For political cartoonists, Donald Trump is not just a challenge but a rival. Trump’s political success is largely due to the fact that he is a walking and breathing cartoon. His entire career is a triumph of image-making art: through manipulation of press coverage, ghostwritten books, movie cameos, and carefully edited reality TV shows, Trump created an image of himself as the quintessential American seller of wheels, the billionaire with The Popular Touch.
As with any iconic figure, he is both a stylization and a person. Her face is seldom at rest, instead she constantly changes between tics and gestures now familiar. Its very grotesque, the commotion of implausible hair and strangely orange skin, make it distinctive, a useful trait in a profession that requires gaining and maintaining attention.
Trump is not the first cartoon president. Writing in Harper’s In 1984, literary critic Hugh Kenner noted that Ronald Reagan was closer to being a puppet than a man. “Reagan’s successor could be Kermit the Frog,” argued Kenner. “The night Kermit replaced Johnny Carson, no one noticed. Yes, we are governed by cartoons, because we perceive them. “
The cartoonists work by exaggeration. But how do you exaggerate what is already grotesque? How do you make fun of a human gargoyle? Matt Bors, one of the most talented political cartoonists, proves he is up to the job in his new collection, We should improve society in some way, a gathering of satirical strips from recent years.
One of the valuable aspects of the book is that it allows us to track Bors as he fights to represent Trump. The first drawings are competent, but they simply work at the surface level, with Trump as a dry snitch, a bloated thug who is no different from many politicians. Over time, Bors drifts away from plausibility, with his Trump turning into a sinister homunculus whose beach ball head dominates a dwarf body. Sweaty, with her lips closed, her hair jumping in unison with the steam that comes out of her head when she’s angry, this version of Trump is an embodiment of swine malevolence.
Throughout the Trump years, we see Bors letting go more and more, moving away from strict reactions to the events of the day and increasingly inclined to borrow tropes of science fiction to represent the developing dystopia. Trump becomes Eternal Sovereign Trump, presiding over a dying and post-apocalyptic planet. Wearing an Immortan Joe inspired face mask from Mad Max: Fury RoadTrump achieves his true destiny as a monarch in a hellish world. In another swath, Trump is simply a giant floating head held aloft by a small robotic body.
Many of Bors’s strongest strips are found in this dystopia, called the Wasteland, where the problems are even more serious than our reality, but the political attitudes remain the same. In one strip, the citizens of the Wasteland hold a town hall meeting on the threat of “mutant locust swarms removing meat from the bones to anyone who does not wear their armor.” It quickly turns into a discussion about whether the problem is real. “There have always been lobsters!” proclaims a citizen. “Maybe even the mutants!” And what about the jobs? A man named Gorm, with a purulent hole in his bald scalp, notes: “I earn my rations by throwing flames at the locust hordes. You would get rid of me!
As a panel artist, Bors belongs to the tradition of Jules Feiffer and Tom Tomorrow, artists concerned with narrative and characters. This is different from the dominant form for newspaper cartoonists, who generally make single-image caricatures in the daily news. As with Feiffer and tomorrow, Bors is less interested in thematic events than in the recurring attitudes that underlie politics.
Bors has a real knack for distilling reactionary thinking patterns into recognizable character types. A recurring character, who appears in the strip that gives the book its title, is Mr. Gotcha, a simplistic know-it-all who tries to refute social criticism by highlighting the alleged hypocrisy. Seeing someone posting a complaint about how Apple is not paying workers in Chinese factories enough, Gotcha notes that this comment was “said on an iPhone.”
Bors sends Mr. Gotcha on time. First, you see someone complaining, “Cars should have seat belts!” He replies: “However, you bought one. Hypocritical a lot? Owned. “Sent to the Middle Ages, Mr. Gotcha hears an impoverished peasant say:” We should improve society a little. “Mr. Gotcha, jumping from a well, proclaims:” However, you participate in the society. Curious! I’m very smart!”
Mr. Gotcha is a revealing encapsulation of an irritating figure we’ve all encountered, the scorer who prefers ad hominem to the discussion. Time and again, Bors invents characters that embody common attitudes. Mr. Gotcha’s cousin is perhaps the MAGA chief who, offended by the fact that Trump is called a racist, says: “That attitude is what drives me to be a racist!” With empty-eyed fanaticism, he ends up getting a swastika tattoo.
This focus on attitudes is the perfect focus for the Trump era. Trumpism is not really a coherent philosophy, but a set of irritable mental gestures, a bag of thoughtful ridicule and false phrases. Bors’ ability to bring these attitudes to life, make them visible, and highlight how ridiculous they are, makes him the ideal portraitist for the Trump era.