Smash Pages Q&A: Shannon Wheeler on ‘Sh*t My President Says’

Wheeler discusses his collection of illustrations of U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweets.

Shannon Wheeler has been drawing cartoons that are sardonic, sarcastic, political, angry but also strange and funny with its own unique viewpoint for a long time. Like many people I first got to know his work with Too Much Coffee Man. In the years since then Wheeler has drawn books like God is Disappointed in You, written by Mark Russell, and Oil and Water, written by Steve Duin. He’s also continued to work as a cartoonist contributing to The New Yorker and other publications.

In recent months though he’s been working on a strange project, illustrating Donald Trump’s tweets. The result is a book just out from Top Shelf, Sh*t My President Says. Since the book went to press, though, Wheeler hasn’t stopped. He’s already made a zine supplement and continues to post the comics on – where else – his Twitter feed. We spoke about how he approaches Donald Trump and why the project wasn’t just parody.

Where did this idea of illustrating Donald Trump’s tweets come from?

Charles Brownstein from the CBLDF. I was having coffee with him. I was contracted to do another book with Top Shelf and I was starting to put together my New Yorker cartoons as another I Thought You’d Be Funnier book and I just had no interest in that. I was looking at my own work and I wasn’t excited. I was just bitching about having to do a book. He said, why don’t you illustrate Trump’s tweets? He might have been just to get me to shut up It was just after the inauguration and we were all still in shock. I illustrated three or four tweets and it was exciting, interesting, and funny. It was a puzzle I wanted to solve. Who was our president? Every night I cranked away. A programmer friend downloaded all 30,000 tweets for me and I started If you’re going to do something to excess, might as well go overboard.

You make the point in the introduction that this isn’t just parody, you wanted to understand him and his perspective that clearly resonates with many people. So who is Donald J. Trump?

Let me put the caveat that I have no authority and no degrees in psychology.

Nobody thinks of themselves as the villain. A lot of what he said I took at face value initially. He uses common sense – to a fault. Take global warming. It’s nice out, so we don’t have global warming. That’s “common sense.” A lot of common sense is wrong. He trusts himself and he trusts his own perceptions. A lot of it is, you and me, dear reader, against this crazy world. These crazy liberals here to exploit us.

You make the point in the introduction that he encourages people to be themselves, but not in an aspirational way.

There is an Ayn Randian idea of selfishness. Trump subscribes to itHe’s says, believe in yourself, do what your impulses are. He’s a creature of id. Some say money corrupts. I don’t think that is exactly right. Money erodes superego. Superego tells us to follow rules,and be good to other people – the guilt part of our brain that reins us in. When you have money you tend to lose that inhibition. Some people remain good even lacking superego. Some people – this is a judgement call on my part – are not good. They’re selfish in a way that does harm to other people or they just don’t care about other people. A lot of what he does, he just doesn’t care one way or the other.

This is the criticism that has always been leveled at him, that he is amoral. He just doesn’t see the world in moral terms.

I would say that that is an eroded superego. He sees that there is no difference between lying and telling the truth.

For him it’s about whether the statement or the news is helpful or unhelpful, not whether it’s true or false. But I remember reading your statement and thinking that Trump’s whole career has been about indulgence over aspiration.

That is a great phrase.

Very few politicians are hated in their own neighborhood and hometown as he is. People in Ohio who went to a rally once love him while his neighbors and people in New York City who have dealt with him for decades hate him. That’s not usually how politics works.

True. It was an interesting book to draw People say that his tweets where he’s being critical of Obama or Clinton are foreshadowing the future, but the early tweets were him expressing a jealousy. “Why does Obama get to go play golf and I don’t?” “Why does Hillary get to take all this money from taxpayers and I don’t?” It’s a rich kid’s jealousy.

Someone said that Trump plays a poor person’s idea of what a rich person would be like. But that’s an interesting idea, that these people fly around the world and play golf and people love them – and he wants to be loved like that.

He has a major vendetta against Bette Midler. I could not figure that out. Why Bette Midler? I went to New York and I saw that she’s doing a big musical and so there were posters of her all over. People really like her. This is why he hates her. He drives around and sees posters about how great Bette Midler is. So he’s got to attack her.

It’s not conspiratorial, but what is the lowest common denominator to explain this tweet?

What do you think the value of using tweets as the source is as opposed to public statements or interviews? What is it about twitter?

It’s a new medium and it’s a funny medium. There’s a natural limitation of characters so there’s brevity. It suits cartoons because there’s a brevity to cartoons. It’s an artificial constraint. Trump is new, twitter is new, it fit.

This is a thin slice of a big pie. By taking a piece it becomes representational of the whole pie. It worked better than I thought.

Every now and again I took a quote like Eric and Donald Trump talking about we don’t need money because we have as much as we want from Russia and then underneath it’s Trump tweeting about how he doesn’t have anything to do with Russia. Mostly it’s pure tweets.

The promotional materials for the book read, “FDR had radio, JFK had TV, Trump has twitter.” Which is both terrifying and very funny.

