Garry Trudeau marked Donald Trump as a con man early on. The Pulitzer Prize winning writer and illustrator of Doonesbury has mocked Trump relentlessly since the 1980s, homing in on the then real-estate mogul’s insatiable appetite for attention and penchant for lying, a body of work that was anthologized in Trudeau’s 2016 bestseller, Yuge!: 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump. This month, Trudeau is out with a sequel, #Sad!: Doonesbury in the Time of Trump, a tragic comedy collection about the first 500 days of Trump’s presidency.
Trump has called Trudeau a “third-rate cartoonist,” but when historians look back on America in this era, Doonesbury will be as good a record of as any of the national zeitgeist. Trudeau’s menagerie of stoners, disc jockeys, wounded vets, politicians, right-wing operatives and gonzo lunatics turns 50 this month. In that time, he has chronicled nine presidencies, at least three major wars and uncountable scandals and national brouhahas. Through it all, his sharp eye for detail, irreverent humor and genuine appreciation for humanity have kept the strip chugging along with the times, even as the characters have aged, lost their ideals, limbs and loves, and the nation has undergone massive upheavals.
Trudeau, 70, is notoriously reclusive and rarely gives interviews. In 2004, Rolling Stone dubbed him the JD Salinger of cartooning and called his style “part Charles Schulz, part Charles Dickens.” But Rolling Stone was able to catch up with Trudeau recently to talk about what drew him to Trump three decades ago, the role of satire and what he thinks his legacy will be.
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You’ve been covering Trump in the strip for 30 years. How has his persona changed? Have you seen a transformation?
Yes. While his underlying personality disorder has remained remarkably stable, in recent years Trump seems to have burned off any remaining social constraints and is rapidly contracting into a more concentrated version of himself — pure, juvenile id. Even his working vocabulary seems to be shrinking, although that could be an illusion created by the hyper-repetition of his best words (“no collusion,” “witch hunt,” “treated so unfairly,” etc.).
Trump sucks up all the oxygen in the country, and it’s become very hard to break through with any other kind of story. So how do you resist the temptation to put him in the strip every time?
I’m afraid I don’t — I’ve been immersed. Trump himself appears in relatively few strips, but for the last two years, he’s been subtext in almost all of them. Doonesbury is very character-driven, and it’s intuitive for me to think about how this calamitous presidency might affect day-to-day life for Mike and his cohort.
Are you more concerned about the country than you were when you started Doonesbury, during the height of Vietnam and the Nixon administration?
It’s hard to measure degrees of concern. The country’s been at war for roughly half the 50 years I’ve been doing this. We’ve had endless scandals, crises. I can’t think of a year when I wasn’t concerned. My hair’s always on fire about some damn thing.
What parallels do you see between Watergate and the Mueller probe? Or Whitewater for that matter?
In 1973, our institutions were much more robust, albeit untested. No one had thought much about the politics and legal machinery of impeachment for over a century. We weren’t in the habit of investigating presidents. We may have lost our innocence with Watergate, but we normalized cynicism with Iran-contra, Monica and now the Russia scandal. Whitewater, like Benghazi, actually was a witch hunt, just partisan hazing, but they, too, conditioned the public to expect the worst from our leaders. The bad news [with] Trump is that what was once unthinkable is now perfectly plausible.
What has surprised you about Trump as president?
Nothing. But that doesn’t make his behavior any less shocking. Once we stop being appalled, we’re all in big trouble.
Cartoons, like any satire, can offend. Where do you draw the line? And doesn’t great art have to be allowed to offend?
In the early years of syndication, I seemed to be offending readers with alarming frequency, so I sent out an inane questionnaire to a couple dozen client newspaper editors. I provided a checklist of topics — sex, drugs, politics, etc. — and asked their opinion on which were appropriate for the comics page. Most of the editors actually obliged, but one wrote back that there was no topic that was inherently unsuitable — it all depended on how thoughtfully it was handled. Once I absorbed that lesson, that I needed to move beyond gratuitousness to a certain seriousness of purpose, I was on my way to becoming a real satirist. I still offended people, but the work was defensible, and for the most part, editors stopped pulling strips from publication.
