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30 Years of “Doonesbury” on Donald Trump: Cartoonist Garry Trudeau on the GOP’s “Natural Born Toon”

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Cartoonist Garry Trudeau has been writing about Trump and a possible run for the presidency for nearly 30 years, prompting Trump to call him “a third-rate talent,” “a sleazeball,” “a jerk” and “a total loser.” Trudeau is the creator of the popular comic strip “Doonesbury” and the first cartoonist to win the Pulitzer Prize. In September 1987, Trudeau published a series of comic strips that now seem prophetic. In one strip, reporters ask Trump a series of questions about his political ambitions to run for Congress, and Trump responds, “President, think president.” Trump has remained a frequent character in “Doonesbury” ever since, giving Trudeau a chance to make fun of everything from Trump’s hair to his ego to his rampant use of insults. His cartoons have just been collected in a new book titled “Yuge!: 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a man who’s been described by Donald Trump as “overrated,” “a sleazeball,” “a jerk” and “a total loser.” He’s a man who’s been writing about Donald Trump and a possible run for the presidency for nearly 30 years. We’re talking about the cartoonist Garry Trudeau, creator of the popular comic strip Doonesbury. He’s the first cartoonist to win the Pulitzer Prize.

In September 1987, Trudeau published a series of comic strips that now seem prophetic. In one strip, reporters are asking Trump a series of questions: “Mr. Trump, your denials notwithstanding, don’t the ads you took out suggest a testing of the political waters?” Trump responds, “As I have said before, I was simply acting as a concerned citizen! At this time, I have no, repeat no, political ambitions whatsoever!” A reporter then asks, “Okay, but if you did run for Congress…” Trump then responds, “President, think president.”

Another strip from 1987 features Trump being asked, “Mr. Trump, as a developer of luxury condos and casinos, do you think you’d have any rapport at all with voters of modest means?” Trump responds, “Are you kidding? I’ve spent my whole life working with people of modest means!” “In what capacity?” he’s asked. Trump says, quote, “Evicting them! I’ve seen how these people live!”

Trump has remained a frequent character in Doonesbury ever since, giving Trudeau a chance to make fun of everything from Trump’s hair to his ego to his rampant use of insults. These cartoons have just been collected in a new book; it’s titled Yuge!: 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump.

Garry Trudeau joins us in studio now.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

GARRY TRUDEAU: Well, thank you. It’s such a pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. So, are you surprised at everything that has unfolded in this past year?

GARRY TRUDEAU: Yes. I’m no smarter than anyone else in terms of understanding where this was all going to go. My assumption, after 2012, when he was attacking the president and he got his first taste of double-digit poll numbers, that he would make a run this time around. But I thought it would be just as part of the—his normal brand enhancement and that once he’d gotten the maximum promotional value out of a run, that he would step out. Who knew he would catch on like this? Certainly not me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about when you first started covering him in Doonesbury. And for people who don’t know Doonesbury, why don’t you start off by explaining this comic strip.


AMY GOODMAN: I don’t know if there’s anyone who doesn’t know, but go ahead.

GARRY TRUDEAU: It’s a comic strip that began life, when I was in college, as a one-off. It was a sports strip that was about a particularly outstanding football player on my college campus. And it caught the eye of a syndicate chief, who wrote me in my junior year and said, “How would you like to do this for a living?” So, that’s the—I didn’t have a particularly long period of paying dues. I jumped in right after graduation, and I’ve been writing this daily comic strip, which was about collegiate life, but which became about the broader world and all the many issues I’m interested in.

AMY GOODMAN: How often did your comic strip get banned or dumped for a week, if they didn’t like what you were doing?

GARRY TRUDEAU: Oh, it’s impossible to say how often, but in the early years, it was every other week or so some newspapers would decide to remove it from the pages. And I’ve never regarded it as censorship; it’s simply editing. Editors decide every day about dozens of things that don’t make it into their papers. So, I never took it seriously. The problem was that it would generate local news. Their reporter would call me. And it became a very sort of self-conscious thing for me to write, because I had to be prepared to defend it, after it was published, to multiple clients. So, I just sort of stepped back from that. And I wasn’t on shows like yours for many, many years, just so I could focus on the work. But now it’s all hands on deck, right? I’m delighted to be here to talk about the work.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, so you’re—you’ve been following Donald Trump for decades.


