CULTURE & ARTS
03/02/2017 03:15 pm ET

New Yorker Cartoonist Explains Why Humor Is The Heartbeat Of Democracy

Tom Toro is the cartoonist who nailed the real horror of Trump's first address to Congress.
Tom Toro

It was surreal to watch President Donald Trump’s first address to Congress, especially for the Americans still struggling to come to terms with his exclusionary policies.

Perhaps even stranger was the shift in tone that Trump delivered, devoid of the exaggerations, insults and non-sequiturs that often comprise his speeches. Pundits soon responded, praising Trump’s “presidential” tone and calling the address Trump’s “most effective speech yet.”

Yet many were alarmed by Trump’s subdued and civil demeanor, which made his false and misleading statements ― especially those meant to rouse fears about out-of-control immigrant crime ― seem all the more credible. 

This New Yorker comic, by cartoonist Tom Toro, crammed all of those feelings and fears into a single, black-and-white panel. 

Tom Voro

Toro is a Bay Area-born cartoonist who’s worked for The New Yorker since 2010.

After the election, Toro’s work has taken a slight detour, addressing the Republican candidate and now president. It’s no easy feat, translating Trump’s ridiculous moments into even more absurd scenarios and getting people to laugh at circumstances that can feel, in actuality, quite dismal. 

We reached out to Toro to learn more about the story behind the succinct and totally gutting image above, along with the challenges of making jokes at the expense of our new president.

What was your initial reaction to Trump’s address to Congress? 

My initial reaction was disgust. Disgust paired with a deep sadness almost like mourning. I felt woozy from woe. Which is probably a common condition that progressives, or anyone who’s awake to the reality of our political situation, must cope with constantly nowadays. Donald Trump is president of the United States. That unbelievable calamity hit home as I watched him stroll down the aisle like a gloating groom toward I, the viewer, and viewers all across the world, as we wait like unwilling partners at the podium-slash-altar.

I felt personally threatened but helpless, trapped, transfixed, and my despair gradually gave way to anger. Here we have a charlatan, a pathological liar, a confessed sexual predator, a hatemonger, a racist ― let’s not mince words - professing to speak on our behalf in an endless stream of hollow platitudes, and doing so with that phony, wincing gravitas that Trump uses to try to conceal his desperate ignorance. Yes, I was disgusted.  

Tom Toro

How do you go about finding the right balance of humor and gravity in your work?

It can be difficult because Trump, as a subject of satire, has flipped the usual equation on its head. Instead of revealing the absurdity in what a politician has the gall to present to us as serious, we must now expose the seriousness of a politician’s galling absurdity. It’s bizarre.

Trump is actually, literally, a clown. (No disrespect to clowns.) He’s a buffoonish showman who traffics in wild fantasies. Some of this might be intentional, for the purpose of distracting the media and hiding his nefarious deregulation schemes, but I tend to believe it’s an outgrowth of his genuine stupidity. Trump is a 70-year-old adolescent who’s virtually illiterate and has now suddenly been tossed into most high-stress job in the world where he must act like he’s in total control. Of course it’s ridiculous. It’s raw comedy ― it’s the very plot of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.”

So what can a humorist do when reality itself mimics satire? Or almost puts satire to shame? Especially when the culprits are acting with such brazen hypocrisy ― thus plucking another arrow from the comedian’s quiver, who’s job it normally is to skewer hypocrites? It’s an unprecedented challenge. In my own work, I aim to bring the facts to bear on Trump’s behavior, on his policies and statements, to hopefully highlight their gross divergence from anything resembling normalcy, and to make it amusing for readers by condensing the whole idea into a single frame, a single moment, a spark. Friction is funny. Cartoons are best when combustive.

Tom Toro

Do you feel a social responsibility as a cartoonist living in the era of Trump?  

I think all of us have a social responsibility to resist Trump’s destructive agenda in every way we can. Artists and comedians might get a lot of attention because we have a ready-made platform to express our views, but the creativity and humor of the spontaneous protests happening all across our country are far more powerful. It’s been so inspiring to see the witty, withering signs that people draw up, the eviscerating Twitter quips that get circulated, the imaginative forms of resistance people use to block the Republican bulldozer. I’m just trying to do my small part.

Humor is empowering because it’s connective. It’s associative. It binds together disparate ideas and thereby fashions new ones. It multiplies possibilities. While at the same time, by that same token, it undermines the opposition’s attempts to divide and isolate us. There’s a reason why Donald Trump is a singularly joyless and mean-spirited troll, why he has bald antipathy for the First Amendment, why he’s more thin-skinned than a molting serpent and he can’t take even a mildly critical jest: because humor is lethal to tyrants.

Humor is the heartbeat of a healthy democracy. And, well, as we’re soon going to show our so-called president, the joke’s on him.  

Toro will publish his debut cartoon memoir, about battling depression, next year through Dock Street Press.Follow him on Twitter and Instagram

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