Social media has changed everything in media. How has it changed your particular line of work?
It’s mostly about mindshare. There are infinitely more voices in the national conversation, so each of us has proportionally less impact. As newspapers have lost influence, so too the features they contain. My own interests aside, I think this is mostly a good thing, that democratizing the public square gives people the chance to hear many more points of view than they would otherwise. Of course, it also creates bubbles and echo chambers, and feeds outlets like Fox, which as one study documented, actually makes viewers stupider. But in balance, I’m for letting a thousand flowers bloom, even the stinkers.
Sometimes the Trump administration seems like an episode of Veep. Does that make it harder to satirize?
If it did, there wouldn’t be a dozen comedy shows churning out topical political humor to large, appreciative audiences. Nothing’s beyond the reach of satire. People think hyperbole is the only tool in our kit, that we have to “top” reality, but there are many ways to be subversive. Stephen Colbert created a whole show around a character who supported the right wing agenda.
What drew you to Trump so early on in his career?
What you might imagine — the narcissism, vulgarity, dishonesty, all thrown into high relief in the local media. (I didn’t know at the time he had three publicists, two of them imaginary.) The paradox of cartooning is that what draws you to a person are the very things that repel you. That’s where you get traction, and it’s why Obama never did much for us. He was so steady, thoughtful and empathetic that whatever your politics, you couldn’t really get your hooks into him. Unless, of course, you were racist.
Would the recent racist Serena Williams cartoon have gone unnoticed when you started in the business?
Possibly. There’s a more heightened sensitivity to racial stereotyping today, which should yield less lazy, more closely observed caricatures. Even visual humor has to take historical context into account.
What keeps you motivated at this point in your career?
Mostly coffee, but I still have ambitions. At a minimum, I’d like to stay in the saddle until Trump leaves town. And I wouldn’t mind doing another TV show. For someone who’s spent most of 50 years in a room by himself, it’s been surprising how much I enjoy collaboration.
What was the best advice you ever received?
When I was in college, my art professor ripped up a drawing I’d done in front of the whole class. He said, “Yes, yes, I know you can draw. What I don’t know is if you can see.” I’d been doing facile charcoal stylings, visual muzak. That slapdown taught me not to coast, to really focus before I engaged.
How do you consume the news? And are you as mentally exhausted as the rest of us covering the political scene? How do you unplug?
Exhausted, yes. At this moment, I’m at the end of a two-week road trip with a college bud through western national parks. The lack of cell coverage has been therapeutic. Yesterday I learned that a massive sandstone arch we were standing under had been formed 150 million years ago. Geology restores perspective. We’ve encountered scores of fellow visitors at park vistas, and every one of them spoke in hushed tones. And these are Americans, who shout about everything.
You’ve worked with many veterans and traveled with the USO. Do you think Americans are aware of all our various, and now growing foreign wars?
No, and what’s tragic is that many people prefer not to know. Without a win to justify the cost in blood and treasure, the whole subject has vanished from the national conversation. Meanwhile, this generation of warriors has endured more cumulative days of combat exposure than any army in history.
What have you learned from the vets you’ve met?
Enough — barely — to represent them in the strip. I can’t pretend to understand what it’s like to take up arms, but writers are paid to use their imaginations, to get into the heads of people they are not. I hope those who serve feel I’ve done them justice.
What are your work habits? Can you describe your process?
Nope. It used to be describable because I had such a rigid weekly routine, but now I work on a lot of different projects, including being a grandfather. No two days are alike, although as with most writers, my best work is done in the morning.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I don’t exactly want it, but it’s entirely possible my legacy will be the introduction of bad art to the comics. Doonesbury made Cathy, Dilbert, xkcd and many other barely drawn strips possible.
By spinning my early panels as intentionally raw and edgy, as urgently scribbled dispatches from the front lines of the revolution, my syndicate and I unwittingly ushered in an era of post-virtuosity.