These are heady times to be a political cartoonist, and Seattle Times political cartoonist David Horsey has been a little like a hockey goaltender during a shootaround while trying to keep up.
We could list all the reasons things have been hectic, but you’re already suffering from news fatigue so we’ll give it a rest. If you want a reminder of just how crazy the last four years have been — and, particularly, 2020 — just pick up Horsey’s new book, “Drawing Apart: Political Cartoons from a Polarized America.”
“In one sense, it’s an endless supply of material,” said the always topical, sometimes controversial cartoonist. “But in another, it’s just like trying to drink from a fire hose.”
“Drawing Apart” collects 150 of the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner’s best cartoons over a time period that coincides with President Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House. It’s no surprise that Trump is a larger-than-life figure in Horsey’s eighth book — how could he not be? But what initially seemed like a blessing now feels a little bit like a curse for the 69-year-old cartoonist, whose work is also syndicated by Tribune Content Agency.
The interview below has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Donald Trump’s tenure changed journalism in a lot of ways. Would you say it affected your job as well?
There is so much, and it has been that way for the last four years. It’s hard to even know where to start. I think the biggest problem is that if you’re talking about Donald Trump, my job is to sort of exaggerate reality and create satire that goes beyond the facts on the ground. But with Trump, he is such an extreme character. And the things that have happened over the last few years have been so weird and unpredictable that a lot of times it’s just felt like being an illustrator, you know? You’d just draw what’s there because you can’t get weirder. You can’t exaggerate beyond the bizarre exaggerations that are coming out every day.
Reading over the book, it reminds you just how much has happened during his presidency. Some things that happened a few months ago feel like ancient history.
I realized last year that I had something about Trump almost every day for several months, and I thought, “That’s warped.” For one thing, I don’t want my brain to be there all the time. Plus, there’s a lot of stuff going on in the world that has nothing to do with him that’s important to take note of. So I tried to cut back. And it helps being with The Times and doing at least some local stuff that had nothing to do with him. Although the strange thing that’s really happened over the recent years is how local politics has become nationalized. A lot of the fights are sort of proxy wars for a bigger ideological or partisan war that is everywhere.
One of the best of the local cartoons features a far-left progressive sniping at a Joe Biden supporter. It really seemed to sum up that feeling.
I do these collections about every four years. And it’s interesting looking back on it and seeing if you can pick out what the themes were. And I realized a lot of it was Trump, but a bigger theme, or the theme that runs through the book, is just how we’re polarizing and coming apart. Hence the name of the book — and that’s including Seattle. It’s a whole different kind of politics. It’s no longer just trying to figure out municipal problems. It’s class warfare. I used to love politics. It’s the best sport in the world and I hope we can kind of inch back toward that.
Another simple but powerful image involved Abraham Lincoln wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. Where did that idea come from?
It just struck me. I think it was sort of in the middle of the debate over, “Well, don’t all lives matter?” And I thought the point was what Lincoln did in his life and in his political career was to say in an extreme time, when Black people were slaves, their lives matter. And that’s really what the sentiment of Black Lives Matter is. It’s not that nobody else matters. He said, “Hey, these people matter, too.” And I thought by tying it to Lincoln, it takes it out of our contemporary politics and puts it in the bigger American context.
There’s a funny cartoon about the Seattle Freeze on Page 112, and then we turn to Page 113 and things get real. That’s where the coronavirus shows up for the first time.
Oh, definitely. That’s a good observation that suddenly life changes for everybody. That’s sort of why I paired those two cartoons together. Page 112 is just talking about the phrase and then suddenly on Page 113 it’s got a whole new meaning and everything in our lives has been changed because of that.
Being a political cartoonist is a vanishing job. You’re one of a very small handful left in the business. I wonder if you’ve thought about retiring or scaling back your work?
It’s funny. I was thinking about that this morning and [on] one level, it’s a strange job for me to have because really, on a personal level, I don’t like conflict and I like everyone to like me. And I’m in a job where I’m always forced to observe all the conflicts we find ourselves in. Plus, I’m making people mad at me every day. So I don’t know, it’s kind of perverse. So I’d be happy to stop making people mad at me, but at least at this point I’m not ready to stop sort of saying what I have to say about the world. And in a way it feels more important to do this. But on the other side, I think it’s less effective. I think political cartoons, their place in journalism and in the world, has shifted. They used to be, I think, a much more vital form of commentary. But now, because of how newspapers have declined, the audience isn’t as big. Plus, there’s so much great political humor out there that didn’t use to be. Practically every late-night talk show host is really a political humorist. So it’s different. I feel like I’m kind of a disappearing breed, so I guess I need to keep it going as long as I think it’s worth doing.
The whole idea of cartooning — especially political cartooning — is based on caricature. But we’re in this moment where racial stereotypes and caricature are under the spotlight. How do you navigate these criticisms?
Something I learned a long time ago is if you’re going to caricature [people of color] or get into racial issues, areas that are really sensitive, is to make it very clear you’re talking about one individual. You’re not talking about a group. So this year, some people were upset because of how I drew a certain member of the city council. And my answer to their criticism was, “she’s a politician.” I drew her the same way I would draw any other politician and nobody gets off, nobody gets special treatment because they may be different in some way. I’ve got to judge every politician the same way and if I need to criticize them, I’ll do it. Part of cartooning is caricature, exaggeration, and that’s always going to make somebody mad. I offend at least half of the readers every day.
How has the currently divided political climate influenced the way you do your job? Have your interactions with readers changed in the last four years?
Well, I think it’s changed even over a longer period as politics have become more polarized and people — at least some people in the debate — have gotten more on edge and more ready to react to any slight, and it’s become much more of a blood sport. I think 20 years ago I’d get a letter to the editor that was sort of mildly angry. Right now, virtually any cartoon I do is jumped on. And because the comments online are mostly anonymous, they get pretty nasty and not very intelligent. … Often the comments section online starts with my cartoon, but very quickly degenerates into the commentators going after each other. Some days my main function is just to keep them going. And it’s definitely a phenomenon both left and right, but probably more pronounced from the right for me, especially because I picked on Donald Trump so much. I’m definitely not popular among Republicans. But in Seattle, of course, you’ve got a different dynamic, where the shrillness is often on the left. And so I get it from them, too. It sort of goes with the territory and in a way, that’s what my book is trying to illustrate, just the divisions and the craziness we’re all living in now.