiliate outed him as “PlannedChaos”, the Scott Adams megafan who defended him vigorously on Reddit and MetaFilter. This in itself isn’t the worst thing, but his explanation for having done so was full of straw manning and shit-flinging like you wouldn’t believe – “I had to do it, someone is going take my writing out of context and accuse me of Holocaust denial, and then I might die!!” (and later, “I was going to cop to it anyway, so good job internet detectives”) Never mind that seemingly all PlannedChaos did was post about Scott Adams’ genius IQ and why that meant idiots on the internet could never understand where he was coming from. And yet, he still seems bitter about the whole ordeal, even going as far as to praise notoriously thin-skinned billionaire Peter Thiel for trying to get Gawker shut down, repeatedly attacking the website and calling it a cesspool. After all, freedom of speech is only cool so long as they aren’t saying bad things about you.
That’s what’s been so amusing to me about watching Adams repeatedly and enthusiastically act as Trump’s personal apologist – game recognize game, I guess. Though he frequently claims he does not support Trump as a candidate, he praises and shows admiration for him on a near daily basis. He blogs about him. He tweets about him. He makes videos about him. He goes on TV to talk about him. In particular, he glorifies the man’s ability as a “master persuader”, using “linguistic kill shots” to create confirmation biases that appeal to instincts and desires that people may not have known they had. These aren’t really new observations per se, but they are perhaps the only time you’ll hear them prefaced with, “first of all, I’m a licensed hypnotist…” Adams sees voters the same way PUAs see women – not as people, but as puzzles to solve through subtle manipulation
In a way, Trump is Adams’ dream candidate. In his books, Adams frequently talks about persuasion and manipulation, suggesting that if you can master those techniques, the world is wide open and you can accomplish basically anything you want. Not entirely false of course, but I’ve always felt Adams took this idea too far. In one of his books (The Joy of Work?) he outlines a really “fun” workplace prank. Say you’re at a meeting where someone is just standing around, talking and talking about corporate initiatives or buzzwords or whatever. As the meeting goes on, you mimic all his movements. He touches his face, you touch your face. He scratches himself, you scratch yourself. He coughs, you cough. Eventually the presenter will subconsciously link your movements with his own without realizing it. Then you go in for the kill – pick your nose or jam your finger up your butt and watch as the presenter does the same, to massive fits of laughter of course. The presenter is now humiliated, but hey, serves ’em right for wasting your time.
Of course this won’t actually work on our planet, but on the Scott Adams planet, it does because humans are just sacks of flesh who don’t understand the reality of their own consciousness. This leads to another one of Adams’ favorite tricks – “if it sounds somewhat true, then maybe people will believe it”; the imitation gag sounds like there may be some logic behind it, and it’s intricate enough to make you believe that nobody would just make it up. Trump is obviously a master of this, casting off bogus facts and random accusations that have tenuous connections to reality, knowing that he only needs to get these statements to stick with a portion of his audience. Again – the world is wide open. Trump is Adams’ dream candidate because it is the ultimate use case of everything he’s been saying his whole life – more than hard work, talent, and intelligence, success comes by manipulating people you feel are beneath you. As if to prove it, he laid down the gauntlet – “Just for fun, I’ve un-hypnotized several rabid anti-Trumpers lately. It takes less than ten minutes, requires nothing but conversation, and you can probably pull it off just by reading how I did it. Here’s how.” (Did you see how he subtly implied that people who do not like Trump have been hypnotized? Did anyone catch that?) Then, he proceeds to outline how Trump won’t start a nuclear war (it wouldn’t be in his personal interest now would it?), how his bankruptcies don’t count (he has lots of businesses!), and that he’s not actually racist (Mexico isn’t a race! Islam isn’t a race!), nor sexist (he wants women to own guns to protect themselves! Does Hillary?), ending it all with this not-exactly-persuasive argument: “Trump is offensive in the way he has talked about women. But keep in mind that Trump has offended nearly everyone at some point.”
Most baffling are his comments about Judge Curiel – on a post titled “The Robot Judge” he oh-so-hilariously insists that Gonzalo Curiel must be a robot, otherwise nobody could possibly think that Trump’s comments about him being impartial due to having Mexican heritage were bigoted or racially motivated (Mexico is not a race! Mexico is not a race!!!). After all, aren’t we all biased by our life experiences? Never mind that impartiality is a significant requirement for becoming a sitting judge in the first place, or that by the same logic it would be unfair to appoint a white male as a judge, since hey, those are the people Trump panders to the hardest. How awkward would HIS dinner be if he had to explain to his family why he went so hard on the only man who wants to make this country great? But this is the logic of both Scott Adams and Donald Trump; particularly the oft-used assertion that racism and sexism don’t actually exist anymore, and therefore anyone bringing it up is trying to make you feel guilty for being a white male, and possibly even racist and/or sexist themselves. Witness Trump calling Elizabeth Warren “the real racist”, or Adams shutting down comments on his blog because they were being overran by “racist and sexist trolls”. Given Adams’ well-known disdain for feminists, SJWs, and his now-infamous article that hilariously compares women to small children (“The reality is that women are treated differently by society for exactly the same reason that children and the mentally handicapped are treated differently.”), you can only imagine what these comments might have been. To hear Adams tell it, the real sexism is against straight white men – just look at a recent blog post entitled “The Humiliation of the American Male in 2016”, which makes its argument based on an advertisement for dish detergent, and of course ties it all back to the Donald (“I think we all agree that Melania never asks Donald to go back to the store because he’s too dumb to buy the right kind of soap on the first try”). He often claims that women dominate our society because they control access to sex, and in one book suggests that if men truly dominated then we’d be free to rape whoever and whenever we pleased.
