In August 2015 viewers of the first Republican primary debate could be forgiven for thinking that Donald Trump was finished. "You've called women you don't like fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals," the moderator, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, said to him. "You once told a 'Celebrity Apprentice' it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?" Trump didn't act contrite, or statesmanlike, as conventional candidates might have done. Instead, he interrupted Kelly with another nasty dig, about Rosie O'Donnell, and volunteered that he'd probably insulted others, too. Many pundits proclaimed that the response cemented Trump's unelectability.
Scott Adams, the millionaire creator of the office-humor comic strip Dilbert, saw something different. In that moment, he realized that Trump might be a kindred spirit—a fellow "Master Wizard," Adams's term for experts in hypnosis and persuasion. Watching the debate alone at home, he grew excited. "I really got out of my chair and said, 'Whoa, there's something happening here that's not like regular politics,' " Adams recalled. As he saw it, Trump had deftly defanged Kelly's accusations by replacing them with a powerful visual: the iconic O'Donnell, "who is very unpopular among his base," Adams said. "It was the most brilliant thing I've ever seen." A week later, he published a blog post titled "Clown Genius."
With about 10,000 readers on a good day, Adams's blog had a fraction of the audience of his cartoon, which appears in 2,000 newspapers around the world, or his books of pop-business theory, which are best-sellers. But in the digital sphere, Adams was able to indulge his more outré interests and theories. Of Trump, he wrote: "There is an eerie consistency to his success so far. Is there a method to it? … Probably yes. Allow me to describe some of the hypnosis and persuasion methods Mr. Trump has employed on you." At a time when virtually the entire professional political class was convinced Trump would self-immolate, Adams's essay reframed his actions as the deliberate work of a political savant. Trump, he wrote, was using such "Persuasion 101" tricks as "anchors," "intentional exaggeration," and "thinking past the sale" to wage "three-dimensional chess" against his opponents and the media, including Kelly and Fox News. "Now that Trump owns Fox, and I see how well his anchor trick works with the public," Adams concluded, "I'm going to predict he will be our next president."
As Trump extended his run, Adams kept pace with a near-daily flow of blog posts and livestreaming analysis, making himself indispensable as one of Trump's most appreciative interpreters. He made the case that even the most erratic Trump moments were tactically brilliant—and that this was an insight that he alone could see. "My predictions are based on my unique view into Trump's toolbox of persuasion," Adams wrote at the outset, reminding readers that he was a certified hypnotist. "I believe those tools are invisible to almost everyone but trained hypnotists and people that study the science of persuasion." As Trump kept winning, Adams was invited onto CNN, BBC, HBO, and other platforms. He amassed 140,000 Twitter followers, and on some days his blog readership spiked to almost 450,000.
Through most of the primary season, Adams emphasized that he wasn't endorsing Trump, just doing his part to help the public better read a misunderstood candidate. When Trump insulted Carly Fiorina—saying "Look at that face!"—Adams declared it a "linguistic kill shot" that would end her bid. "She does have what I call the angry wife face when she talks politics," he wrote. "Guys, you know that face." When Trump referred to Mexican immigrants as "rapists," Adams said he obviously hadn't meant all Mexican immigrants, only some—and that "intentional exaggeration is a … standard method of persuasion." When Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigrants, Adams wrote: "In the 3D world of emotion, where Trump exclusively plays, he has set the world up for the most clever persuasion you will ever see." He dubbed Trump's technique "pacing and leading": He was getting the attention of anti-immigration crusaders, before scaling back to a more moderate stance. When Trump asserted that things were worse for African-Americans in 2016 than at any time in history—prompting many to remind Trump about slavery—Adams wrote, "Facts don't matter. Every trained persuader knows that." In June, Adams spoof-endorsed Hillary Clinton, writing that if he didn't, he would become "a top-ten assassination target." Clinton fans define Trump as Hitler, he reasoned, "and obviously it would be okay to kill anyone who actively supports a genocidal dictator." Adams later emphasized that he wasn't joking.
Getting a comic strip, even one as occasionally edgy as Dilbert, into family newspapers requires observing a certain set of norms. Adams's viral analyses of Trump introduced many people, including me, to his more unusual fixations. Between political ponderings, he blogged about fitness and seduction, posting photos of his abs and writing a series of essays on how to deploy hypnosis and persuasion for better orgasms. "My language skills activate your sex drive, and you know it," he wrote at one point. So-called men's rights activists became vocal fans. I was just baffled. As Trump and Clinton entered the home stretch of the campaign, I wondered if Dilbert's success had made Scott Adams eccentric—or if this had always been the mind behind the strip.
