Some years back, I was fortunate enough to spend an inspiring afternoon with Chuck Jones at his home at Laguna Beach, California. He had just clocked a youthful 80 years of age and was still the grand wizard for Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes. Amongst the candid conversation, he shared a piece of advice that would resonate the rest of my life. "Read a page of Mark Twain a day," he advised, looking a squint like Twain himself. The following day, I stumbled across a book of Twain quotes at a boutique bookshop in Venice Beach and many of those pages have since become my life's centreboard.
One quote, in particular, came rushing to mind as I sat in the audience of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists' recent annual conference in Sacramento. Among the cavalcade of speakers, two, in particular, stood out on the subject of Donald Trump - cartoonist Rob Rogers, and celebrated Atlantic journalist, McKay Coppins. Both had directly, or indirectly, felt the wrath of the US president.
Rogers was dismissed for his continual "anti-Trump" cartoons in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette mid-2018. It later surfaced that publisher/editor-in-chief John Block had posted a picture of himself and Trump together on social media in the lead-up to the 2016 campaign, which was widely considered to be a blatant endorsement.
Coppins - while working for BuzzFeed, found himself at the receiving end of a $10,000 bill for the use of Trump's private jet, after being assigned to travel with him through the 2016 presidential campaign. The flight was redirected from New Hampshire to Palm Beach, Florida, where Trump owns the lush resort Mar-a-Lago, due to a blizzard shutting LaGuardia in New York. Coppins spent 36 unexpected hours hanging out with Trump at the compound. Quite a scoop, yet Trump was blisteringly furious over the resulting 6000-word profile (titled 36 hours on the fake campaign trail with Donald Trump) and fired off bills for the use of his aircraft and wailed endlessly on Twitter. Coppins celebrates this milestone by releasing the BuzzFeed story via Twitter, on the anniversary of its publishing, tagging Trump.
The Twain quote that came to mind was "Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience."
Here's the thing. For the editorial cartoonists and the greater world of political journalists, Trump was a gift. I say was, because life now imitates art - his tenure has mutated into an endless sitcom. One that satirists struggle to compete with and experienced journalists struggle to pass off as fact. Accidental accomplices in the bizarre MAGA world of self-promotion and fake propaganda. It's fertile ground for far-right ideology to flourish and feed a support base that tunes out when the rest of us tune in. A good barometer of the rust and grain belts of America comes from California-based Daryl Cagle, who owns syndicate cagle.com, which provides cartoons to newspapers. He will tell you Trump has been bad for his business.
"Our editors complained that all the cartoons they liked had stopped (anti-Obama and Clinton) and the cartoonists had all shifted to the left," he tells the Weekend Herald.
"Most (client) newspapers are small, rural/suburban and conservative; our editors want pro-Trump cartoons. The biggest effect is that our clients dislike the product we have to offer, and more and more papers are dropping editorial cartoons entirely."
Cagle started a "Trump-friendly" section to stem the flow of cancellations but admits there's not a lot of content.
Three states east, Texas has been without a permanent political cartoonist since 2017, after Nick Anderson was dismissed and his position erased from the Houston Chronicle. In recent weeks, the Gannett publishing group laid off three political cartoonists - Arizona's Steve Benson, Tennessee's Charlie Daniel and Indiana's Gary Varvel. Benson, Varvel and Anderson are all Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonists of serious standing, and all four are highly respected in their communities. These departures were all corporately waved as a response to unfortunate financial pressures, which may well be true but, coincidentally, some very prominent voices have now been silenced across five Republican-dominated states, if you include Rob Rogers in Pennsylvania. In recent days, another Pennsylvania paper, the Butler Eagle, dropped the comic strip Non Sequitur after the cartoonist Wiley Miller hid a very uncomplimentary Trump message in his Leonardo Bear-Vinci comic strip.
But it's not all doom if you're not drawing Trump policies in a less-than-favourable light. Over in the swing-state of Nevada, the Las Vegas Review-Journal recently hired the polarising Michael Ramirez. Michael and I were chums some time ago, and I don't necessarily agree with a lot of his work, but I've always been in awe of his skills. He can be a devastating cartoonist and has accumulated some stellar awards to prove it. Not short of his own controversies, he would scoff at being labelled "hard right" but would settle for conservative. Coincidentally, the conservative owner of the Las Vegas Review-Journal is a casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Peeling back a layer, various US newswires are awash with Adelson backstories. The 85-year-old casino king is a proud member of the Republican Party and a Trump backer that has very few rivals. His donations are in the stratospheric millions and recipients include pro-Trump super political action committees since he became a candidate; Trump's inauguration and more recently, the legal defence fund established to assist those caught up in the Mueller investigation. Nothing like having friends with very deep pockets. Adelson's wife, Miriam, who served as a finance vice-chairwoman for Trump's inauguration was recently awarded the highest civilian honour attainable in the US - the Presidential Medal of Freedom. No doubt the Adelsons aspire to swinging the state back to the Republicans.