(A quick aside: I never saw this as a kid, but there’s a streak of unfiltered misogyny throughout Dilbert’s entire run: Woman says something. Man points out a logical fallacy in her argument. Woman goes crazy with rage because that’s what women do. No, this is not the same as a commercial in which a man wears a V-neck sweater. His “gender war” posts – here’s an example – are absolutely insane and do not resemble a world I have experienced any part of. I know its not entirely fair to judge a guy based on something he writes primarily to make people laugh, but after so many years of this you got to figure he actually believes this stuff.)
Recently, he’s been touting what I would consider to be a masterpiece of pure, unfiltered Adams-logic: he endorses Hillary Clinton for president, but…BUT!…only for his own personal safety. After all, so many people think Trump is Hitler, and it is morally justified to assassinate Hitler, and therefore it may be justified to kill his supporters as well. This is Adams in a nutshell – not only does it allow him to play both sides (Hillary wins: “Great! I endorsed her!”, Trump wins: “I knew it all along!”), but it allows him to point out repeatedly that hey, maybe you easily-manipulated in-duh-viduals think that Trump supporters are the violent ones, but when you really think about it, it’s the other side you have to be worried about (he makes a similar argument on another post: Trump would be the best candidate for climate change, because people might actually listen to him. As you can imagine, it makes no sense whatsoever). Never mind that this is coming from a man who literally goes on TV in order to praise Donald Trump; if he’s not gunning for his “#1 Celebrity Fan” trophy then he’s sure got me fooled.
But besides all that, the reasoning for all this is clear: it allows him to distance himself from either candidate, projecting himself as an amused bystander watching the American public get duped, just like he predicted. Of course he wants Trump to win; if you don’t think he’s got The Art of Persuasion: How a Newspaper Cartoonist Correctly Predicted the Election of Donald Trump half written already, you’re fooling yourself. If there’s one concept that Adams knows well, it’s that it’s never a bad idea to make outlandish predictions, because they just might come true. And if they don’t, well…”of course it was a joke, you’re taking it out of context” (bolded because this particular combination of words seem to be Adams’ favorite). It’s The Dilbert Future all over again.
But this time, the stakes are different. This is not some offhanded prediction; it has become the main focus of his blog and his Twitter account, and he’s appeared on CNN and HBO to speak about it. Google Scott Adams and his Trumpboner will immediately appear, which is understandable – he’s not the only one predicting a Trump victory, but he is (as far as I know) the only one claiming that he will win in “the biggest landslide in U.S. history”. If Trump wins, it will validates everything he is saying, showing the public what he hopes has been true all along – everyone’s doing it wrong, and smart people like Scott Adams are the only ones to realize it.
The problem: Trump is not winning. He is currently facing a 12-point deficit and it is not clear exactly how he will be able to pull himself out of it. He is polling worse than Mitt Romney was amongst nearly every segment of the population. The majority of the country thinks he is a bigot who is unqualified for the job. His constant deflection – “Hillary is the real sexist! Warren is the real racist!” seems to be falling on deaf ears. And, most importantly, his “master persuasion techniques” aren’t working. Sure, they’re helping him among the white supremacist base and they’re getting him plenty of free media coverage, but it remains to be seen if an election can be won on negative publicity alone. Adams offered a lot of praise for Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, saying that yes, it sounds crazy and racist, but he’s really just smartly playing the odds. Chances are there will be a terrorist attack in the next few months, and it’s going to make people flock to Donald, because even if he sounds nuts, at least he’s been saying something (never mind that white men commit the vast majority of mass shootings in this country, the fact that you are much more likely to be shot by a right wing extremist than a Muslim, and that his proposed Muslim ban is exactly what ISIS wants and is likely to produce more attacks, not less). But when it came to pass, the opposite happened. Orlando should have been a slam dunk for his campaign. Instead, Trump’s response was slammed – his self-congratulations, his mis-identification of the shooter’s nationality, and his gun proposals that were so extreme that even the NRA wouldn’t agree with them. Polls showed that the public thought Hillary had the better response, and Trump’s numbers have been plummeting ever since.