One week before the election, I went to meet Adams at his sprawling, self-designed home in Pleasanton, Calif., about an hour's drive north of San Francisco. When he opened the door, accompanied by his dog, Snickers, he turned out to be soft-spoken and friendly. At almost 60, Adams conveyed the energy of a teenage boy. Short and wiry, with thinning, close-cropped hair, he wore glasses, jeans, a V-neck T-shirt, and black Ecco sneakers. After offering me coffee, he opened a can of coconut water and sat on a tall stool at the island in his kitchen. "If Trump gets elected, my profile will go through the roof, because I'm in a very small group of people who publicly said he would win in a landslide. … I'll be very popular," he said, with satisfaction.
Adams's house is a shrine to the cartoon character that made him rich. One section, visible from the pool area outside, clearly resembles Dilbert's head, with two oval windows for eyes, connected by a thin line that suggests spectacles. "They look out from the cat's bathroom upstairs," Adams told me. The structure is full of indulgent quirks. In the kitchen, Adams installed three microwaves so he "can make a lot of popcorn at once." Nearby, he transformed a bar area (Adams doesn't drink) into a display case for Dilbert books and paraphernalia. Other features include a 10-seat movie theater, a gym, and a room filled with beauty salon equipment, where his ex-wife (now Adams's personal assistant) used to host spa days for friends. Off to the back is an indoor tennis court.
Adams's Dilbert empire has been growing for three decades. When he launched the strip in the late '80s, long-running staples such as Dennis the Menace, Family Circus, and Blondie seemed saccharine and dated. Adams's creation was fresh, starring a sardonic software engineer named Dilbert; his conceited and grandiose dog, Dogbert; an incompetent boss; and a host of odd co-workers. Early installments showed Dilbert at home. When Adams refocused the strip on the workplace, it caught fire among a generation of office drones who spent their days staring at spreadsheets and slide decks. While workers had long tacked comics like The Far Side and Cathy to their felt cubicle walls, to say something about themselves and their brand of humor, here was a subversive comic about cubicle culture itself. During the '90s, amid waves of corporate downsizing and the tech boom, a zeitgeisty Dilbert graced the covers of Newsweek, Time, and Fortune. Adams churned out Dilbert-themed calendars, knickknacks, and even a TV show. He also penned op-eds and business tomes, including The Dilbert Principle, based on the theory that companies tend to promote their least competent employees to middle management, "removing morons from the productive flow."
Adams still spends two to four hours most days sketching strips at home, with some help from a remote assistant who perfects the details. He has an airy office upstairs, where the books on display include Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade and a signed copy of The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, a book of strategies for seducing women. (Adams said he hadn't read it.) But Adams usually works downstairs, at a large digital sketchboard in his living room, surrounded by vases filled with fake flowers, facing a faux fireplace and an enormous flatscreen TV. "That way I can watch the news," he said, adding that he doesn't generally read newspapers, except for links people send him.
When I visited, Adams's girlfriend of three months, Kristina Basham, was living with him, along with her two daughters. She's 28. Until recently, she maintained a website that showed her posing in a bikini, described as a model and baker, with a D cup size. "I don't talk about where we met. People make judgments," Adams said. "We met the normal way people meet." He does blog about Basham, though. In a post titled "The Kristina Talent Stack," Adams described how she increased her Instagram following to 2.5 million. "The idea of a talent stack is that you can combine ordinary skills until you have enough of the right kind to be extraordinary," he wrote. "You don't have to be the best in the world at any one thing. All you need to succeed is to be good at a number of skills that fit well together." Basham, he noted, was smart, knew model tricks about posing and makeup, and used social media hacks such as SEO and A/B testing. ("For example, although her Instagram photos are G-rated, any hint of side-boob adds at least 10% to her engagement.") This seemed a little obvious to me, but Adams also extended the theory to himself and Trump.
