The New Yorker, famous for its illustrated magazine covers, an honor and position Nast frequently attained at Harper’s Weekly, recently published a cover about the Trump Administration’s reaction to the Coronavirus controversy, and in particular, the president’s personal handling of the crisis.
This website is not political, however, political art and cartoons offer important commentary on current political events and issues. The Washington Post recently reviewed The New Yorker’s cover and talked to political artists about how they conceptualize and articulate criticism of the current president through their images. The article includes other artists’ variations on the theme of a mask being used as a blindfold.
Nast was a master of searing commentary. He used several techniques against William M. “Boss” Tweed, who while not a president, was a prominent political leader of his day, that were searing and stunning in their delivery. These images made Nast famous, and Tweed infamous. One Nast image comes to mind, “The Brains.”
Washington Post’s commentary is included here for its attention to the effectiveness of political art and the motivations and inspirations of the artists. As such, it is appropriate to include in this website.
On Monday, December 7, 2015, Bill Bramhall, editorial cartoonist for the New York Daily News published the following image of presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, in response to Trump’s announced policy of denying Muslim immigration to the U.S.
The image was placed on the cover of the daily paper, overlaid by an updated and paraphrased version of Martin Niemöller’s iconic and poignant quote from 1963 about his inaction regarding Adolf Hitler:
The image shows the Statue of Liberty as a victim of Trump’s political terrorism. Lady Liberty, the beloved symbol of American values and immigration, is beheaded. A bloated Trump raises his weapon of choice, a scimitar, historically associated with Eastern and Ottoman cultures. In effect, Trump balances his own scales of justice with her head in his other hand. The remainder of her majestic body lies prostrate, her torch has tumbled away — her welcoming beacon of light is extinguished.
Bramhall’s image brings to mind Thomas Nast’s 1871 double-paged cartoon,”The Tammany Tiger on the Loose – “What are you going to do about it?””
Though not a cover, (many of Nast’s cartoons were featured as covers), this cartoon received an equally coveted double-page spread in the center of Harper’s Weekly, the premier illustrated weekly of its era. A portly Tweed, whom Nast dresses as a Roman emperor, sits in his imperial reviewing box and gloats upon his weapon of choice, the Tammany Tiger as it takes down Columbia, Nast’s preferred personification of American values. Drawn 15 years before the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886, Nast favored Columbia as the maternal symbol to represent the American nation. Her cousins, Lady Liberty and Lady Justice, distinguished by a crested helmet and the scales of justice respectively, appeared less often as substitutions for Columbia, but frequently as sisterly companions.
Tweed’s tiger looks straight into its audience and bears its teeth, poised to tear into Columbia’s neck. Columbia often carried a sword, symbolizing the strength of her resolve to protect American values of tolerance, fairness, and compassion. Her weapon has left her grip, broken apart by the force of the beast’s pounce. Like Tweed, the tiger arrogantly asks, “What are you going to do about it?”
Thomas Nast, known as the “Father of American Caricature” or alternately as the “Father of the American Political Cartoon” rose to worldwide attention and wielded significant political power by the deft and powerful strokes of his pen — the ire in Nast’s ink often appeared on the cover of the illustrated weekly magazine, Harper’s Weekly. To get his message across, Nast and other great cartoonists of the time employed the ego-cutting tools of caricature: ridicule, physical exaggeration, and careful placement of symbols, to elicit emotions from readers and viewers. Nast is best known for excoriating and bringing down New York politician William M. “Boss” Tweed through these techniques. The visibility and power of Nast images continued for two decades as undeniably effective weapons against corruption.
Few escaped seeing Nast’s images. Apocryphally, Tweed is famously quoted as saying, “Stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!”
According to Nast’s biographer Alfred Bigelow Paine, Tweed representatives tried to entice Nast with bribes to tempt the artist to stop maligning the city boss. Intrigued, Nast strung the agent along, seeing how high he could negotiate the bribe. It reached $500,000, a tremendous amount of money for its time. Nast refused to be bought.
The American editorial or political cartoon in the twenty-first century grasps an uncertain future. The genre thrived in Nast’s era, a time in which photographs could not easily be mass reproduced for the print media. In the century that followed, modern political cartoons traditionally found their stage off the front page, yet, placed in a venerated position in the editorial sections of daily and weekly newspapers. The photograph took over on covers. There were exceptions, of course, the New Yorker magazine being the most notable, today giving prominence to the cartoon cover with provoking results.
The tradition of home delivery or buying a paper at a newsstand and enjoying that publication at the kitchen table or office desk— physically leafing the pages and sharing sections among family and friends, assured these editorial cartoons would be seen multiple times over.
With the demise of many print editions of newspapers and magazines, new generations of readers are now able to cherry-pick their news from online offerings. Some fans of the art form fear that these hand-drawn visual commentaries, and appreciation for what Donald Dewey has called The Art of Ill Will, might lose their historic influence, or get lost among the many clickable headlines, losing ground to the altered digital photograph — satire by Photoshop.
Bramhall’s cartoon offers hope that the cartoon caricature is still beloved. It possesses the qualities to pack a powerful punch. Bramhall’s image rose above the fray and was instantly picked up across media outlets and shared prolifically on social media.
The New York Daily News use of Bramhall’s cartoon as its cover, therefore, is in the best tradition of an excellent and scathingly successful takedown of a public figure by an editorial or political cartoon, drawn and delivered, much like Trump’s sword, as a blunt courier of raw truth. In the best New York City media tradition, the cartoon exposes both the disturbing and the ridiculous.
