WHAT MAKES a rich celebrity risk his very brand in order to climb a political pulpit?
That question applies not only to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump but also to Scott Adams, the “Dilbert” creator who was long seen as a truth-telling champion of the beleaguered cubicle dweller. Why has Adams spent this election cycle writing political blog posts and at one point endorsing Trump, knowing it would alienate much of his audience?
Because, Adams told The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs, “this is the most fun and satisfying year of my life in terms of [intellectual] stimulation.”
Adams, 59, launched “Dilbert” nearly three decades ago, and as the strip’s client list climbed to 2,000 newspapers, the cartoonist built a licensing and merchandising empire. He topped the bestseller list not only with comics collections but also with business how-to books that increased his profile as a motivational corporate speaker.
So how do things stand now as Election Day nears — more than 14 months after his blog post that first hailed Trump as a “clown genius” of persuasive rhetoric?
“My speaking career ended because of this,” the Bay Area-based cartoonist said of his once-lucrative side business.
Although his book sales have stayed healthy, Adams said that many off-put readers now view “Dilbert” through more critical glasses, which has affected his licensing sales. All told, Adams said, his income has dipped precipitously.
Yet the Reuben Award-winner says he regrets none of it.
“I wake up every day engaged — not because I love politics,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help people see the world” for how it is. (Adams pointed out that by appearing on the BBC on Election Day, he expects to reach at least 100 million listeners.)
Adams’s goal from the beginning, he said, was to show how voters are highly vulnerable to rhetorical techniques such as tricks that aim to plant simple, sticky ideas (i.e., “Crooked Hillary”) instead of promoting complex political positions.
Adams clearly relishes offering these polemical blog essays and head-turning theories. One recent post wondered whether Twitter was “shadowbanning” him; another post took on the intersection of gender politics and geopolitics; and just a week ago, he wrote: “If Trump gets elected, and he does anything that looks even slightly Hitler-ish in office, I will join the resistance movement and help kill him.”
Early this year, Adams made headlines when he repeatedly stated that the White House was Trump’s to lose, predicting a “landslide” victory. The chief reason, Adams said, noting his own training in persuasion techniques and hypnosis, was that the Republican nominee was “a master persuader” — a man who knew how to stay expertly on message.
Yet no amount of persuasion can counter a truly damning video, Adams said.
“Except for that, I think he would win,” he says of Trump and NBC’s “Access Hollywood” tape revealed this month by The Post. In the hot mic clip from 2005, Trump can be heard boasting to host Billy Bush and crew members about how he sexually assaults women — conversation that the candidate this month has dismissed as “locker room” banter.
It is one thing to hear allegations about Trump’s treatment of women, said Adams, who switched his endorsement from Hillary Clinton to Trump last month, and then again to Gary Johnson this month after the “Access Hollywood” tape’s release.
“All we had were the women’s own stories,” Adams said. But “once you’ve heard it in his own words, and then you hear the stories and allegations — this is such a powerful, emotional [clip].
“Every sense is involved — every part of your disgust,” Adams said. “It’s impossible not to think about it.”
“I don’t think they [the Trump campaign] could have predicted that the damning piece of evidence” would surface and resonate so universally with women, Adams added.
Once the tape was released, Adams said, the key for Clinton became how to capitalize on the public reaction to it. The Democratic nominee had to take on a rival who had found campaign success by appealing to many voters’ fears, and in turn make Trump appear to be someone to fear. “She got steadily better — she went from policy to full persuasion. She went full emotion,” said Adams, who has maintained throughout the campaign that, in terms of voter appeal, emotions matter more than facts.
In the two debates especially, Adams said, Clinton succeeded at “framing Trump like a monster — a sexist, racist, unstable monster. She does that well. She does that with emotion and examples, and that carries credibility.”
Emotional credibility that not even a “master persuader” like Trump can effectively counter, said Adams, who thinks this turn could affect major races going forward.
“The fact that he probably will be eliminated from the race by allegations of sexual misconduct — that makes it hard for a male to win in the future” when there are credible allegations, he said.
“If Clinton wins, you’ll wonder if this invalidates the Master Persuader Hypothesis,” Adams wrote this month of the allegations against Trump, citing not their credibility but their quantity. “The short answer is no, because the concept doesn’t account for unknowns of this magnitude.”
As for his own contribution during his race, he said: “I think people now understand how persuasion [works]. I hope I’ve been a part of that.”