This is all a great sugar rush for conspiracy theorists, when drawing a less-than-perfect Trump can be considered an obsession that can only come from the left of politics. The 1950s Republican Senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy would be let off his chain at this point, such is the current tone.
So here we are, at the dawn of a new year, gazing at a distant 2020. What satirical ventures pave us to the horizon? I asked some of the world's leading political cartoonists to gaze towards 2020 with a prediction of what lies ahead for them locally and globally.
The Washington Post's tenacious Ann Telnaes has been at the forefront, challenging the Trump administration at every turn.
"This won't surprise anyone but I'm going to be concentrating on the Trump investigation, his and his family's conflicts of interest, and the effects of Trump/Republican policies on government agencies which affect regular Americans' daily lives. The effect of a Trump presidency on editorial cartooning in the US has been profound. On a practical level, the news cycle has accelerated so quickly we have to think fast on our feet yet at the same time be sure to do our research before commenting. The Trump presidency has also reaffirmed the historical role we have as visual journalists: To expose and hold accountable, through satire and ridicule, the politicians and powerful institutions accountable to the people they are supposed to serve."
Kevin Kallaugher at The Economist says: "[When] theMueller report comes out, put on your seat belts."
As for Brexit: "If Britain goes, watch Italy".
In the Middle East? "The fallout from the US sanctions is starting to bite. What I fear is a small confrontation in the Gulf of Hormuz between Revolutionary Guards and a US warship that could easily escalate with the unpredictable Trump's finger on the trigger".
In the era of Trump: "He's great for aspiring satirists. The web and social media give everyone the chance to voice their cheeky comments, but with the cacophony of political noise out there, the new challenges for the professional cartoonist are to create something original, compelling and memorable that stands clearly out above the din."
Over the northern border, Canada's Wes Tyrell says: "Most cartoonists will say 'Trump, Trump, Trump', but here in Canada we are entering into an election year. Justin Trudeau will be in deep, trying to hold off the swing to the right that has been sweeping the globe. Will he create a legacy like his father?"
But the Trump freight train rolls on regardless. "It's had a poor effect in that the public expect new Trump spins daily, at the expense of important but less intoxicating stories."
The 2018 Cartoonists' Rights International Courage in Cartooning award winner was Nicaragua's Pedro Molina. He has a big wish list for 2019.
"The liberation of my country from the brutal dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, who have committed crimes against humanity. I hope the rest of the world can help us so this can be a reality. Internationally speaking, the Brexit mess, Trump/Russia affair, López Obrador in Mexico and Bolsonaro in Brazil are promising topics."
Skipping across the Atlantic, Morton Morland with The Times and Spectator in London tells me, "One major issue this year might very well be all the things that have been overlooked for the last two years... but unfortunately, you can be fairly sure those things will remain overlooked. From a cartooning point of view anyway, I think we're stuck with Brexit. It's been the only story for two years and the problem has been that it's not really moved at all. The same arguments have been played over and over. The big change in 2019 is the leaving date. That changes everything. We may have a new government, we may have a second referendum or we may be negotiating trade arrangements with the EU and the world. So in essence, the major issue for 2019 is simply that we have no idea what the major issue of 2019 will turn out to be. The only thing we know is that it'll be momentous."
As for Trump, "I think there are two major elements to the Trump presidency for cartoonists and satirists. The first, and often mentioned, is that doing caricatures of a caricature is really bloody difficult. When truth and facts are no longer the basis for debate, and when politicians are more outrageous, silly and ridiculous than you could possibly imagine, then trying to caricature them becomes hard. The same is true about Brexit, by the way. However, and this is the one redeeming feature of the new reality in the US and here in Britain. Trump (and Brexiteers) are really sensitive to mockery. Much more so than centrist run-of-the-mill politicians who generally see cartoons as jolly good fun. Populists hate being mocked. Like little wannabe totalitarians they are easily offended, so even though it's in many ways harder to ridicule them because they simply dismiss your work as fake news and elitist propaganda, they and their supporters are easily mortally offended, which is gloriously satisfying. That is of course until we fall into proper totalitarianism and the fun stops, but thankfully, we're not there yet."
Over the Channel, Tjeerd Royards in Amsterdam says, "In addition to the obvious subjects of Brexit and Trump, I think my other main topics will be climate change and populism. The urgency of taking action to combat climate change is pushing me to make cartoons about it. The continuing rise of populism in Europe is frightening and deserves attention."