AMY GOODMAN: Tell us when he first became a character in Doonesbury.

GARRY TRUDEAU: He became a character in response, a kind of prophylactic response, to his series of ads that he took out in The Boston Globe and The Washington Post and The New York Times, in which we learned for the first time that the rest of the world was laughing at us. And there were a few trial balloons that went up along with that from other—others of his friends, and I thought, “Wow! I have to respond to that, because we’ve been living in this city with this guy for 10 years. His grandiosity is just over the top, and this is laughable.” And so I just put him in the strip.

And it was an early transfer—easy transfer. He wasn’t a parody exactly; he was really more like a natural born toon. I just took him out of the box, removed the tags and put him right into the strip. And I think he’s—you know, he’s like a version of Daffy Duck, I mean, in terms of his appearance, the silly way in which he talks, the over-the-top self-regard. All these things just made him a perfect cartoon character. And so, I just had him interact with the other characters as a peer, and they interact with him as just a, you know, comic strip colleague. And I didn’t have to make any adjustments. I would take the things he said and reframe them in a way, you know, to maximize the satiric purpose of it, but I didn’t have to do much in terms of exaggerating, the way you normally do in a parody.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to 1999. You have a cartoon with Donald Trump saying, quote, “A lot of people have been asking what this election is really about. Well, it’s not about the economy, stupid! And it’s not character, stupid! And it’s not authenticity, stupid! It’s not even about the issues, stupid! You want to know what this election is about?” Someone then says, “You, stupid?” Trump replies, “Exactly! People are begging me to run! Begging me!”

GARRY TRUDEAU: Oh, they’re always begging him, and there are always hundreds of calls. And what’s astonishing is these things are obviously made up. But what’s most astonishing about his lack of truth is that he wheels it out for the most banal and trivial of reasons. I was talking to a crew member on CNN who said he was in his office setting up a camera—this was a while back—and he overheard Trump talking to his daughter in the outer office. And he said, “Well, there are five cameras in my office.” And he said, “Five? There was one. I was setting up one camera.” Why lie to your daughter about how many cameras in your—I mean, the most, you know, insignificant things get lied about, and right up to last night, when he was imagining a video he never saw.

AMY GOODMAN: Imagining?

GARRY TRUDEAU: Fabricating, whatever. I mean—

AMY GOODMAN: Talked about a secret video he had seen.

GARRY TRUDEAU: Oh, secret. I missed that detail.

AMY GOODMAN: Although, today, now tweeting out, in maybe one of his first tweet corrections, oh, it wasn’t a [video] of $400 million being brought in to the Iranian government—

GARRY TRUDEAU: Which he described vividly.

AMY GOODMAN: And said the Iranian government did this to embarrass the U.S., released this video.

GARRY TRUDEAU: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Right? And this morning, tweeted, no, he was watching on TV the video of the hostages being released in Geneva.


AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to 2011. This comic strip begins with Donald Trump saying, “Novelty candidate? What’re you talking about? Have you seen my polls? They’re extraordinary! I’m polling 41% against Obama! 41%! And I’m not even running yet!” This was 2011.

GARRY TRUDEAU: Yeah, I think that’s what really—you know, that was when, I think, he thought it was possible. He had a brief interest in running for governor, but then that just didn’t seem grand enough, so he started making his early moves towards the presidency last year.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, and then we’re going to come back with Garry Trudeau. He is the Pulitzer Prize cartoonist, creator of the comic strip Doonesbury, which appears daily in over 1,400 newspapers. In 1975, Garry Trudeau became the first comic strip artist ever to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. He’s been described as the most influential editorial cartoonist in, oh, over a quarter of a century. His new book is called Yuge!: 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “It’s the Right Time to Be Rich,” from the 1983 Broadway production of Doonesbury. And, yes, our guest today is Garry Trudeau, the Pulitzer Prize-winning comic, the creator of the comic strip Doonesbury, which appears in well over a thousand newspapers. Can you talk about that, the music we just heard and the Broadway musical?

