The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How legendary Washington Post cartoonist Herblock might have drawn the 2016 election

There have been a lot of dispiriting things about the 2016 election, but as the campaign and its parade of disasters wore on, my colleague Stephen Stromberg and I found ourselves with one particularly sharp regret: that in addition to all the other great cartooning and commentary happening here at The Washington Post, we’re missing cartoonist Herbert Block take on it all. What might he have made of Donald Trump’s rise to the Republican nomination, and the Republican Party’s capitulation to a candidate who appeared to have no real investment in its stated values or the maintenance of its congressional majorities? How sharply would he have captured Trump’s use of dog whistles and his son’s flirtations with white nationalism?

But as we went through Block’s archives with the help of the Herb Block Foundation — which was kind enough to allow us to reprint these cartoons, some of which predate Block’s 55-year tenure at The Post — we realized that, over decades of puncturing homegrown demagoguery, Block had shown us exactly how he would have handled the 2016 race. Whether he was skewering Father Charles Coughlin’s tendencies toward fascism, drawing the Republican elephant run ragged by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, or savagely mocking the gauzy nostalgia in Bob Dole’s speech accepting the 1996 Republican nomination for president, we know exactly what Block would have made of Trump’s claims that “I alone can fix it,” and his push to “make America great again.”

And we didn’t even really have to guess how Block, who died in 2001, might have drawn Trump. That’s because on a number of occasions, he did.

April 18, 1935: “The Crown Jewels”

Always suspicious of messianic figures, Block described legendary Louisiana politician Huey Long as the more subtle of “a couple of pretty reckless demagogues,” when compared to Coughlin, known as the “Radio Priest” for his broadcasts that drew millions of listeners. In this cartoon, Block implied that Long was using his populist redistribution program Share Our Wealth, which he presented under the slogan “Every Man a King,” to consolidate his personal power in the state. Trump’s run for president has spurred new considerations of populism as a force in American political life. –Alyssa Rosenberg

August 25, 1936: “Father Knows Best”

Father Coughlin originally supported President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, but eventually turned against it, launching the National Union for Social Justice, which called for among other things, extensive monetary reforms, nationalization of certain resources and a living wage. Here, Block expressed his concerns about the concentration of power in a single individual, ideas that are newly relevant today as Republicans grapple with who will claim ownership of their party after Election Day. –Alyssa Rosenberg

October 7, 1936: “The Spoken Word”

In his memoir, Block wrote that Coughlin “seemed to preach a kind of home-grown fascism laced with antisemitism [and] was virulent in his attacks on the Roosevelt administration.” In a 1936 speech in Cincinnati that has chilling echoes in calls to take up arms if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, Coughlin declared: “When the time comes in 1940 when there is only one party and a dictatorship, I shall be the one to ask you to put aside your ballots and use bullets. . . . God’s philosophy was to increase and multiply. Roosevelt’s is decrease and destroy. Therefore I call him anti-God and a radical.” –Alyssa Rosenberg

March 29, 1950: “You Mean I’m Supposed To Stand On That?”

In this cartoon, Block coined the term “McCarthyism” to refer to a national hysteria about the spread of communism, and the way it was stoked by politicians, most notably Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy, for political gain. All that would be necessary to update this cartoon for contemporary events, and for the Republican Party’s current teetering on a precarious ideology, would be to switch out the politicians, and to change the label on the barrel to “Trumpism.” –Alyssa Rosenberg

April 22, 1950: “Stop Ganging Up On Me!”

Sometimes, the demagogue’s worst enemy is his own words. Here, Block shows McCarthy trailed by earlier versions of himself holding signs containing a variety of promises and absurd factual statements, such as the constantly shifting number of communists he alleged had infiltrated the State Department, that he made during his ugly rise. Like when Trump attacks the press for calling him on his brazen lies, such as his claim that he never favored the Iraq War, McCarthy’s reaction is to deny or take offense. To those who play on fears and encourage hysteria, a recitation of simple facts can be humiliating. -Stephen Stromberg

September 12, 1952: “Nothing Exceeds Like Excess”

