The Daily Heller: Cartoonists, Caricaturists, Artists Face a Trump-free World. Now What?
Previous generations of satirists expressed remorse for the term endings of presidents Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and Bush (the younger). Now they will miss having Trump to "kick around anymore". Or will they? The previous quotation was originally uttered by Richard Nixon to the press corps in 1962 after being defeated in his bid for the governor of California (two years following his loss to JFK). Nonetheless, he returned from the wilderness six years later and twice won the presidency of the United States. Who got the last laugh? Well, owing to the Watergate mishap, Nixon's ultimate revenge was not so sweet.
If Jan. 20, 2021 goes as planned, Donald J. Trump will leave the "people's house." He will take with him the flawed persona that was a perfect foil for cartoonists, caricaturists, illustrators and acerbic artists in all media. Like Nixon, Trump's egotistic and autocratic tendencies have fueled critical graphic commentary for four challenging years. So, from the comedic point of view, his absence may be met with both relief and remorse. I assembled four of the most prolific contemporary visual satirists, visible on covers of national and international magazines—Edel Rodriguez, Barry Blitt, Steve Brodner and Ross Macdonald—to comment (and lament) on what Trump's forthcoming White House vacancy means to them now and for the future.
How will Trump's departure from the presidency impact your incredible output of satiric illustrations?
Rodriguez: I’m not sure really. I think of myself as a kind of visual journalist with my illustrations. I tend to follow stories and comment on them as they happen. I will likely stop doing portraits of Trump since he is out of power and soon to be yesterday’s news, I hope. I have a lot of other projects and paintings I’ve been meaning to work on and hope to get back into those. Fighting fascism in America is not something I ever expected to be doing.
Macdonald: For four years, the president and his toadies have provided such a target-rich environment for satire that it’s hard to know what the future looks like, and how quickly Trump will fade. The general feeling I’ve heard expressed is that everyone is looking forward to having the news cycle slow down and be boring, and not having to hear about the latest Trump outrages 10 times a day. But somehow, I wonder if he’ll grant us any ease. He’s developed an appetite for dominating the world news cycle, so he’ll probably keep trying with hourly tweet-storms, pushing ever wilder conspiracy theories, slagging Biden with every breath, throwing himself in front of the cameras every chance he gets. And the media will report on him because—love him or hate him—he’s a reliable eyeball-getter. In his own words, he’s the Golden Goose. I hate to admit he’s right about anything, but he was right about that. So, I suspect he’ll be providing subject matter for satire for a few months at least, maybe longer. By then there’ll probably be plenty of Republican lawmakers trying to grab the spotlight with foul Trumpian antics, since they’ve seen how outrage worked for him. And maybe we’ll still have Mitch McConnell supplying material. He’s fun to draw too.
Blitt: I expect to have a lot of free time on my hands if he ever actually relinquishes power. Not that Biden won't be a plum target for satire, Trump is a magnet for it, day in, day out (weekends and bank holidays included).
Brodner: My output is in the same pretty steady flow, pretty unchanged for about 45 years. I work basically off of whatever seems to be the heavy object bearing down right now. For the last five years it has been not only Trump’s clumsy grab at authoritarianism but the support for it in what used to be the GOP, and then the Resistance: limning that and putting it in a framework, perhaps more easily understood. (And then seeing in the election how wrong I was about almost everything!)
Will you miss him?
Rodriguez: I won’t miss him at all. I was thrilled to watch him lose the election and glad to see Biden be elected as the new American president. I definitely feel that my mission was accomplished. My only goal was to see Trump impeached or voted out of office. I think he has been one of the most dangerous people this country, and the world, has ever had to deal with. I don’t think it’s completely over, as he has stirred something in a certain segment of Americans, but his hold on power is sure to diminish and disappear.
Macdonald: Other illustrators have said that they look forward to never having to draw him again. I look forward to him being out of the White House, and I won’t miss hearing about him from sunup to sack time every day of the week. But I won’t stop drawing him; it’s too much fun! I will miss having such a big, easy target. He could be relied on to provide a barrage of material. The dogged ignorance, obvious lies, inept buffoonery and vile corruption just kept coming in wave after wave. Combine that with his Trump-ness: the big suit that never changed, the red tie, the imagineered hairdo, the bad orange self-tanner, the lummox-like walk and tilted posture, the little eyes, delicate flitting hands, and that mouth. And he felt like the gift that kept on giving, for satirists, anyway. His wretched terribleness was not funny, but at least he looked funny doing it.
