Garry Trudeau stood in Northwest Washington’s Politics & Prose bookstore four summers ago and voiced concern over Donald Trump’s chances of becoming president. It was tough to feel too comfortable, he told the throng of “Doonesbury” fans, because according to pollsters, Trump was within the margin of error to win.
This time around, though, the liberal cartoonist is sounding more reassured.
“Trump has done absolutely nothing over his term in office to grow his base — in fact, he seems to have done his level best every day to shed voters,” says the veteran political commentator in an email interview, partly noting the White House response to the pandemic. “And now he has real blood on his hands. So I’m more sanguine this time out.”
During the 2016 election, the Pulitzer-winning creator of “Doonesbury” — whom the president once called “a third-rate cartoonist” — was promoting his best-selling book “Yuge!,” which collected three decades of Trump satire. Last week, Trudeau released “Lewser! More Doonesbury in the Time of Trump,” which lampoons what the nation has experienced during the current administration. The book reflects how the strip has become “a running commentary on how this presidency permeates every corner of national life,” the author says.
“With other presidencies, you could forget who was in office for whole stretches of time: weeks, even months,” Trudeau says. “But with Trump, the powerful stench is refreshed daily. There’s no escaping it.”
Trudeau knows Trump about as well as any satirist around, first mocking the casino and real estate tycoon in “Doonesbury” in the go-go ‘80s. Sometimes he is asked by people who view Trump as a living caricature: How do you humorously exaggerate an exaggerated character?
The thing is, Trudeau’s humor employs far more than hyperbole.
“Satire generally works through inference. If you hold up the mirror at just the right angle, the viewer says, ‘Whoa, that’s not a pretty look,’ ” Trudeau says. “You want that takeaway, not just the laugh. You want it to leave a mark.
“Sometimes I put words into Trump's mouth — or reframe what he actually said so as to highlight its fatuousness,” he continues. “In other strips, I just make the case for common decency, or explore the intellectual cul de sacs so favored by his base. Often Trump isn’t even mentioned, but his implied presence darkens or destabilizes every conversation.”
Sometimes, Trudeau draws political parables or fantasy sequences within “Doonesbury.” One such recent scenario centers on the strip’s fictional Fox News journalist, Roland Hedley, who perilously explores where Trump “makes all his critical decisions”; instead of journeying to the president’s brain, the reporter ends up “in his gut.” Another scene spoofs how Trump is “draining the Swamp” that is Washington, depicting a quagmire teeming with former lobbyists appointed to Trump’s administration.
“There has been never the slightest danger of running out of inspiration — Trump serves up a banquet of lies, obfuscation and cruelty almost daily,” says Trudeau, whose new material runs every Sunday. “Steve Allen once said that comedy is tragedy plus time, but in Trump’s case, the passage of time is wholly optional.”
Trudeau first came to national fame a half-century ago: “Doonesbury” launched into national syndication in 1970 as the voice of the counterculture, and several years later it became the first comic strip to receive the Pulitzer Prize — largely for spoofing the Watergate-scandal stonewalling by President Richard M. Nixon.
“Nixon actually wanted to use the system to accomplish big things, not dismantle it and sell off the parts,” Trudeau says when contrasting the two eras. “Trump’s presidency has basically been a hostile takeover — privatizing the gain while socializing the pain.”
As an artist, Trudeau is endlessly fascinated with the journey that is caricaturing Trump’s famed coiffure. “Trump’s hair is not something you ever want to ‘master’ — that would take the fun out of it,” the cartoonist says. “My Trump is not static, he changes a bit from panel to panel. Part of that is a lack of discipline, but mostly I like to keep it fresh, rethink him each time I draw him.”
And as a satirist, there are certain places Trudeau has seldom tread. “For the most part I’ve stayed away from the family, and I’m not sure why,” he says. “One by one, the older Trump kids have transformed themselves into public figures, so they’re hardly off-limits. I do take occasional shots at them, but I feel oddly constrained by the pathos of their stunted lives, especially the sons, who pretend to have real jobs, but mostly spend their days retweeting repulsive nonsense to get their father’s attention.”
“Some fruit feels too low-hanging,” he adds. “I can’t explain it.”
Meanwhile, Attorney General William P. Barr and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) hold allure for him as political figures to mock. “It’s an astonishment to me that their reputations mean so little to them,” says Trudeau, who recently depicted Graham as surrendering “all self-respect” to Trump as the senator swatted away his own Jiminy Cricket-like conscience. And “Doonesbury’s” fictional Trump demands that Barr battle the “horrible crimes committed by” the FBI and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, among others.
Trudeau welcomes the new crop of satirists who have feasted on the Trump administration — “On TikTok, Sarah Cooper is killing it with her lip-syncs, and on YouTube, J-L Cauvin is doing the most spot-on impersonation since Tina Fey’s definitive Palin,” he says — and he toasts such visual humorists as recent Pulitzer Prize winner Barry Blitt and Blitt’s fellow New Yorker cover artist, Brian Stauffer.
Meantime, the “Doonesbury” creator is buoyed by sociopolitical bellwethers.
“Without hope, it’s a short journey from skepticism to cynicism, and then you’re cooked as a satirist,” he says. “So I do try to stay available to signs of progress, and I now find them in many of the young Black Lives Matter, Stoneman Douglas High and other activist voices that have joined the public conversation.
“Despite all the suffering the pandemic has brought, there may be real opportunities for systemic change ahead for us.”
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