In our saturated and specialized markets, editorial cartoons must compete for broad attention. But when they are timely and deftly drawn, these black and white lines of editorial expression expose stark realities through exaggeration. Ah! To dish out the glorious tool of ridicule, a technique Trump wields with expertise and lately, to great effect.
Like Nast and Bramhall’s cartoons, the crème de la crème of caricature will always rise to the top — viral-worthy, these images and the artists who create them, serve the public good by striking a tender national nerve and provoking us to consider both the obvious and the subtle.
If Nast were around today, he’d be proud, and perhaps, a little envious.
“Those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.” – George Santayana
Donald Trump is not the first presidential candidate to call for the outright exclusion of a group of people, based on ethnicity or religion, from entering the United States as a visitor, or as an immigrant with aspirations for citizenship. That notoriety goes to James G. Blaine, the U.S. Senator from Maine.
In the late nineteenth century, the three-time presidential hopeful sought to make his second attempt in 1880 a shoe-in by pandering to a xenophobic and fearful population of Euro-centric Americans. Blaine sought to abrogate a treaty protecting Chinese immigration. Needing the support of white labor in the west in order to achieve his presidential aspirations, Blaine encouraged their chants of “The Chinese Must Go!” and promised support of their demands.
As an 1880 Republican presidential hopeful James G. Blaine called for the official federal exclusion of Chinese entering the U.S. Fear mongering began soon after the Chinese arrived the United States. America offered hope to immigrants from the Far East. Lured to America with tales of gold nuggets, the Chinese were early arrivals during the Gold Rush. Like the Irish flooding into the East coast, the Chinese sought relief from the famine plaguing their homeland.
And while suspicions percolated about the Irish on the East Coast, by the 1870s Sinophobia reached fever pitch on the other side of America. Blaine took notice. Readying for another attempt at the presidency, Blaine saw political advantage in aligning alongside a new, burgeoning and fearful electorate. In doing so, Blaine broke with his Republican Party’s tolerant position on accepting the Chinese. Nast found the defection unforgivable.
In the late nineteenth century, the Chinese in America, as a whole, were viewed as a critical threat to the health, welfare, and security of the United States. Derided for their non-Christian (heathen) ways, the Chinese represented a multi-level threat. Popular rhetoric, steeped in propaganda, flourished.
To white workers, citizens and immigrants alike, a life and death line needed to be drawn! Was there any doubt that the rat-eating Chinese would, and had already, spread life-threatening disease and pestilence among innocent Americans? Despite their modest immigration numbers, statistically low compared to other immigrants, the Chinese were nevertheless depicted in commentary and illustrations as invading hordes of less-than-human creatures who would forever alter and undermine a wholesome national identity and culture.
The pro-business and progressive Republican Party during this era encouraged the Chinese to come to the U.S. Manufacturing and industry, particularly railroad executives, who valued the Chinese work ethic and used their eagerness to work as strike breakers. Despite their strangeness, the Chinese were earnest workers and helped tip many businesses balance sheets to the black. This financial reality bolstered the Republican-led, East Coast ruling elite’s tolerant position toward the Chinese. At the very least, having the Chinese in the U.S. made good business sense.
The Democratic Party thought differently. Echoing the fears of its burgeoning white and Irish labor base, Democrats sought to restrict the Chinese from arriving and wanted the ones already in the U.S. to go. Starting on the West Coast with local laws, talk of national laws excluding the Chinese in the U.S. steady gained acceptance during the 1870s. By 1879, the early drafts of the federal Chinese Exclusion Act had been entered into legislation and although vetoed, marked the beginning of the end for Chinese immigration. The writing was on the wall.
Blaine saw where the future votes were. He needed the western vote to win his White House bid. Blaine called for an end to the Burlingame Treaty, a treaty his Republican party had crafted. Blaine renewed the process to officially ban Chinese immigrants – legislation that made life miserable for the Chinese already in the country legally.
Nast obliterated Blaine for his betrayal of Republican values. With a force reminiscent of his treatment toward Tweed, the German-American artist produced a series of devastating cartoons lampooning Blaine and his hypocrisy. A sampling:
Fully aware of Nast’s role in Tweed’s downfall, Blaine appealed to the artist and his editor, George Curtis, to cease producing the cartoons. Nast’s pen would not be silenced. His cartoons are considered to have played a significant role in Blaine’s unsuccessful presidential bids in 1876, 1880 and 1884. Blaine’s last attempt went as far as earning the Republican nomination. Blaine’s 1884 campaign, two years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, propelled both Nast and Harper’s Weekly General Editor George W. Curtis, to endorse the Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland officially on the pages of the venerated, Republican Harper’s. It was a startling departure for Nast’s and his beloved Party of Lincoln. Although it is widely believed that Nast’s excoriation of Blaine cost the politician the presidency, Nast’s move to the Democratic side, albeit on moral grounds, significantly contributed to the cartoonist’s loss of favor with his Republican base and marked the start of his downward trajectory at Harper’s Weekly. Nast could not remain faithful to his party.
As we all know, Blaine did not become president. Blaine lost his battles, but the war against the Chinese was won. Enacted in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act became the first federal legislation to ban, outright, a population of people, based solely on ethnicity. Those Chinese already in the United States were prevented from many of the rights extended to other immigrants. They could not return to their homeland for visits, as their re-entry would be barred. For the 61 years that the Exclusion Act sat on the books, it effectively and permanently separated Chinese men from their families at home. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, and only as a response to the Chinese – American alliance during World War II.