Though he had stoked controversy for years, McCarthy in September 1952 was on his way to reelection in the Republican bastion of Wisconsin. Block skewers the hypocrisy of McCarthy voters who claimed to “believe in decency,” yet, when they had a chance to back up their stated beliefs with actions, instead rationalized their embrace McCarthy’s dirty politics. Block does not spell out the excuses people used for voting McCarthy, instead representing their rationalizations with long dashes. This imagery suggests that there is no excuse for supporting McCarthy; his indecency fundamentally disqualified him, no matter one’s party or ideology. This year, the Republicans who have not embraced Trump enthusiastically have mostly made peace with a man who stands against what so many of them claim to be. “Politics can be a battle of ideas, not insults,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said — a few months before endorsing Trump, a man who embodies the opposite view. -Stephen Stromberg

February 28, 1954: “We’ve Got To Avoid A Split With Him”

As Block could tell you, Trump’s call to disengage from trading and defense relationships is not strikingly new so much as a callback to protectionist sentiments and anti-foreign suspicions that have traced their way through U.S. history — and, at times, dominated it. An internationalist, Block attacked over and over again those who accumulate political power by inflaming divisions among nations rather than promoting engagement with them. Backers of McCarthy opposed crucial international institutions such as NATO and the Marshall Plan. Here, Block criticizes President Eisenhower for standing by while McCarthy inflamed a paranoid, shortsighted nationalism that saw many enemies and few friends outside of U.S. borders. -Stephen Stromberg

March 4, 1954: “Have A Care, Sir”

McCarthy achieved political prominence by savagely attacking people, such as George C. Marshall, a mentor of Eisenhower’s whom McCarthy unfairly suggested was responsible for handing China over to Mao Zedong’s Communists. But when it fell to Eisenhower to renounce McCarthy, the president offered extremely restrained criticism — much like Ryan objecting to Trump’s racist appeals but nevertheless endorsing him. In a widely noted news conference on March 3, 1954, held in the midst of McCarthy’s attacks on the Army, Eisenhower did not even mention the senator’s name in his defense of Army officials. Block depicts Eisenhower unsheathing a useless feather to challenge McCarthy, who wields a well-used meat cleaver, illustrating the absurdity of pulling one’s punches when the threat is so grave; unwarranted restraint disrespects oneself and one’s constituents. Eisenhower, the famous general, brought the wrong weapon to a fight. -Stephen Stromberg

March 7, 1954: “Relax — He Hasn’t Got To You Yet”

Block repeatedly speculated that Eisenhower avoided conflict with McCarthy for political, not principled, reasons. Here, “White House ‘strategists’” encourage Eisenhower to sit back as McCarthy knifes the Army, after having already killed the State Department. Though the president is next in line, the strategist seated next to him advises Eisenhower to “relax — he hasn’t got to you yet.” Much like Trump, who has attacked a variety of government officials, fellow Republicans and private citizens, McCarthyism generated an ever-growing list of enemies to perpetuate the sense of shock and conspiracy on which the hysteria fed. Appeasing McCarthy, Block counseled, was ultimately self-defeating. Block also illustrates viscerally McCarthy’s assault on national institutions — casualties to his campaign of self-aggrandizement that no one in a position of responsibility should have sat by and watched. -Stephen Stromberg

October 7, 1954: “Carry On, Lads”

In this cartoon, a disgraced McCarthy passes the baton — or, in Block’s imagery, his signature paintbrush covered in tar — to Vice President Richard Nixon (R), an outspoken anti-communist, and Sen. William E. Jenner (R-Ind.), one of McCarthy’s chief defenders in Congress. Block argues that those associated McCarthy did not have clean hands — and that the fall of McCarthy did not signal the end of McCarthyite paranoia as a force in American politics. It remains to be seen whether Trump will suffer a McCarthy-like fall and whether those who associated with him this election year — or, indeed, the GOP writ large — will continue to embrace his demagogic populism afterward. -Stephen Stromberg

December 12, 1954: “You Sure You Don’t Want To Run Away From Home?”

In this cartoon, the exhausted, battered elephant of the Republican Party surveys the destruction Sen. Joe McCarthy has wrought on the party. But rather than disciplining him, the elephant hopes McCarthy will take himself and his antics elsewhere. At a moment when the Republican Party, which has seen many of its leaders and institutions insulted by its own nominee, seems to be looking forward to a post-Trump future, Herblock’s cartoon serves as a reminder that it’s not so easy for an institution to clean house. –Alyssa Rosenberg

September 8, 1963: “I Don’t Want Any Inside Interference!”

