Dilbert: A Reckoning

Dilbert is dead, long live Dilbert.

Without irony: I deeply love Dilbert.

From ages 8 to 12, the funny pages were both my primary hobby and major career aspiration, and Dilbert was a top-tier favorite, thanks to my dad’s own sizable collection. The strip debuted in the early nineties as a revolutionary new catharsis right when my dad’s own career switched from blue-collar to white. It may sound implausible that a 10-year-old would enjoy the byzantine dysfunctions of a group of pudgy, poorly drawn engineers—the funny pages are rarely for kids. Even the kid-only universe of Peanuts is, in adult retrospect, mostly about the psychological cruelties of childhood. By contrast, Dilbert had characters like a talking rat named Ratbert and a talking dinosaur named Bob, who administered atomic wedgies around the office.

Dilbert did not take breaks on Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day or Christmas, when the rest of the comics can briefly rest from the nyucks for a heart-warming hug as a cartoon family. There is no setting in Dilbert where this can happen. There is the bare office, and Dilbert’s empty bachelor pad with Dogbert (glasses-wearing talking dog with business acumen). That’s about it.

Dilbert was the unknowable adult job that Dad in Calvin and Hobbes—or Jon Arbuckle in Garfield, or my own dadwent to every day. And at that job, the world only got dimmer, flatter. You got to leave, eventually, but you always had to come back. Dilbert taught a saving grace, though: You could laugh. You could look at the stupid, crappy, mean day (G-Rated—it is the funnies) the world just threw at you, and you could laugh. Is this not valuable? For real?

If you frequent Twitter, which I absolutely cannot recommend that you do, you already know that things have gone terribly awry. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, is a proud racist. Or, he earnestly, zealously supports Donald Trump, and if that isn’t being a proud racist, I don’t have a goddamn clue what the difference is anymore.

Even without enduring a single one of Adams’s daily, sermon-length Periscopes about politics, a browse of his social media—again, I cannot recommend enough that you do not do this—quickly provides evidence that all is not well. Adams responds to haters by taking his shirt off and posting a picture of his abs, a move ripped from the Alex Jones playbook. Adams earnestly believes that Twitter is “shadowbanning” his account to suppress his political message, even though hundreds of MAGA-hatted doofs smash the heart button on every one of his thousands of smarmy thought-farts. Adams is eager to tell you about his new girlfriend, Kristina Basham. Adams is more than twice Basham’s age. Adams uses Basham as an alternate version of his abs: that is, a devastating counter-punch to any hater who doubts that he is truly winning in life.

It’s hard to know if and when Adams is joking online because his own attempts at humor are so tortured and obtuse. He will plop on a Pope’s hat because, uh, there are issues of ethics in politics? In true past-its-prime-comic-strip style, he will use the same bland joke on his Instagram not once, but twice within a month. His attempt at telling a pun on video falls so limply that it cannot even earn a dad-joke groan.

This is an absolutely piss-poor showing from somebody who is a multi-millionaire humorist. I believe Adams is attempting, in good faith, to tell good jokes, and the format and structure of good jokes feel familiar to him. And here, I speculate: Adams is in fact unable to summon either the warm creative whimsy or the sharp satirical bite that lies at the unspoken philosophical center of every successful joke. His sense of humor appears to be broken. He appears completely unable to detect irony. This has major implications on today’s actual Dilbert and the rest of Adams’s worldview.

The ability to detect irony is increasingly necessary for being alive in America. If you have not by now recognized on your own that the world has been careening through a too-salty first draft of The Onion, there is no helping you. Irony is especially important with Dilbert because the antagonist of Dilbert, at least for the first few decades, was the Pointy-Haired Boss. And there is no other person in the entire public consciousness who is more like the Pointy-Haired Boss than Donald Trump.

Many times, Trump is belligerent where the Pointy-Haired Boss is merely daft, but the basic thrust of both characters is the same: they understand nothing about any situation but proudly bulldoze their way through every room they enter. They have no friends, but having no friends is not really a problem because they don’t even want friends. They are incapable of thinking about anything other than themselves. And yet they are also incapable of introspection or self-improvement. (Again, not a big problem: they’re not interested.) Everything they touch crumbles to dust but still (and this was the central thesis of Dilbert) the world is for some reason still cruddily bent into a dumb shape that unfailingly supports them anyway. There is, yes, the funny hair.

The Pointy-Haired Boss has also been undergoing a makeover over the decades-long arc of Dilbert, becoming an increasingly sympathetic character. The Dilbert reader of, say, 1997 would find it sacrilege to learn that, in 2017, there are comic strips where the Pointy-Haired Boss is the discerning voice of reason and it is his employees who are difficult, selfish, stupid:

In the early nineties, when we were first introduced to him—before the hair was even all that pointy—the boss was clearly old, rotund, jowls flapping:

As the nineties progressed, the hair got pointier and the jowls went away. The boss grew younger, but he also grew exceptionally wider, his upper body nearly a circle:

What a surprise then, that two decades later, the Pointy-Haired Boss hasn’t been trapped in the timeless, preserving amber of every other comic strip character, in Dilbert or otherwise. These days the Pointy-Haired Boss is actually younger and trimmer than he has ever been in the strip’s history:

In making the Pointy-Haired Boss look progressively better, Adams’s comic strip now shares the same distorted vision of authority as the aesthetically disastrous far-right cartoons of Ben Garrison. (Garrison’s oeuvre has been helpfully annotated by Rich Kyanka of Something Awful.) Plenty of Garrison’s output shows Trump nailing a “victory” in a scene littered with blubbering liberal punching bags du jour. One of the hundred bizarre things about Garrison’s cartoons is that Trump is depicted about four decades younger than he currently is, plus also about 300% buffer than he ever was. Garrison’s Trump has hair that is robust and flowing; his waistline is trim and taut; his muscles are sculpted and shapely:

The only way that Trump’s real-life physique can be accurately classified is: grandfatherly couch potato. That’s a fact, and it’s also a very unimportant one. Garrison’s insistence that Trump is a well-toned hunk only emphasizes the recent realization that the deep-right is no longer simply disagreeing with the rest of the country about a set of facts: they are living in an entirely different, self-generated thought universe. Could it be that Garrison is not consciously muscling-up his Trump at all? Is this very literally the Trump body that Garrison “sees”?

Unless you consciously, coldly know that the Trump presidency helps you stay powerfully ahead in the world—tax breaks or whatever the fuck—the only way to believe that his presidency is a good thing is to see the world with constantly distorted vision. Somewhere along the way, Scott Adams became incapable of seeing the world clearly. He cannot see that he has made the antagonist of his cartoon the protagonist. He cannot see that some of the reasons that he thought Trump would be a good president—i.e., could become a thorough expert on any geopolitical subject after an hour-long briefing—are some of the exact same barbs that he launched at management culture in the legacy-building peak of his satire. He cannot see the irony in suddenly yoking his reputation to a man whose signature move—before, during, and probably after his presidency—is abusing and then firing his own employees.

Adams has just released his fifth non-cartoon book, called Win Bigly. The existence of this book is infuriating at every level you can think of. In the last two-plus miserable years since Trump came down that fucking escalator and kicked off this whole shitshow, the only accusation that he is not completely goddamn guilty of is that he was never saying the nonsense word “bigly,” but actually saying the phrase “big league.”

The book’s subtitle is Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter. This gets at the core of Adams’s professed admiration for Trump: that Trump is an incredibly skilled communicator who is constantly using effective persuasion techniques that his audience isn’t even conscious of. Adams is at least consistent here: his many blog posts about Trump in no way resemble the horrifying race-baiting articles your uncle is sharing on Facebook. Instead, the writing has the dense-but-hollow vocabulary of a Scientology tract, clinically explaining why Trump’s latest self-induced failure was in fact a lib-owning Win. This mindset is to the great detriment of today’s Dilbert, the worst-ever era of the cartoon, which has settled into the miserable routine of having characters trade logic-based barbs for three panels—a rhythm that carries the suggestion of a joke without actually creating a joke at all.  

At one level, Adams’s theories about Trump the Persuader are inarguable. Against steep odds, Trump really did fucking talk his way into the Presidency. But the sheer emptiness of this accomplishment should be apparent to anybody who can, well, detect irony: Trump sure did persuade a lot of people, but he’s only persuaded them to do things that are violently against their own self-interests. His powers of persuasion have even backfired on himself, the ultimate irony. His entire campaign was waged as revenge against the elite social circles that Trump, the eternal petulant high schooler, had previously ensured he was kicked out of. But in winning, Trump and his immovable personality only cemented a destiny where he would be excluded and made fun of more often and more deeply than ever before. Those of us with the empathetic parts of our brain still working have already made a word for the technique of trying to underhandedly persuade others: Machiavellian. Historically, not a compliment.

I would like to believe that, somewhere just off-camera from the modern, depressing world of Dilbert, the character Dilbert is still quietly trying to plow through his work, to somehow manage the best he can despite the avalanche of dysfunction around him. The newfangled Adams worldview only feels like a second Pointy-Haired Boss: intrusive, yes, but nothing that Dilbert hasn’t dealt with before. I imagine the Dilbert of today still kicking around the settings where we saw him more often in the nineties, before the strip became exclusively set in the office: on failed dates, chatting with his wildly knowledgeable garbageman, going on quiet walks in the woods with Dogbert.

It is a testament to Adams’s skill, the consistency and creativity in his years and years of daily work, that I still feel like Dilbert is, in a way, alive. It also makes me feel like the Trump-loving Adams is in some way not the “real” Adams, although I don’t even know what I mean by that. For so long, Adams was so compassionately attuned to the absurdities and infinite micro-tragedies of being just a quiet adult guy thrust into the world.

A small but real silver lining to the last few years is that there are very few good artistic works made by extremely conservative people, period. Every once in awhile a company or executive will reveal themselves as completely backward-thinking—what’s up Bulleit Bourbon and ULine Shipping Supplies—and it’s pretty easy, if not actually kind of fun, to sidestep what they have for sale. Rarely, though, have we had to get our hearts broken by learning that an admired artist, who made work that really did capture, heighten, celebrate the human condition, is pro-Trump. Dilbert is an exception. It is a compelling work of art made by a member of the alt-right. There’s no reconciling or skirting around this fact. It’s just uncomfortable.