As I write this, Scott Adams has published a blog post walking his Trump-landslide prediction back, claiming the reason why Hillary has pulled so far ahead is because her supporters have effectively branded Trump as a “crazy racist”, which he calls a “lethal persuasion cocktail”. He then spends several paragraphs defending Trump’s racism, before declaring “Facts don’t matter. Facts never matter.”, thereby not-so-subtly suggesting that Trump is, as a matter of fact, Not a Racist. There’s a lot to unpack here, but it’s fair to say that I absolutely hate this logic and consider Adams to be a weasel for using it. Mostly because he’s assuming that the reason why Clinton is pulling ahead has nothing to do with Trump’s repeated bigotry, but rather the fact that Team Clinton upped their persuasion game, meaning that…what do you know!? Scott Adams was right after all! Because in Scott Adams World, it all comes down to the idea that persuasion means everything and facts mean nothing, and therefore if anyone says anything bad about his favorite candidate, it’s because it’s not really a fact. After all, noted white male cartoonist Scott Adams knows what racism is, and he definitely knows what sexism is. In fact, he’s able to tell you exactly who the real victims of sexism are. (Shocker! It’s not who you think!)
The other reason why I hate this logic is because it pokes a large, unaddressed hole in Adams’ insistence that Trump is in fact the Master Manipulator – someone who was really so damn great at persuasion would probably be able to figure out that making inflammatory comments about large swaths of the population would almost certainly backfire. A great persuader would not say that he supports racial profiling. He would not claim that people of certain nationalities and religions may inherently not be able to do their job properly. He would not believe that tweeting a picture of a goddamn taco bowl would smooth over his tense relations with Latinos. And yet he did all of these things, leaving it up to Smartest Guys in the Room like Scott Adams to untangle it all and argue, through some combination of pedantry and semantics, that Trump’s “crazy racist” label was purely the result of persuasion on Clinton’s side, not something he emphatically earned. Because the real problem facing America is…wait for it…political correctness! Here’s a hint: if a majority of the country believes a man is a racist and you have to bend over backwards in order to defend him, chances are this man may not have a very good grasp on his own image. The American people do not see Trump as a bigot because Clinton supporters stumbled upon a “lethal persuasion cocktail” – they see him as such because of things he actually said.
I’m not going to posit that Donald Trump can’t win, because it’s a long way to November, and if you support him, you can take solace in the fact that Trump’s campaign has barely even started yet. But for the time being he’s in a real tough spot. He’s getting thumped in every poll and I’m not sure how he’s going to dig himself out. It’s hard to imagine him making any credible attempt to “centralize” his message and appear more presidential in light of his unprecedented barrage of lies and controversial statements; in fact, to do so may alienate what’s left of the base he already has. Even if he stops Tweeting, stops speaking off-the-cuff, and stops shooting himself in the foot, the damage is done – Clinton’s campaign already has all they’ll ever need to work with. Furthermore, his campaign is massively underfunded at the moment, and it is not quite clear how he’s going to convince donors to give large sums of money to a man who has repeatedly bragged about his own wealth, especially when the RNC is not exactly behind him. Perhaps people smarter than me, like Scott Adams, know something that I don’t. But from where I sit, it looks almost certain that he will lose.
This to me is one of the most fascinating storylines of the entire election – what exactly would a Donald Trump loss look like? If there’s one thing that Trump’s brand has been built on, it’s winning. Either he wins, or he got cheated. You often see this pop up in his campaign. The California drought? Just gotta turn the water back on! Global Warming? A Chinese hoax! In Trump’s world, there are no complex questions. Just liars and crooks who stand in your way. Any bad news story is the result of the dishonest press. Any poll that shows him behind is clearly meant to mislead. Yes, they hate him – but only because he tells the truth. Outside of getting overthrown from the convention (a possibility that’s still in play!!) I cannot imagine how his brand could recover from losing the election.
As for Scott Adams, I suspect that he will be fine – mostly because I would guess the vast majority of Dilbert readers have no clue about the man behind the comic strip, and those who do may already be familiar with his particular brand of insanity. But for me it’s all been a bit depressing, especially given that I still find Dilbert to be an actually funny comic strip, at least considering the low bar that passes for a newspaper comic (though as you might expect, I find the SJW character to be….really dumb). I’ve left behind the teenaged version of me, but it seems like Scott Adams never has. One can easily picture him as a student at Berkeley, surveying the classroom and thinking “I would have sex with every woman in here, and yet I’m not”, and basing his entire worldview around that observation. He comes off as the sort of person who loves to take widely understood conventional wisdom, flip it around (what if…the opposite was true!), and attempts to structure an argument aimed mostly at proving to the world how damn smart you are. If someone says you have cognitive dissonance, just say “no, YOU have cognitive dissonance!” If someone says calls you sexist…”no, YOU’RE a sexist”. If someone points out the flaws in your logic, you can always tell them that they’re not smart enough to understand the universe that caused you to make that argument, and therefore can’t REALLY have an opinion, when you think about it. And if you really, really cannot defend yourself, just unleash the ol’ standby – “well OF COURSE it was a joke”. Or even better – “hey, it got you reading my blog. Thanks for the traffic!” Look, I know what this is like, okay? I’ve said racist, sexist, and plain old dumb stuff in the past and used some of these exact same lines to defend myself. It doesn’t work.
Let me put it this way – he’s actually managed to convince himself that Clinton supporters are the ones you need to be afraid of. That she is the one fear-mongering and making unfair assumptions. That, my friends, is a sign of a man who’s reached his conclusion long before he’s made any arguments. But if you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.