I couldn’t help but enjoy the feature The Roanoker magazine did on you in 2014: “The U.S. Congress’ Clark Kent Wears the Cape in D.C.” I write a lot about superheroes and so appreciated the allusion. When I met the chair of the Rockbridge Republicans at one of your Open Door meeting earlier this summer, he told me Delegate Ben Cline nicknamed me “Professor Comic Book.” Since I’m a professor and I teach comics, I can’t really complain. I’m even presenting a conference paper about comics for the Modernist Studies Association while I’m here in Amsterdam. Though the topic of an early 20th century Belgian artist’s style seems about as far removed from current U.S. politics as I could get it, I was startled to find how much my paper relates to Donald Trump.
Comics scholar Joseph Witek identifies two major modes in comics: naturalism and cartoons. In the first, figures “remain stable as familiar entities, with any changes in shape and size accounted for by the familiar conventions of visual distance and perspective” because “the world depicted within the panels is presumed to be stable.” In contrast, the cartoon mode “disavows any attempt to render the surface appearance of the physical world and makes a very different claim to a very different kind of truth” because stories “assume a fundamentally unstable and infinitely mutable physical reality, where characters and even objects can move and be transformed according to an associative or emotive logic.”
While we could say past Presidents have aligned roughly with political naturalism, President Trump works in the cartoon mode. His reality is fundamentally mutable and unstable. Where contradictory statements by other politicians can produce damaging and often career-ending appearances of incompetence, deception or hypocrisy, for President Trump they are merely what his ghostwriter called “truthful hyperbole.” As Time magazine’s Michael Scherer put it: “Reality, for the reality-show mogul, is something to be invented episode by episode.”
Thus when a poll or statistic that the President declared false in the past produces something favorable to him now, he redraws reality: “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.” Although the FBI and Special Counsel have stated unequivocally that he is under investigation, the President draws his own picture: “I don’t think we’re under investigation. I’m not under investigation. For what? I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Looking at just a few examples from July alone, the President claimed that he had signed more bills than any other President; that CNN’s ratings were way down; that the GOP won all five special elections; that because of his insistence NATO nations have begun pouring billions of dollars into their defense requirements; that the FBI reports directly to him, that the director of the Boy Scouts called him, and that Lebanon is on the front lines fighting Hezbollah. In fact, several other Presidents signed more bills at this point in their terms; CNN rating were way up; the GOP won four of the five elections; NATO nations agreed to increase spending in 2014; the FBI reports directly to the Attorney General; the director of the Boy Scouts did not call him; and Lebanon is allied with Hezbollah.
Regarding Hezbollah, the Washington Post reported: “It was not clear whether Trump was confused about that, or simply misspoke.” James Comey calls the President’s statements “lies, plain and simple.” The New York Times concludes similarly: “Not every falsehood is deliberate on Trump’s part. But it would be the height of naïveté to imagine he is merely making honest mistakes. He is lying.”
I say he is cartooning. And his sketchbook is our increasingly unstable country.