"I'm not much of an artist, not much of a business expert, and my writing skills are mostly self-taught," Adams wrote. "I'm funny, but not the funniest person in my town. The reason I can succeed without any world-class skills is that my talent stack is so well-designed." Trump's stack, he continued, was powerful. "He isn't the best communicator in the world, but he is very good. He doesn't know as much about politics as career politicians do, but apparently he knows enough. He isn't the smartest person who ever ran for office, but he's very smart. He might not be the best business strategist in the world, but he certainly knows his stuff. I could go on for pages about how Trump has good-but-not-world-class skills in a variety of areas. And when you put all of those talents together it makes him the most persuasive human I have ever observed."
Basham had recently persuaded Adams to take a trip to London and Zurich—the first time he'd ever traveled beyond Canada and Mexico. "I don't like being uncomfortable," he said, "and travel is uncomfortable." He prefers to stay home, keeping busy with various entrepreneurial projects. He was especially eager to talk about WhenHub, an online platform for sharing schedules and timelines, in which he said he's invested roughly $1 million and where Basham is a vice president. To demonstrate the product, he showed me a timeline he'd made featuring Victoria's Secret models. We looked at the lingerie-clad figures on a screen together. "I don't know how you get a stomach like that, except through lots of situps and not eating," he said, admiring one of the women. Later, at lunch, Adams ate only a few bites of a salmon nicoise salad, saying he needed to counteract an unhealthy diet during his travels.
As a child, Adams lived in the town of Windham, N.Y., with two siblings. "I'd say we grew up in a family where no one ever hugged," he said. "So, not close in the way people talk about, but close as in, yeah, we'd take a bullet for each other." His father was a post office clerk, while his mother worked first as a real estate agent and then on an assembly line at a speaker factory. "Her job was to manually wrap copper wire around magnets, which she did for eight hours a day," Adams said. "It was awful. She did that to pay for our college." His mom also got him interested in hypnosis. "She gave birth to my younger sister while under hypnosis," Adams told me. "She was awake and remembers the experience but didn't feel any pain. That influenced me greatly." (Dave Adams, Scott's brother, told me he also believed this story.)
After graduating as valedictorian of his 40-person high school class, Adams enrolled at Hartwick College in central New York, which he said he chose largely because it had a nursing school and thus more women than men, and got a bachelor's degree in economics. Sick of the cold, he moved to San Francisco, where he landed a job as a teller at Crocker National Bank and worked his way into management. Later he worked at Pacific Bell and took night classes to earn an MBA from the University of California at Berkeley. At both the bank and the phone company, Adams has said, his professional advancement was thwarted by diversity hires. "There was no hope for another generic white male to get promoted any time soon," he wrote in Dilbert 2.0: 20 Years of Dilbert. (Later in the book, he noted that his Dilbert TV show was canceled after "the network made a strategic decision to focus on shows with African-American actors.")
Inspiration for Dilbert came from his cynical view of corporate life. "About 60 percent of my job at Pacific Bell involved trying to look busy," he wrote in his most recent book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. "Most of my budget spreadsheets had formula errors, but that didn't matter because all of the inputs from the various departments were complete lies and bullshit. If anything, my error probably smoothed out some of the bullshit and made it closer to truth." While working for Pacific Bell, Adams set his alarm for 4 a.m. most days and spent a few hours sketching Dilbert and writing, 15 times in a row, an affirmation: "I, Scott Adams, will become a famous cartoonist." His breakthrough came when United Media began syndicating Dilbert in 1989.
Starting in the late '90s, Adams also launched a line of vitamin-infused vegan microwave burritos called Dilberitos, which were discontinued after a few years, and two restaurants, which went belly-up. "For a while, everything I touched turned to gold," Adams said. "So I tried harder things, until I found my limit. The restaurants were my limit." He also wrote two religion-themed novellas, published in 2001 and 2004, which, he told me, will be his ultimate legacy—not Dilbert.
The first, God's Debris, is about a package delivery guy who meets the smartest man on earth. "The central character in God's Debris knows everything. Literally everything," Adams writes in the introduction. "This presented a challenge to me as a writer. When you consider all of the things that can be known, I don't know much. My solution was to create smart-sounding answers using the skeptic's creed: The simplest explanation is usually right." The second novella, a follow-up titled The Religion War, describes a civilizational conflict in 2040 between a violent caliphate in the Middle East and a Christian alliance in the West. The hard-nosed hero builds a wall around the jihadists and "essentially kills everybody there," Adams told me. "I have to be careful, because I'm talking about something pretty close to genocide, so I'm not saying I prefer it, I'm saying I predict it."