It doesn’t bother me. He will wake up at four in the morning and tweet something unfiltered. Hillary is super-guarded and there’s a lot of reasons why. She’s been attacked for twenty-thirty years so her walls are up and with Trump, there are no walls. We see him naked – often. There’s good and bad to that. We see his desires and his rages and his infantile expressions. It would be nice if he were a better person exposing himself. Or exposing himself and then being apologetic; “yes, I’ve expressed greed, avarice, jealousy, and just about every sin in the Bible, but I’m working to be a better person. Trump says; “here are my sins, and it’s great. I’m the President. I’ve not been punished. I’ve been rewarded. I’m great.” He’s almost completely vindicated on his bad behavior.

So you read through more than 30,000 tweets in a relatively short period of time. Are you at the point of, okay, this is how I’m going to filter and think about his Presidency or are you like, I need to get the away from all this?

I had a week, after we sent the book to press, where I shut down. But more tweets came out. I drew a zine supplement to the book. Maybe when he’s in prison I’ll tire of it. I’ve had bad dreams from it. It’s affected me.It’s a good way to process. I see something, I get outraged, and I draw something silly.

I’ve been talking with other political cartoons about how to approach Trump and what he means and you seem to take him very seriously, you take him at his word, and you treat him as very silly.

It’s the same thing I did in high school with my teachers. I think it’s my fallback.

We should take him seriously. Some things he expresses are things, if I’m honest, I feel too. Hillary is guarded. It bothers me that our politicians are liars. Trump is a liar as well but he has the confidence of honesty. He’s provides emotional honesty. Of course he has intellectual dishonesty. His emotional honesty is what appealed to people. They overlooked the intellectual dishonesty. Honesty in politicians is something I desire. Other people want it too. This is part of what propelled him up the ladder. If I take him at face value when he says, I’m going to drain the swamp, on some level, I’m all for that. I don’t think he had any intention of draining the swamp – or his way of doing it is not a way that I condone. At the same time I think there are some deep problems in our country and it would be nice if somebody went in and fixed them.

We do have this story of the outsider who comes to Washington, DC and can cut through the mess with common sense and he tapped into that.

We do have that myth. He played the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington role.

Spy Magazine, in the 80’s, suggested he should run for President. That idea was picked up in The Simpsons. There was foreshadowing. We’ve had people like Ross Perot. Trump was hanging out with a lot of politicians. He was cozy with the Clintons. We was seeing this stuff first hand and up close. He probably thought, “that doesn’t look so hard. I could do that.”

I know that you and R. Sikoryak had a panel together at San Diego Comic-Con and your book and his book, which uses Trump’s public statements, really seem to be in conversation.

It was great. I like him as a guy and I like what he does as an artist. For me it’s that right combination of being completely pretentious and being very unpretentious. It hits the right note.

Somebody emailed to tell me Sikoryak was doing a project similar to mine. I checked in with Sikoryak to make sure I wasn’t stepping on his toes. I wasn’t. We tossed ideas around about cross promotion at San Diego. Our ideas meshed better than I thought possible and our panel rocked.

On the panel, Sikoryak covered Presidential appearances in comic books: the 1960s had Kennedy and Nixon, Reagan appeared as a robot, and more. I went back to Roman graffiti saying this was early political commentary and going through Hearst buying of Puck Magazine to put it out of business because they made fun of him. The Yellow Kid being a reflection of yellow journalism. news shrunk in order to accommodate larger cartoons. And so headlines became sensationalist – which in a lot of ways was an early form of clickbait. There’s a through line from Mad Magazine to National Lampoon and Spy Magazine. I traced that thread through history to Trump. Our talks and our books just complimented each other. It was funny and it was great being on a panel with him.

So what are you up to now? You’re still making gag cartoons for The New Yorker and elsewhere?

Yes. And I’m still illustrating Trump’s tweets. I’m posting those on twitter

I’m starting to work on a history of California wealth. Poor hippies moving out here in the sixties and the indulgence of the seventies and into the eighties when money started coming in and the different people that are now living in California, the Bay Area in particular. Using that to talk about some of my personal experiences in Berkeley. At one point Huey Newton was my landlord. My mom took me to see Jim Jones when I was a kid.

That’s interesting. I’m fascinated by this postwar period where so many things and people that we now think of as fringe or extreme were not. Like Charles Manson was hanging out with well known people in LA and in the music scene and then just snaps.

If only they had given Charles Manson a record contract! Indulge some crazy people with art and we’ll all be much better off. Buy some of those watercolors by Hitler and we’ll all be happier. Let people be artists. I always encourage people to be artists because otherwise they might become mass murderers. If only Trump had some kind of artistic hobby. Make some crappy autobio comics. I’ll buy that for two bucks.

If only Trump made bad watercolor art that his dad bought for the corporate offices and their various buildings. We’d all be better off.

Much better! This is very much a judgment call. The jury is out on how he’ll do as a president. The writing’s on the wall, though, and I want to be one of the people writing on that wall.

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