I have the same conversation over and over. “Oh! You’re a political cartoonist! You’ve got so much great material now! What a wonderful time to be a cartoonist!” and I reply, “Well … no.” In fact, this is the worst time ever for editorial cartoonists.
Interest in politics doesn’t translate into better sales for editorial cartoons; there is still only one hole for a cartoon on the editorial page of each newspaper, even when the news is brisk.
As newspapers have suffered in recent years, and cartoonists continue to lose their staff jobs, the quality of editorial cartoons has flourished with a broader range of styles and viewpoints, and with cartoonists doing better work than ever – but that was before Donald Trump. I’m not aware of any professional political cartoonist who supports Trump. There is no range of views in cartoons about Trump.
There is an internet truism called “Godwin’s Law,” which states that the longer an online discussion goes on, the more likely it is to end up with a reference to Adolph Hitler. Cartoonists didn’t have a conversation that ended up with Trump as Hitler, we drew Trump as Hitler from the start and the Trump/Hitler metaphors continue unabated. There are countless monster cartoons with Trump’s hair or face on Godzilla, King Kong, Frankenstein, Satan, the Ku Klux Klan and Dracula.
Editorial cartoonists rely on common metaphors or “clichés” that allow us to draw cartoons that convey complex ideas with few words. Our palette of clichés is limited to images readers would know and when there is only one subject dominating the news (Trump), and only one point of view (anti-Trump), we have a recipe for matching cartoons. Endlessly matching cartoons. We see the same monsters, Pinocchios and Nazis, over and over.
The most famous example of matching cartoons came the day after the 9/11 attack when virtually all of the cartoonists in the world drew a weeping Statue of Liberty witnessing the burning twin towers. The satirical newspaper “The Onion” continues to rub salt in this cartoon wound with their parody cartoons that always feature a weeping Liberty. Nowadays the Statue of Liberty kicks Trump out, or Trump is Lady Liberty kicking immigrants. Every famous statue has Trump hair, or a full Trump face, especially the Lincoln Memorial and Mount Rushmore. There are not enough cliché statues for Trump. When passions run high there are too few arrows in the cartoonists’ cliché quiver that are powerful enough to express outrage.
Editorial cartoons are at their best when they make witty, graphic arguments on issues where there are different opinions and where minds can be swayed. The Trump cartoons are simple name-calling, reviled by Trump’s supporters and appreciated by Trump’s foes. No minds are swayed by these cartoons.
I distribute a group of about eighty top political cartoonists and columnists to hundreds of subscribing newspapers. My best customers for reprints are school textbooks and testing services because editorial cartoons are included on state mandated AP Social Studies testing – but the book and test clients don’t want to buy Trump/monster cartoons.
Most syndicated columnists and pundits are riding the Trump-bashing train too, but their matching arguments are somehow excused as consensus. Readers may tear Trump/Hitler cartoons out of the newspaper to stick on their refrigerators, but they never tear out Trump/Hitler columns to stick on the fridge. We just don’t notice columns like we notice cartoons so cartoonists suffer while columnists, who are equally banal, benefit from being less obviously banal.
We don’t see positive cartoons about Hillary Clinton either. Cartooning is a negative art and a supportive cartoon is a lousy cartoon. Hillary is a rich character that we have known for decades. There is a grand history with Hillary and Bill Clinton that gives us many more clichés for a broader cartoon palette. If Trump loses in November we should enjoy four years of great Hillary cartoons.
If Trump wins in November, the Trump-monster cartoon-apocalypse will continue. God save us.