How Did The 'Dilbert' Guy's Brain Melt?
Younger readers may know Scott Adams as the man who rambles about how great Trump is in-between making bland jokes about office culture in Dilbert, the comic your dad used to read. Recent claims from Adams include suggestions that Joe Biden "slandered" Kyle Rittenhouse, that the media is conspiring to ignore Ilhan Omar's "ballot harvesting" scheme, and that Trump is a comedic genius for saying Joe Biden is old. He's also fond of saying that your opinions are "assigned to you by A.I.," but of course, he's smart enough to outthink social media algorithms. He's interchangeable with every other Trump supporter who thinks they're a genius for seeing an elaborate game of chess while the President shits on the board.
But I've always had a soft spot for Dilbert. It could be clever and absurd and edgy, at least compared to Marmaduke and a dozen '90s sitcoms all called Familying Around the House. Today, though, Dilbert is a bland parade of sleepwalking punchlines, plus the occasional shot at social issues like Black Lives Matter that are so limpid Adams couldn't even generate the angry response he appeared to be hoping for. How did a self-made millionaire turn into an inept internet troll?
Adams spent years toiling in the corporate world he mocked while getting up at four in the morning to work on comics. There were rejections, but his belief in himself paid off, and by 1989 Dilbert was being published. By 1995 it was syndicated widely enough for Adams to work on it full-time, and in 1997 Adams won the Reuben Award, which is like the Nobel Prize in thinking of a thousand different ways for Garfield to be lazy.
It's hard to look at Dilbert today and realize how big Adams was for a while, but a 1995 news article dubbed Dilbert a "national phenomenon," as did a 1997 piece that called Dilbert "a smash hit ... a beloved icon of defiant satire and empathy for downtrodden office workers." There were books, reams of merchandise, a cartoon, a video game, and Dilbert-branded microwave vegetarian burritos, for some reason. Adams was proactive in his own success, becoming one of the first cartoonists to embrace email and the internet as a way to keep fans engaged. It's inspirational, really: he found an untapped market for satirizing office culture, and hit it hard.
Beyond comedy, Adams wrote books picking apart corporate culture, made good money on the lecture circuit, and participated in an eye-catching stunt where he walked into Logitech and, pretending to be a bigshot consultant, tricked executives into thinking that his presentation of jargon-riddled nonsense was somehow profound. He even got to take a stab at predicting the future in, appropriately enough, The Dilbert Future. He evolved from "Good cartoonist" to "General smart guy."
So, how did we go from there to Adams marveling over his young second wife's strategic use of "side boob" on Instagram, in a post that equates her "talent stack" to Trump's "very good" communication skills, while also working in a rambling promotion of his new app that uses all the meaningless jargon he once ruthlessly mocked? The same app that he promoted by piggybacking off a goddamn mass shooting? I have a theory.
In 2001 Adams wrote God's Debris, a serious attempt at a philosophical thought experiment. The details aren't important -- let's just say that it's closer to a 19-year-old stoner's ramblings than a credible work of theology -- and publishers were understandably nervous about investing in "The Dilbert guy explains the origins of the universe." As a compromise, it was sold as a cheap eBook ... until it did well enough to warrant an expensive hardcover and a sequel. When they were released, Adams was proud of them but wasn't taking them too seriously. In a 2017 interview, he dubbed them his "ultimate legacy."
Reviews of God's Debris and its follow-up are split between "This is a brilliant work by a modern polymath" and "This is nonsense that would embarrass a philosophy freshman." I think they're the latter, but my opinion doesn't matter, given that they were the latest in a long string of successes for Adams. In his own words, "everything I touched turned to gold."
Adams wasn't immune to misfires in his Midas years. An attempt to enter the restaurant industry bombed; he predicted his burritos would revolutionize nutrition (they did not). Meanwhile, in Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel, a book based on the idea that most people are fundamentally manipulative, there's a chapter dedicated to complaining about the chicks these days as though Adams had just been exposed to the freshest comedic stylings of 1983. These bizarre whiffs were overlooked because no one bats a thousand. But no one stays on top forever either.
Now let's jump to 2015, where Adams was A) far less relevant, B) writing bizarre blog posts arguing that modern men live in an oppressive matriarchal dystopia (he had, perhaps not coincidentally, recently gone through a divorce), and C) writing bizarre blog posts based on his study of "hypnosis and persuasion methods" about how Trump was a genius destined to win the election.