Around the same time, Adams said, he was making up to $1 million annually from public speaking, charging up to $100,000 per speech, until in 2005 he suddenly lost the ability to talk with other people. The mysterious condition is known as voice dystonia. While Adams could still speak normally to himself and to his cat, and he could even sing and recite memorized poems, he could no longer have conversations. "I think that's what led to the end of my marriage," he told me. "Losing the ability to speak made me feel like a ghost. It was incredibly lonely." The inexplicable condition, which doctors attributed to a possible mental condition, persisted for three years. Then Adams underwent an experimental surgery that involved cutting nerves that lead from the brain to the vocal cords and building a new path using nerves from elsewhere in the neck. A few months later, his voice returned.
When Adams began writing about Trump, it surprised his friends and colleagues, who'd always considered him to be liberal on social issues. "When he told me about Trump, I was so disappointed, because I respect the guy so much," says Stephan Pastis, the creator of Pearls Before Swine, who credits Adams with discovering his strip and making it popular. "I definitely get asked by other syndicated cartoonists—and the questions are not good—'What's happening to him? Why's he supporting Trump?' " One explanation, Pastis says, is that Adams simply craves attention. "Cartoonists are addicted to reaction. I don't know whether Scott would admit that, but I know it's true."
While Adams eventually endorsed Trump, he told me he didn't vote because he feels he doesn't know enough about international affairs, economics, or science. Still, he views his blog as an act of service. "I'm at a point where I'm trying to be more useful than selfish," he said. "I decided to gamble with my own income and my own reputation to let people see Trump through a different framework, if not a more accurate frame." One consequence, Adams said, is that his paid speaking requests have dried up. "In 20 years, there's never been a week I didn't get a speaking request—and now it's been months," he said.
But Adams is getting a book deal. In October, Portfolio will release Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don't Matter, in which the publisher says Adams will reveal "the secret tricks of the world's greatest persuaders, giving readers what he calls 'access to the admin passwords for human beings.' " Dogbert appears on the cover, wearing a Trump-like blond coif.
In a sense, Trump has been a part of Dilbert almost since the beginning. In 1990, Adams published a strip in which Dogbert is introduced to a Soviet dog named Nikita Dorgachev, who's traveled to the U.S. to learn about capitalism. "And your god is Donald Trump?" asks Dorgachev. Dogbert replies, "I don't think it's official yet."
Trump has eerie parallels to Dogbert, who consistently gets ahead at everyone else's expense. In the '90s, Dogbert published a fake-news-filled tabloid dedicated to denouncing enemies and promoting lies about himself. He also advised an audience to eliminate guilt by blaming all problems on "invisible people named Juan and Cindy," adding, "All you have to do is find them and kill them." In more recent panels, Dogbert appears as a negotiation expert who charges Dilbert's boss $1 million for five minutes of his time, then tells him, "We're out of time, unless you want to renegotiate." Adams allowed that the two have one similarity. "They're both kind of megalomaniacal," he said.
I'd thought the point of those strips was to laugh at Dogbert's cruelty—not celebrate it. But Adams seemed elated by the triumph of a Dogbertesque president. "I'm probably feeling more optimistic for the country than I ever have," he said by phone, when we spoke on the eve of Trump's inauguration, amid reports of Russian meddling in the election and a chaotic transition. "I know that's surprising, but the stock market is up, consumer sentiment is up. … It's an impressive new management style that, as far as I can tell, is working."
In a February post, Adams admitted that Trump's first month might look to some like "incompetence" or "chaos," but he noted that others would say the president was simply "draining the swamp and learning on the job." Much of the world was feeling less sanguine. Less than 100 days into his administration, one view of Trump is that he's the ultimate, dystopian version of a Dilbert joke gone horribly wrong: an unqualified, bigoted, greedy, dangerous, and blustering boss promoted to the world's most powerful job. But Adams would say such people are just living in a different reality—a different "movie," as he put it, the last time we spoke.
He later expanded on the analogy in a blog post. "I feel sorry for the people watching the other movie—the one in which President Trump is essentially Hitler," Adams wrote. "In my movie, he's having a bumpy transition ride but generally doing the people's work. My movie is more of a comedy." The cartoonist, at least, was having a laugh.