Here, Block turned Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s words about maintaining segregation and request that the state “be allowed to handle state and local affairs without outside interference” against him, suggesting that Wallace couldn’t fairly claim to represent the wishes of his entire state. By painting Wallace as a Napoleon figure, Block suggested his autocratic tendencies. And in showing Wallace turning on other white Alabamans in positions of power, Block captured a characteristic that was not unique to Wallace: the way demagogues tend to label those who disagree with them as traitors or otherwise illegitimate. –Alyssa Rosenberg

February 11, 1968: “We’ll Let The Overcoat Out All The Way, And The Robe Will Hardly Show At All.”

When Wallace ran for president in 1968 as the nominee of the American Independent Party, he didn’t exactly shed his segregationists policies, though he did dress them up in the facade of “law and order” that’s made a resurgence in the 2016 election, and made inroads among Northern blue-collar workers. This year, the question of mainstreaming racism and dressing it up in respectable political clothes remains distressingly relevant. –Alyssa Rosenberg

September 11, 1968: “The Apt Pupil”

McCarthy’s pail of tar and black paintbrush returned in the 1968 presidential election, this time in the hands of Spiro Agnew, a one-time supporter of GOP moderate Nelson Rockefeller who would go on to attack the press, antiwar protesters and others on behalf of President Nixon, for whom he served as vice president. Here, Block suggests that Agnew learned this style of politics from Nixon, who looks on with glee as Agnew paints “Humphrey is soft on communism and soft on law and order,” on a wall. Nixon’s “law and order” message was racially tinged — and it has been enthusiastically reused by Trump. –Stephen Stromberg

June 22, 1990: “Trump Tower”

To an extent, we do not have to guess at what Block thought about Trump. In 1990, he drew what should be among the definitive assessments of the real estate tycoon, showing Trump attempting to balance a sky-high stack of papers, some of which are labeled “debts,” “loans,” “bonds” and “interest.” It would only take so long for “Trump Tower,” as Block labeled the stack, to topple over; the Trump Taj Mahal casino declared bankruptcy in 1991, the first in a string of Trump bankruptcies in the years since Block drew this cartoon. Trump’s cartoonish bravado survived the collapse, apparently unscathed. –Stephen Stromberg

December 7, 1994: “History Student”

Block’s career spanned generations of American demagogues. Here he draws a direct line from the incoming speaker of the House at the time, Newt Gingrich, and McCarthy, as the latter’s signature tar spurts out of Gingrich’s sign. Gingrich said on “Meet the Press” in 1994 that he “had a senior law enforcement official tell me that in his judgment, up to a quarter of the White House staff, when they first came in, had used drugs in the last four or five years.” This same sentence could have been uttered by McCarthy himself before the House on Un-American Activities Committee — it is an unverifiable an underhanded attack that is supposed to pass as fact. Now Gingrich advises Trump, who so often uses this strategy to generate “evidence” for his claims, as when he said that his talks with unnamed border agents justify his immigration plans. –Stephen Stromberg

August 23, 1996: “Let Me Be The Bridge To A Time of Tranquility . . . I Know Because I Was There”

This cartoon, a savage riff on Bob Dole’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention in 1996, portrays the “time of tranquility” Dole claimed to long for as a world where women would have to seek out illegal abortions. “Time of tranquility” is more poetic phrasing than “Make America Great Again,” but Block’s point applied 20 years ago, and it applies again: what is nostalgic for some has terrifying consequences for others. –Alyssa Rosenberg

October 31, 1999: “Said Alice . . . ‘It’s The Stupidest Tea-Party I Ever Was At In All My Life’ ”

Shortly after Donald Trump declared his candidacy for the Reform Party’s presidential nomination, pledging to spend $100 million of his own money to win “the whole megillah” and naming Oprah Winfrey as his ideal running mate, Herblock drew Trump as the Mad Hatter at tea with Ross Perot, the party’s standard-bearer in the previous two elections, and Pat Buchanan, who would go on to claim the Reform Party nomination. Trump dropped out of the race in February of the next year, but not before raising one of the issues that would become the signature of his 2016 campaign for the White House: trade. One difference? Running against Buchanan, Trump made an issue of his opponent’s isolationism, particularly Buchanan’s comment that Nazi Germany wasn’t a credible threat to the United States. At the time, Trump declared of Buchanan “Look, he’s a Hitler lover. I guess he’s an anti-Semite. He doesn’t like the blacks, he doesn’t like the gays, it’s just incredible that anybody could embrace this guy.” This year, as white nationalists and anti-Semites have embraced the Trump campaign, Trump has expressed less concern about bias. –Alyssa Rosenberg