Blitt: I can't begin to catalog the ways I won't miss him, both as a cartoonist and as a citizen [albeit a half-Canadian citizen]. I feel like this could have been a golden age of political cartooning, with an autocrat in the White House, but he's first and foremost a bully—and nothing good comes from bullying. So much ink has been spent returning schoolyard insults, the dialog has been lowered to an astonishing degree (just speaking for myself, I can't believe some of the infantile cartoons I've had published over that last four years).
Brodner: I can’t think that any serious literate American, artist or no, will miss him. But the media will very much, I fear. He was made by a mainstream press that couldn’t believe the great free show they got every day. I would like to see what the profits were for establishment media outlets from the 2015–2021 “spectacle” that was and still is Trump. Les Moonves admitted it in the beginning: "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.”
Here’s the question for people working in media: Can we all now understand what we created? We cannot put the sludge back in the pipeline. The pollution is widespread. Trump leaves as a cultural icon. This has been compared to a Gnostic cult, where Trump is the god figure; information of any kind is twisted to fit into a network of absurdist paranoid conspiracies. Millions who didn’t ever think about politics before are now cultists, resistant to news, science, reason. We have no hope but to overwhelm them at each election (not likely). This is no small project. It is a very winnable one. But it will require us to remain vigilant, cranked to 11. Just tell the truth every day. Not really hard when you think about it.
Do you feel your mission is accomplished?
Macdonald: I’m not sure I had a mission. I doubt my work moved the needle, but I needed the release. I had a lot of pent-up desire to draw funny stuff again. I used to write and illustrate a lot of comics, and do satirical illustrations for magazines and newspapers. But that market shrank about 10 years ago. Maybe the recession and the changing media world had a chilling effect, but it seemed like editors and art directors were asking for more serious takes on subjects. And then along came Trump! Even before he was elected, I started doing little Trump thumbnail doodles, and posting them on social media. Then came assignments. Vanity Fair asked me to do a full-page piece right after he was elected. Soon after, VF editor Graydon Carter left and started the digital weekly Air Mail, and asked me to contribute. And I kept doing pieces just for fun, for posting on social media. It’s been great to exercise this cynical humor muscle again.
Blitt: If my mission was to wring cheap laughs out of a sickening situation, then yes, my work is almost done here. [But] Trump's not going away, even if he's not president anymore. He's the Babe Ruth of negative American stereotypes. He's brought a face to a lot of unsavory attitudes; I expect he'll be lurking around the corner in a whole lot of cartoonist's work, mine included.
Brodner: Trump might have been the first American dictator. Luckily he was too stupid and lazy to achieve it. We are so fucking lucky! We bought a little time to ring democracy with steel. I have already decided to draw Trump very little from now on. It is our chance to make him irrelevant. So, let’s do that. No more oxygen from anyone. He only has nonsense to dispense. Let’s give ourselves the luxury of starving Trump for a while. As John Lennon might say: Trump is over. If you want it.
Who or what do you think your next target might be?
Rodriguez: My next target is a graphic novel memoir I’m working on. If things rise up out of the political ether and become something worth commenting on, I’m sure I will do so. I’m currently concerned about the political situation in Cuba. Many artists and writers are demanding rights for freedom of thought and expression there and my thoughts are with them. I think the left in America and throughout the world has ignored the human rights abuses in places like Cuba, Venezuela and China. It’s a bit of an inconvenient truth for them. It’s something I’ve never understood and have often made art about in the past. I may continue to do so, considering what is occurring now. A leftwing dictator and a rightwing dictator are the same thing—a dictator—and they should be treated as such, whomever they might be.
Brodner: The real target is the environment the GOP and some Democrats live in. They are transactional figures responding, like dogs, to rewards and punishments. A new atmosphere may change this. This is up to the popular will. Big reform, major investments, smooth vaccine rollouts, money in people's pockets, will mean a massive realignment. It starts in Georgia, please god.