The 2011 Correspondents’ Dinner is thought to be the significant moment that spurred the reality TV star and real estate mogul Donald Trump to run for Presidency. That evening, Trump was the target of both President Obama and “Saturday Night Live” comedian Seth Meyers’ series of jokes, with the latter observing: “Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican — which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke.”
Commenting on the event New York Times said: “That evening of public abasement, rather than sending Mr. Trump away, accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature in the political world”. Repeatedly, Trump inspired, both in text and imagery, endless jokes: sarcastic at times, and witty at others.
Looking back at the cartoons and caricatures that have illustrated historical U.S elections and its surreal outcome, one wonders: was ‘the President’ Trump born out of mockery? Political cartoons, speaking out freely, aim to exploit the most obvious or grotesque features of a political figure – through the use of ridicule, irony or sarcasm – to laugh them out of their follies, and in so doing, succeed in highlighting their political image.
In return, politicians must be able to adapt and protect their image in order to garner enough votes to be elected. Trump did not seem to care about his image, and neither did the voters; and that traditional intended impact of satire on political order did not happen – at least not in the way satirical press intended.
Trump appears to be a good candidate for caricatural imagery that ludicrously exaggerates his peculiarities or defects. But, two necessary characteristics for a person or thing to be plausibly caricatured, were incomplete – these are traditionally known as ‘gap’ and ‘differentiation’.
Differentiation requires that the object of caricature must have some sort of unique attribute that differentiates them from other objects in a given context. Critically, differentiation has two dimensions one physical and another ideological (ideals, values and beliefs).
Also, for satire to occur, there must be a perceived gap, disparity, or dissonance between the image of Trump and ‘the Donald’. For satire to work, the satirist has to create a plausible gap by suggesting an alternative reality that is different from that which we perceive. So, the satirist would want to magnify a known manifest disparity between the reality and the image.
Political satire relies greatly on exaggeration: the success of a caricature depends on the degree to which the exaggeration magnifies the differentiation, reveals the gap, and maintains a certain understanding of shared cultural values between the satirist and his reader.
The thing is, Donald Trump has already exaggerated his looks, his hand gestures, his mouth, and his inflammatory rhetoric, to the extent that caricature has very little to add, not much could be done to magnify differentiation, or display the gap. The necessary disparity between Trump and its caricature was not there. Trump is a caricature that jumped off the press into the real world.
Cartoons, which work differently to caricatures, seem to have had an even more ironic and interesting effect on the American public in this election, particularly Trump’s sympathisers. The trick of a cartoon is that it makes an impression more than a realistic image.
It’s what Scott Mccloud describes as a ‘form of amplification through simplification’. Yet the more illustrators simplified the image of Trump in cartoons, the further we moved from the ‘real’ face of the Donald, like in Time magazine’s cover which featured a dripping Trump with a single-word headline: “Meltdown”).
Another secret of cartoon imagery is its universality. The more cartoony a face is, the more people it could be said to describe. We are self-centred creatures and we see our reflections in many things and places. So the cartoonist draws an image of a man designed to actually resemble its subject, or as Mccoud calls it “an icon of the practical realm”. As resemblance varies from one cartoon to another, so does the level of iconic content, and we’re left with some cartoons that are just more iconic than others.
Importantly, in the realm of caricatures and cartoons, meaning is not settled and undisputed. It is fluid and volatile. Unlike words, the level of abstraction fluctuates; so the caricature of Trump could go either way, in the sense that it could closely resemble the Donald, to almost embody it; or it could be more abstract and unlike any human face we’ve ever seen, and thus alienating the man from its caricature. It depends where you’re standing.
Looking at how the press has exercised its role as satirist over Trump, to censure his abuses – and depending on what element we think is most important in satire: its digressive variety, its defamatory blame, its free speaking, its coarse mockery, or its moral function – Trump’s ‘success’ proved that satire can be ambivalent about the pleasures it offers, and uncertain in its political effect.
John Bullitt says: ‘The satirist needs the convictions that fixed intellectual ideas and norms can give him, and the assurance that he will receive understanding from his readers’. This assumes that there is a general agreement on moral and intellectual standards between the satirist and his reader.
Trump’s voters proved the opposite, they do not share the same cultural values with the satirist. We would have to concede that most of the great satires of Trump have failed in changing the people’s perception of him. Perhaps satire only inspires the imbecile to laugh and the wicked to carry on.
Imen Neffati is a WRoCAH funded PhD student in the University of Sheffield History Department where she is researching anticlerical print culture and ideas of free speech. You can find her on twitter @.
Image: Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the South Point Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, courtesy of Gage Skidmore [via Flickr, Creative Commons Licence].