GARRY TRUDEAU: The music we just heard was from a Broadway musical called Doonesbury, and that was a song that was sung by the reporter Roland Burton Hedley Jr. in the second act. And I haven’t heard it in years. Obviously, it’s always a good time to be rich, but I’m glad you dug that one out.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to go back in your history, Garry. Since you don’t come out and talk to the world very much, except through your comic strip, Doonesbury, your grandfather ran a tuberculosis sanatorium upstate?

GARRY TRUDEAU: My great-grandfather. And he opened the first sanatorium in North America for the treatment of tuberculosis. And that has been the tradition in my family for three generations.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s so interesting, because my grandmother went to a tuberculosis sanatorium. When she was like 50, she got TB and meningitis, and she went to one of these places. And I wonder if it was—if it was his. They didn’t know if she’d last the year, and she lived ’til she was 108.

GARRY TRUDEAU: It was helpful for some people. I mean, there weren’t any antibiotics in those days, and that’s what eventually shut down the sanatoriums. But what his insight was remains important. It was about a holistic approach to health. And he was very, very committed to creating the conditions by which the body and the immune system can optimize its own recovery processes. So there was fresh air, there was, you know, good hygiene, healthy food, occupational therapy—all these things that were a little ahead of their time and have been important in treating all kinds of disease.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did that influence you?

GARRY TRUDEAU: Well, I grew up kind of in awe of my own heritage, as did my father and his father, because Edward Trudeau, my great-grandfather, was a great man in his day. Tuberculosis was the number one killer. And he was well known around the world. So, yeah, you grew up in a shadow in my little town, a very big shadow. And I never felt any pressure to go into medicine. And once I had left and went to college, and it was offered, an alternative employment that I really loved, I never looked back.

AMY GOODMAN: And your family was involved with politics in New York?

GARRY TRUDEAU: No. My mother was a volunteer for Eisenhower.

AMY GOODMAN: Back further? Yeah?

GARRY TRUDEAU: Yeah, I grew up in a moderate Republican household, a Rockefeller Republican household. And my best friend, who lived next door, his father was the publisher of the local paper and was a Democrat, and eventually became an ambassador. And we rather regarded politics as one might regard the difference between the Dodgers and the Yankees, being New Yorkers. It was a friendly rivalry; it wasn’t something that drove families apart and tore communities apart.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, their feelings about you becoming a comic strip—

GARRY TRUDEAU: Whose feel—whose—

AMY GOODMAN: Your family’s feelings about you?

GARRY TRUDEAU: They’re fine with it. I think, you know, my father worried for some years that there wouldn’t be a living in it, and he just waited for me to pivot into a career that seemed more stable to him. I did go to graduate school in graphic design, and I did set up a graphic studio, where I was doing that work in addition to the strip. But eventually I had to pick between the two.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a quote of yours a few years ago. You said, “Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. … Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean. By punching downward, by attacking the powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech.” You were talking about Charlie Hebdo


AMY GOODMAN: —the magazine in Paris.


AMY GOODMAN: And the—this, after the attack that took place that killed a number of the cartoonists. Explain what you were saying.

GARRY TRUDEAU: I did. And that was very controversial at the time, to my great surprise. It didn’t seem like I was saying anything particularly controversial. But feelings were still raw. This was only a few months after the killings. And although I had honored the cartoonists in the strip, by name, and including their drawings in a Sunday section, I nonetheless disagreed with what—you know, what they were trying to do with their art. I just simply wouldn’t have done it. Life is full of editing decisions. You can’t go through a day without making a dozen decisions not to do something. Editors do that with newspapers. We do it in relationships. It’s just something I wouldn’t do, and most cartoonists in this country wouldn’t do. You don’t do it just because you can. We all understand that you can. That’s—we all get the First Amendment. But each person has to decide for themselves when you cross a line.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go back to Yuge!: 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump. And talk about why the title Yuge!

