If there’s any humor to be found in this year’s presidential campaign, look no further than political cartoons. The drawings are a visual representation of the election. A cheat sheet perhaps, conveying the latest development in an ever-changing election cycle.
“The artistic talent that has to go into it is amazing. They draw you in and then just in one frame you immediately know what they mean. It takes very little words to get their point across,” said Jessica Albano, a communication, media studies and news librarian at the University of Washington’s Suzzallo Library. “I think that’s the value in it, is they can get their message across very quickly, and in an appealing way or in a way that makes you uncomfortable and challenges you.”
Suzzallo has opened a display of political cartoons from all over the country on the ground level of the library. Albano said student workers started pulling cartoons for the display in June. The only two requirements are that they come from a paper the library receives and that the newspaper directly employs the cartoonist, rather than using a service.
The cartoons are direct. They are focused in-your-face indictments of Hillary Clinton, the career politician, and Donald Trump, the businessman with an unlimited supply of bravado. The cartoons are also a reflection of a disillusioned electorate. “It’s been a really hard year to be fair and balanced. We added two more conservative cartoonists just to try to get that balance but they’re still hard on Donald Trump,” Albano said. “So whenever we get a Clinton one, she usually goes up here because we don’t want the perception to be we lean one way or the other.”
During this political cycle cartoonists are having a lot of fun with both candidates. Hillary Clinton is shown as unpopular, whose influence can be bought and the master of the cover-up. In a drawing by Nate Beeler with The Columbus Dispatch, Clinton is presented as former President Richard Nixon. The background is blacked out and you can only make out her hair, face, hands, pearl necklace and campaign logo on her lapel. She’s centered with both hands in the air with two fingers raised, showing the iconic Nixon victory sign. Dark circles are under her eyes, further asserting the evil narrative.
In others, she’s usually donning pants suits and in a few morphing into Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“They’re all usually just showing her to be kind of short and stubby or round or like Pinocchio. I haven’t seen anything that would strike me as sexist,” Albano said. “Whereas when President Obama was running, there were downright racist ones like the New Yorker cartoon with he and Michelle fist bumping.”
As for Donald Trump, cartoonists are having a field day. His hair, lips and weight are usually exaggerated. In another cartoon from Beeler, a satellite discovers Trump depicted as a planet in outer space. How does the audience know it’s him? By the coif and pouty pucker. The text also helps. It reads, “Houston, after traversing 1.7 billion miles, I’ve achieved orbit around the gaseous titan and am picking up some very alarming readings.”
“There’s a lot of him as an infant, as a dog,” Albano said. “Lots of Pinocchio references, which we hadn’t had in the past.”
His grandiose statements, charitable donations and failed minority outreach are also up for fodder. From a cartoonist’s perspective Trump is a walking target. Trump consistently flip-flops his opinions, rarely apologizes and in debates avoids answering the question he’s asked. Real Change Editorial Cartoonist Sam Day said Trump is begging for it. Whereas Clinton is well versed in toeing the line.
“His candidacy is an unprecedented threat to democratic institutions and our economy and all kinds of things,” Day said. “With Hillary there’s plenty to criticize, but I feel like right now it’s not as important as the things that Trump needs to be criticized about.”
Jeff Boyer creates a weekly political cartoon for the Albany Times Union in New York. Boyer makes an effort to not single out Trump but with an election like we’ve never seen before it’s difficult for him. Boyer also has the added challenge of drawing a cartoon that’s still relevant for the Sunday edition.
His “shell game” Trump cartoon hit a nerve with readers. He said the cartoon speaks more to Trump’s demeanor, not a specific action he did that week.
“A couple people bothered to tell me they didn’t like it,” Boyer said. “That’s how you know you’re doing something right.”
Week after week, Day has produced Trump cartoons to the point where he just got tired of it. He decided to express his frustration in a cartoon, featuring a caricature of himself saying, “I am so sick of drawing cartoons about Trump.”
Albano has seen a similar sentiment: “There’s a lot of like of just forlorn like ‘where are we at right now, are we seriously going through this where these are our two options?’”
The cartoons on display also touch on the issue of police officers shooting unarmed Black men, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and the anniversary of 9/11.
Albano began displaying political cartoons at Suzzallo after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. Cartoons in foreign papers the library received caught their eyes so they decided to share them with visitors.
“It was so interesting to see how the cartoons around the world were sympathizing with us and empathizing with us after 9/11,” she said. “Then things changed. We went into Afghanistan and Iraq. Through the cartoons we could see the world’s view change about what we were doing.”
Benjamin Franklin is credited with drawing the first political cartoon in America in 1754 for the newspaper he owned, the Pennsylvania Gazette. The drawing is of a snake cut into eight parts with each section representing the early colonies we know today as states. The words “join, or die” are below it.
“It has a very important role in democracy,” Day said.
Today, the number of U.S. cartoonists is on the decline. Newspaper staff cuts are all too common and cartoonists were among the first to go. The decline in readership of print newspapers also doesn’t help. Day said the internet is also a contributor.
“I think that their role has been subsumed somewhat by memes on social media, which move so much faster than print,” Day said. “Anything I’m drawing about has been cycled through many times on social media. Everybody is a political cartoonist now when they can slap together a photo and some text.”