Ha, what a weirdo; clearly this loon has no idea what he's -- oh, Trump won, and Adams parlayed another book deal out of it.
Trump's victory will be analyzed for years to come, but the causes don't matter here. Adams was right, even if he was right for the wrong reasons. His 2017 book bragging about it, Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don't Matter, is an impressive feat in the sense that it finds a way to stretch "I am a trained hypnotist, and therefore a genius!" out like silly putty. Its entire argument is that Adams sees a fellow "master persuader" in Trump, which is odd given that Trump lost the popular vote, and Adams has only persuaded me that he has brain worms. But, like with God's Debris, the quality of his ideas are irrelevant when compared to the fact that having the idea was correct.
Win Bigly opens with a warning to readers that "we all think we are the enlightened ones" who sport an objective view of reality, then sees Adams fellate himself through a 250-page victory lap celebrating what a smart "persuader" he is. I'm not saying that he fails to be self-reflective, but he closes with the suggestion that he probably influenced "a lot of people to change their votes" in a chapter dedicated to his own impact on the election. Adams writes like he just discovered Wikipedia's list of logical fallacies and thinks skimming it made him invincible.
It's hard to overstate how incoherent his arguments are but, as one example: Adams says he's a credible pundit because he's wealthy enough to have no financial stake in politics (the rich, of course famously tend to ignore politics), then claims he supported Clinton until he learned her tax plan would ding him. But the book is barely an endorsement of Trump. What Adams actually endorses is an ugly worldview: facts are irrelevant, I like Trump because the chaos he creates is fun, and thus you should listen to me, your better.
Adams has no interest in Trump's impact on actual human beings, and tracking Adams' own politics is like watching a cat chase a laser beam. Over the years, he's described himself as a libertarian, called himself "left of Bernie," endorsed Mitt Romney, Michael Bloomberg, and Bill Clinton, said that he doesn't vote because it doesn't matter, and said that he's voting for Trump in 2020 because the internet was mean to him.
This is a man more interested in bragging that he "Nudged Climate Scientists into Debunking their Own Models" than in actually discussing climate change. He's so used to being right that I think he would have cheered the Hindenburg explosion had he been around to publicly predict it.
And hey, we all like to be right on the internet. But Adams used to frame himself as succeeding despite a long string of failures, as someone who's unremarkable save for a few skills and a strong work ethic. Then he started reframing failures he once laughed off: the mediocre Dilbert T.V. show was actually canceled because he's white, his 2011 blog post that compared women to children and the mentally handicapped was actually an experiment to prove that angry people reject context and so anyone who criticized him was totally just proving his very real point. Surely someone who got so much right can't just be wrong sometimes.
Yup; no conceivable reason this might have been canceled besides anti-white bias.
If you were to pour through years of Adams' blogs and podcasts instead of spending your precious time on Earth with your loved ones, you would come away with the impression that Adams is the ultimate Just Asking Questions guy. For years, he prefaced his writing with "Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy or opinion. It is not intended to change anyone's beliefs or actions," which might sound reasonable but is really just the kind of disclaimer childish assholes make so they can always fall back on "LOL, you're criticizing me for something I said? You've fallen into my ingenious rhetorical trap, knave!"
And so at the risk of humiliating myself by daring to take Adams' words at face value, maybe this is who he's always been. That 1997 profile on Dilbert quotes Adams, the supposed hero of downtrodden workers, saying that mass layoffs would improve most companies. Most of his nonfiction books assume that he's the only sane man in a world of irrational morons and that those with interests that extend beyond themselves are the most gullible of all. That worldview works okay when you're writing a cartoon about crappy jobs, but transferring it to politics and then being shocked that you have critics is like wondering why people are mad at you for jerking off in a public pool even though you do it all the time at home.
Adams wants to be both an intellectual and a troll, which is why he's currently arguing that he's smart enough to cut through media bias while also claiming that a Biden win will lead to Republicans being hunted in the streets. Maybe he is a Master "Persuader," in the sense that he continues to make headlines despite his fundamental irrelevance. He's certainly fascinated me enough to write this, but let's be clear: this is a warning. He is a neon sign flashing "Dunning-Kruger effect!" at the world. Adams is a man who was so successful for so long that he lost his ability to self-reflect, who thinks his "talent stack" of hypnosis training and being pretty good at cartoons has made him an all-around genius and master sexologist who can hack reality. If that's not a reminder to take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror every now and then, I don't know what is.
Top image: Andrews McMeel Publishing