As for Trump, "He's obviously a lot of fun to draw, but the rise of Trump - and of populism in general - has made our jobs harder, I think. As the political divide between left and right increases, it's getting harder and harder to reach people with a different opinion with my cartoons. So I might reach a lot of people with doing anti-Trump cartoons, but it's preaching to the choir."
Legendary South African cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) has a complex year ahead of him. "My biggest issue is whether this nation, which had such promise, can claw its way back from the state capture abyss. State capture is the particularly virulent form of corruption engaged in by the Indian-expat Gupta family whose hold over Zuma—the president we finally turfed in 2018—was so great that he farmed out his presidential functions to them. The Guptas actually got to decide which of their cronies would become cabinet ministers in a mutual dish-out of spoils. The commission of inquiry into this sordid mess is riveting—and will surely impact on the general election we're having before mid-year. Will some dirt cling to current president Cyril Ramaphosa even as he tries to get us back on track?
"Starting with Zimbabwe just over our border, there are a number of African crises I'll be watching. Then there's Brexit. And the ongoing circus that is Trump will be in every cartoonists' sights. I'll also be watching the global dumbing down, fake news, right-wing populist trend that's spawning mini-Trumps all over."
Closer to home, the West Island (Australia) is now on its 7th PM in 11 years and gearing up for upper and lower house elections before the year is done. Hence the Guardian's cartoonist, First Dog on the Moon, foresees some difficult territory. "Australia's main issues should be our treatment of asylum seekers, the appalling relationship between settler Australians and Aboriginal Australians and the fact that we are the driest inhabited continent on Earth and one of the countries doing the least about climate change. Unfortunately, the issues we actually deal with will be our hugely racist federal election - how racist is racist? And when will our cheating former cricket captain get back in the side."
There's a humorous line in the lauded Peter Sellers sitcom Being There, where Chauncey Gardiner says "I like to watch." Cartoonists by their nature, are laconic observers of the human condition.
Mark Knight, Melbourne's Herald Sun cartoonist is in recovery mode while watching the last specks of dust settle from the fallout of his 2018 cartoon which depicted Serena Williams having a tantrum on the court at the US Open after she lost to Naomi Osaka.
When the Australian Open was on last month and Williams and Osaka were both in town, Knight wisely took leave and was surfing the New South Wales coast. Knight fell into a dreaded social media storm of global proportions on the subject of a Williams' tantrum. It took on an entirely different meaning internationally, especially in the UK and the US. Going viral is an understatement. It went feral. Death threats against him and his family found security guards posted around his Victorian hinterland retreat. Not taken into account, of course, were the years of excellent work on racism and poor form on and off the sports field. Winning the 2018 Cartoonist of the Year went some way in reconciliation, but the wounds of isolation and virtue-signalling from a section of his peers ran deep. That said, his pen will be poised. What's his take on recent events in his career, looking towards 2020?
"I draw from life and my cartoons are a reflection of what I see. Humour is my conduit, because, let's face it, at times we need a laugh, not a lecture on how virtuous we should be. 2019 will be a big year in politics for cartoonists here in Australia as ScoMo (Scott Morrison) attempts to hang on against Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull. Federal election campaigns are great to cover as they roll along. Momentum changes, the gotcha moments, foot-in-mouth freshman candidates, the promises. Of course in the US this all happens in one afternoon in the Trump presidency. Who wouldn't want to be a cartoonist?"
Standing on lush terra firma Aotearoa, squinting into that spray tan orange horizon of 2020, you can safely predict Brexit and Trump will mule-kick their way into our headlines ad infinitum. For my ruble, a bird boxed America is ripe for continued sleight of hand from Russia, China or even North Korea. Trump, I suspect, will survive the year, sans wall. Australia may well have another ace to play against us on our unique (cough) relationship.
The extraordinary rise of Jacinda Ardern and her lionising from world leaders so early in her career suggests we have yet another PM the world has other plans for, long after her leadership spell. She is a fresh and welcome asset on the world stage, but domestically she has a raft of issues that will plague the Government and she will be judged on delivery. For a historical reference point, I glance at the Whitlam era in Australia. A giant for Labor, who was brought down by the intransigence and indiscretions of his own ministers. Here, Clare Curran is an early prime example. Will Simon Bridges survive as Opposition leader? Will Christopher Bishop rise rapidly in their ranks? Five issues I believe all parties need to work collaboratively on are climate change, housing, a living wage, health/wellbeing and Simon Bridges' choice of hair gel. As the family goes, so goes the nation and the world in which we live.
But as a loose cannon below all political decks, there's the one Twain quote that I remind myself of daily: "The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter." May we use it daily.