Bloomberg Businessweek



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

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