When cartoonist Scott Stantis makes fun of Donald Trump he hears from angry readers who want to know why he never makes fun of the Democrats. The fact he does—he repeatedly whacked Hillary Clinton before last November’s election—makes no difference to these readers. Yesterday doesn’t peddle much influence in American politics.
“Why don’t you lay off? Give this guy a chance,” they say to the Tribune‘s editorial cartoonist. But Stantis worries that postchance might be too late. This moment in time “scares the hell out of me,” he tells me. He compares Donald Trump to Mussolini, says that might be a little harsh, then compares him to Putin and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
“This guy is not my idea of a Republican president,” says Stantis. “I’ve tried really hard to like this guy. During the course of the campaign I’d sit down with my wife and say, ‘OK, I’m going to get it this time,’ and at the end of his speech I’d go, ‘What did he just say?'”
“It’s ridiculous,” Stantis says. “He’s got the vocabulary of a third-grader.”
I got to know Stantis in 2001 when I wrote a column about the ways editorial cartoonists responded to 9/11. Stantis, then drawing for the Birmingham News in Alabama, was president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. We spoke of the empty chair at the Tribune, left by Jeff MacNelly, who had died more than a year earlier, and of the Tribune’s lack of urgency in filling it. The paper was flirting with a few cartoonists who were all too liberal for it, in Stantis’s view, and he wondered why he wasn’t being considered.
After all, he let me know, he was a genuine conservative.
As the years rolled by Stantis would remind me of this every time we talked—which was every time I decided to write an update on the Tribune‘s failure to replace MacNelly. In 2008 the Tribune stopped dithering. It gave the job to Stantis.
“Jeff was a singular genius,” Stantis tells me. “It’s almost impossible to do what he did, and that is to be a subtle satirist. He was the kid in the back of the room saying snarky comments. I’m the kid in the front of the class calling the teacher an idiot.'”
I’ve had mixed feelings about Stantis’s work for the Tribune over the years—I’m not a conservative—but our present moment in time is a moment of truth, and Stantis is a conservative willing to fire both barrels at our president at a time many conservatives are too feckless to fire one. I mean two literally. Stantis is in the odd position of drawing editorial cartoons, which are picked up by about 400 other papers, and also a comic strip, Prickly City, which about 120 papers carry. Stantis makes his contempt for Trump clear in both of them. The comic strip is better for working out ideas, he says, because he can sustain a story line. (Prickly City promoted Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, more enthusiastically than the Tribune editorial page, which endorsed him.) Prickly City is also better for hearing from readers who think he’s a traitor to the cause. Comics pages get more readers than editorial pages, Stantis explains, and those readers don’t go there expecting an assault on the president who promised to make America great again.
Here he is in Prickly City:
Stantis is a lucky man. A haunting question among journalists right now is How far should we go? We chose this life to inform, not to preach; yet how can a reporter feel anything but adversarial toward a president who demeans and ridicules the facts we traffic in? But Stantis is paid to scratch the itch: he wields the cartoonist’s unique license to mock, to slam, to be cruel and even unfair.
The rest of us don’t, and he’s given the predicament we’re in some thought. “I think what happened,” he tells me, “was that after the he-grabbed-her-by-the-pussy quote, many members of the press felt, OK, this guy is toast, we can say anything we want. The last ten days of the campaign were kind of unseemly—I’ve never seen anything like it, the disdain was so openly evident.”
And yet: “Do you want to normalize someone like him?” Stantis wonders. “No. The other half of me [the half that didn’t lose any sleep over the open disdain] was, ‘You know that little Austrian? He’s the chancellor now. Give him a chance.'” (From Mussolini via Chavez and Putin, Stantis had arrived at Hitler.) “I do believe there are significant dangers we are facing. If we don’t look at this with eyes wide open we deserve what we get.”
On Thursday Trump went to Tennessee to celebrate the birthday of his hero, Andrew Jackson, the former president whose portrait now hangs in the Oval Office. “He didn’t just own slaves,” says Stantis. “This guy was a slave trader. He owned them and raised them and sold them as chattel. Going to Tennessee to pay homage to him—ahh, I don’t know. I’m done.”
Stantis also writes a blog, and a few days ago he made this observation:
Many of my conservative friends who did not support Donald Trump in the primaries have jumped on the Trump bandwagon. However their defense of the president seems forced. They don’t seem to quite believe everything they are saying. It can’t be much fun for them either, trying to defend some of the ridiculous things the president has said.
“They are trying mightily to talk themselves into liking this guy,” says Stantis when I ask him to elaborate. “There’s some conservative red meat being thrown out, and that’s what they’re clinging to.” But how can they overlook his character? I wonder. “They’re trying,” says Stantis. “They’re trying hard.”
Stantis can’t. He knows too much history, and he has the kind of respect for Trump’s office that can come from sitting up straight in civics class. “I want someone as eloquent as Kennedy who has the gravitas of Eisenhower,” he says. “This is an office that’s had Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Lincoln—it had Jefferson. And now this guy.
“Picture it this way. Somehow you can do this, you can have all 44 presidents together. Now throw this guy into the party.”
My first thought is that James Buchanan would spot Trump barging into the room and his heart would leap at finally having somebody to snub. Stantis has Buchanan’s predecessor in mind.
“Franklin Pierce,” he tells me, “whose inauguration address was pretty much ‘I know I’m not up to this but please don’t hurt me.’ He’d go on benders. He’d be gone for two weeks at a time. Maybe that’s what we can hope for from Trump.”
It’s an idea Stantis might be able to find a way to draw. Trump encouraged to stay in Florida since he likes it so much. Trump encouraged to just disappear.