GARRY TRUDEAU: Well, hopefully, that’s self-explanatory. The practical reason for it was that there’s only four letters, so you can make them very big on a cover. And that seemed to be not just a metaphor, but also helpful in terms of people spotting it in a bookstore.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to go to one of the cartoon strips where you have your character on the radio. “He’s in! He’s out! He’s keeping his options open! He may be hard to pin down, but one thing remains the same—a deep, pathological need for attention! As far back as 1987, he’s pretended to run for president, freshening his tacky brand with free media, but always wimping out before the first primary! So here he is, the man with the piggy eyes, contemptuous scowl, and hair like orange cotton candy! Welcome, sir!” “You didn’t say my name, you freakin’ pinhead!” “Sorry, sir, I’m blanking on it. How embarrassing!” “It’s…” “Ooh, we’re out of time! Our thanks to the caller!”

GARRY TRUDEAU: It’s almost like I was baiting him, right? Yeah, I mean, it was a pretty obvious cartoon to kind of wander into, just in terms of he was right on the precipice, and I was just as uncertain as anyone else that he would actually go for it.

AMY GOODMAN: And now I want to go to the cartoon that you’re going to read. This is April 17th, 2016. You show Trump talking to a group of middle-schoolers, saying, “Hey, kids! Tired of getting killed on insults in the cafeteria? Then start fighting back with my quality Trump brand insults! Choose from over 500 tremendous insults I’ve tweeted out since last June, including…” Could you read what happens next in the cartoon?

GARRY TRUDEAU: Well, it’s just a sampling, a carefully curated sampling of these copyrighted insults. And I’m loathe to read them, simply because I’m sure they would—it would invite a suit. But let’s get right into it: “Lightweight!” “Embarrassment!” “Choker!” “Disaster!” “Phony!” “Hypocrite!” “Dope!” “Fraud!” “Arrogant!” “Loser!” “Grubby!” “Wacko!” “Third-rate!” “Clown!” “Dumb!” “Clueless!” “Nasty!” “Failed!” “Terrible!” “Ridiculous!” “Deceptive!” “Weak!” “Sad!” “Crazy!” “Totally corrupt!” “Dumb as a rock!” “Reckless!” “Totally flawed!” “Not nice!” “Nervous wreck!” “Zero talent!” “Sloppy!” “A real nut job!” “Blowhard!” “Overrated!” “Truly weird!” “A joke!” “Unattractive!” “Disgusting!” “Irrelevant!” “Spoiled brat!” “Low-class slob!” “Goofball atheist!” “Hater and racist!” “Failing!” “Fool!” “Worthless!” “Garbage!” “Pure scum!” “Crude!” “Biased!” “Kooky!” “Awkward!” “Dishonest!” “Hopeless!” “Dummy!” “Liar!” “Disgrace!” “Basket case!” “Disloyal!” and “Really pathetic!” And then he says, “Stop being a total loser, huge loser—Use Trump brand insults and start winning today!”

AMY GOODMAN: So, your thoughts today, 30 years—

GARRY TRUDEAU: Well, there are far more. This was just a sampling. But 30 years later? You know, I don’t want to think beyond November. I hope I have no reason to think beyond November. I look forward to passing him on Fifth Avenue on his way to work on November 9th, and without incident and with him getting on with his life and the rest of the country getting on with its.

AMY GOODMAN: How much have you interacted with him? He’s got a lot of names for you.

GARRY TRUDEAU: No, I’ve observed him in the wild numerous occasions, most recently at the New Hampshire debates. He came out into the press area, and I could not take my eyes off the back of his head. It is something that photography just can’t quite capture. It’s like a panel of gossamer that has been lacquered onto the back of his head with a kind of golden slurry. And I wanted to find the words or the imagery to share that with my readers, but really drawing Trump is a journey. It’s not a destination. You just have to keep after it.

AMY GOODMAN: Has he ever threatened to sue you.


AMY GOODMAN: Well, Garry Trudeau, I want to thank you for being with us. Garry Trudeau, creator of the comic strip Doonesbury, which appears daily in over, oh, 1,400 newspapers. In ’75, Garry Trudeau became the first comic strip artist ever to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning, one of the most influential editorial cartoonists in decades. His new book is called Yuge!: 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump.

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