Remember the political cartoons published on the day Trump was elected? The day of the inauguration? When new information on the ties between Russia and the Trump administration caused mayhem in US politics? Me neither. But I do remember CNN playing in the dining hall back on results day in November, the countless clips of Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert, and the headlines about the new administration’s DACA decision. And, frankly, the memes, we all remember the memes. So if we don’t remember the cartoons, what role did they play in establishing the current political climate?
Cartoons no longer have the social sway they once did. Though news reporting remains essential, print publications and political cartoons are simply not as important now as when they were one of the only methods of circulating information. However, if viewed as an example of satire, cartoons retain their power to make political statements, call out injustice, and incite controversy, as well as heavy backlash from their unwilling subjects.
Well-known cartoonists like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Nast, William Hogarth, and Honore Daumier, whose portrayal of King Louis-Philippe as Gargantua famously led the king to comment that while, “a pamphlet is no more than a violation of opinion, a caricature amounts to an act of violence,” were often heavily criticised and even persecuted for their publications. Cartoons no longer garner such strong reactions, but the king’s outrage is not so different from Trump’s reaction to a different incarnation of humour, sketch comedy. See, for example, Trump’s tweets regarding his representation on Saturday Night Live, which include such comments as “@NBCNews is bad but Saturday Night Live is the worst of NBC. Not funny, cast is terrible, always a complete hit job. Really bad television!” or “Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me. Time to retire the boring and unfunny show,” or “Just tried watching Saturday Night Live – unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse. Sad.”
In the past, cartoons had value as political influencers and as conversation starters. Before the digitalisation of most media, they were useful in sharing information and helping shape opinions because they reached an audience that didn’t have access to many other sources of information. Though distorted in their representation of reality, they had an almost educational value. Their nature as a visual instead of a verbal medium meant that they did not require literacy, and thus made them less elitist by allowing them to reach an larger audience. Today, most information is available in seconds. Obligatory education and the pervasiveness of media means that in many countries, even a politically apathetic member of the public has multiple sources of information readily available. We no longer need cartoons to tell us how to think.
The value of cartoons is now found in their expression of widely held viewpoints, rather than the controversial opinion of the individual cartoonist or of a limited circle of politically involved elite. Though not all political cartoons are inherently comic, the medium is defined by its use of irony, emotional symbolism, exaggeration, and distortion, all of which translate to bias. These qualities make them a sort of shorthand, a way of synthesizing what many people are already thinking, useful for looking back on a political moment. But the conversations that cartoons once helped start are already happening, and the cartoon itself acts as merely an echo. When viewed as a small part of a larger phenomenon, cartoons offer an example of the essential role satire and humour played in the US 2016 presidential election.
In a post-truth media climate, truth is our most valuable currency and often our most powerful form of protest. People have a hard enough time avoiding fake news and alternative facts as it is. They want ammunition for debate, to engage with the content they consume, and for art and the media to help them understand what is real and what isn’t. Because of its distortion and unavoidable bias, caricaturization is no longer a satisfactory foundation for forming an opinion, unless it is accompanied by something more substantial (statistics, quotations, specific policy decisions).
The trite “a picture is worth a thousand words” is in the most part no longer applicable. Many prefer words allowing them to engage with truth and fact in a way that cartoons, by nature, do not. In comparison to other forms of humour, or even to editorials, cartoons leave the consumer nothing to respond to. Their power, and their curse, is that they demand merely to be taken at face value.
Both cartoons and comedy in more general terms draw attention to inconsistencies in the current administration’s policies and statements while voicing the needs and views of those who are not directly involved in the government. They exaggerate reality in a situation that is, by many moral and logical standards, preposterous, and criticise both government officials and the public who placed them in power.
But not all comedy or criticism is productive, and other attempts to ridicule Trump, like the five naked statues placed in cities across the US or the frequent comparisons to Hitler, have caused controversy for the wrong reasons. Treating comedy, and more specifically cartoons, as anything more than partial representations of one aspect of public opinion would downplay the importance of concrete political action. Cartoons fill an ambiguous category in the wider frame of “culture,” existing at the intersection of art, journalism, and satire.
But despite their value, it is dangerous to exaggerate the extent to which any of these single categories can dictate the outcome of any social change. In today’s political climate, sharing a meme or a political cartoon on social media, even when it perfectly encapsulates your opinion, has the potential to trivialise the very view you are trying to defend. We have a responsibility to use our voices in real conversation and to use laughter to feed our political drive, not satisfy it.
Though cartoons, art, and comedy always have been and will continue to be a powerful social tool, they are effective only when coupled with concrete action.