Too Much Crazy: Tom Tomorrow on Right-Wing Madness in the Age of Obama

Since its 1990 debut in the SF Weekly, This Modern World has been a staple of political cartoons in American alt-weeklies. And since that time, the world Tom Tomorrow created has been a refuge of both hilarity and sanity in our increasingly “post-factual” public discourse.

Tomorrow, with his cut-out 1950s visual style and wooden, brain-dead conservative zombies mouthing facile talking-points, deftly skewers the corporate media, with frequent guest appearances by Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. It’s a world in which sane commentary is provided by “Sparky,” a cynical penguin in sunglasses, and a dog named “Blinky.” 

Tomorrow has a new book compiling some of his best strips from the first years of the Obama era, and the utter derangement that his presidency has engendered on the right. AlterNet caught up with Tomorrow to discuss the book, American politics and the state of political cartoons in the age of the “new media.”

Joshua Holland: Tom, tell me about your new book. 

Tom Tomorrow:  It's a compilation of work from the past couple of years. It has a rather long foreword I wrote, kind of a defiant elegy for the profession, for my own profession. And it has a nice little introduction from Michael Moore. 

You're the first visual artist whom I've interviewed and I don’t want to ask a lot of stupid questions about the process but I feel like I have to ask a few of them. So what is your process, Tom? How do you decide what to include in your cartoons? How do you approach your job? 

TT: I approach it initially as a writer. The first thing that I do is figure out what I want to write about and what I want to say about it.  That's almost always the starting point.  The images are tailored to fit the words.   

And the book, which is fabulous, it really looks at 2008 and 2009. Your title is Too Much Crazy – do you believe that the right in this country is becoming more unhinged? 

TT: Well, yes, I do. I’ve been watching these things for a long time. And you’ve always had the kooky right – the Moral Majority, or whatever it may be. But there’s more amplification than there used to be, through talk radio and Fox News and the Internet, especially the Internet. It's really enabled the fringe characters to build up communities of like-minded crazy people. And so you get birtherism and all of these things. 

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I can’t imagine that Glenn Beck would have had a television program ten years ago. [Editor's note: this interview was conducted before the cancellation of Beck's show was announced.]  Hannity and Limbaugh seem almost sane by comparison now. It’s been very much a process of de-evolution. D-E – de-evolution, you know, as in We are Devo? (Laughter) 

Right. The thing that strikes me though, you know, I remember the militia movement in the 90s. I remember the Clinton body count. I mean … 

TT:   That’s true. 

 … this kind of strain of crazy … 

TT: Yeah. I don’t deny that there always has been a lot of craziness. But doesn’t it seem more amplified now?  The militia people were fringe and were widely understood to be fringe.  I could be wrong. Maybe it’s just as crazy as it’s ever been. It just seems a lot louder now. 

I guess the amplification is the crucial point because those really fringe ideas during the 90s were by and large circulated via e-mails forwarded by your grandmother. And now you see them again on Glenn Beck’s show. You see things of a similar vein. 

TT:  One of Glenn Beck’s big influences was a writer named Cleon Skousen, who was a former FBI agent who J. Edgar Hoover eventually turned away from, because he (Hoover) thought Skousen was too crazy. So basically, one of Glenn Beck’s biggest influences is a man who was considered too crazy and too radical by J. Edgar Hoover. 

And what about Obama? My sense is that you have the same kind of almost cynical response to his first couple of years as I do where you’re not shocked. You don’t seem shocked and betrayed by the fact that he hasn’t … 

TT:   No, and I think that’s a very good question. When I do criticize Obama in the cartoon, I get a lot of very negative feedback from his supporters who just don’t want to hear it even though we could run down the litany of disappointments. I’m much happier to have him in office than John McCain and Sarah Palin. Absolutely no question about that. But there have been so many things he’s done that I wish he had been more progressive on. I wish he'd been more of a fighter. I wish he hadn't embraced quite so many of Bush's policies. 

But I wasn’t expecting – I do think that too many people were kind of swept up in the idea of Obama. I’m just not big on the cult of personality. I don’t really think that you should invest that much emotion in a politician. I think it’s fine to support the guy you like somewhat better than the other -- the person, I should say, who you are somewhat more aligned with. But then you don’t stop. It doesn’t stop after you cast that vote one time every four years. You push and you prod and you call bullshit on them when they deserve it. 

The defense that I got from Obama supporters up to about, oh, I would say three months ago was, “Well, he hasn’t been in office very long. You have to give him time.” And I’m thinking, 'Look at everything George Bush did in his first three months, his first six months. He just rammed stuff through.' There’s no guarantee that Obama’s getting re-elected. And he’s already wasted two years in which he had a solidly Democratic Congress. 

I don’t believe in giving the president time. I think the president, the second he walks into the Oval Office, the countdown clock starts ticking. He needs to be taking advantage of every minute. 

Let's look forward for a second. These tea party types sweep into power on a wave of incoherent rage, and now they're passing these "birther bills," they're taking over local governments in Michigan and trying to roll back child labor laws in Maine -- all this craziness.  The conventional wisdom says that Americans have a tendency to reject the extremes. What's your view of where we're heading -- do you think their overreach will cause a backlash against the right, or might we be headed into a dark new chapter in our history?

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TT: I tend to avoid prognostication, but if there's one thing I have learned over the years, it is never to underestimate the American public's eagerness to embrace truly terrible ideas.   Especially in an era when someone like James O'Keefe can drive public discourse -- right into the ditch.  A year from now we'll all be obsessing over something we can't even imagine right now, something that seems like it's right out of one of my cartoons.  That much, I'm pretty sure about. 

Now, on the other side of the divide, what’s your take on some of Obama's more outspoken critics from the left? Are they always, in your view, making fair criticisms? Or … 

TT:  I think that for the most part, the criticisms I read are very clear eyed and honest. I know that that there’s a lot of controversy, for instance, over the public option. I mean what we have now is this health care bill that mandates the purchase of private insurance.  And the reason we have this health care bill is that Obama compromised with people who are now using those compromises in order to try kill the health care bill. You know, these lawsuits about whether that mandate is constitutional or not. You want to know what’s constitutional? The fucking public option. Or better yet, a single-payer system. We know that’s constitutional. 

And the thing that I do find really enraging – Obama, as was openly acknowledged in The New York Times before the debate even began, had already traded away the public option to the hospital lobby as a sort of backroom deal to guarantee their support for the bill. 

There’s just no defending that. This thing that he led people to believe was a possibility, that many people involved in the debate pretended was still on the table, was actually off the table months and months before the debate even began. And I think that’s an important thing to understand about your president, whether you voted for him or not. I really do. And especially for someone like myself, who has been agitating for a single-payer system for probably 20 years now, honestly, I just found that appalling. 

You know, on top of that, all of the delays in various benefits from the legislation kicking in until 2014, that was all designed to keep the upfront costs in check. So it’s really true that the Conservatives, especially within the Democratic coalition, made the unpopular points in the bill. 

TT: Yeah. Right.  

I mean they created the friction, the points of friction and contention. There’s a lot in there that obviously polls well and is popular. 

TT: The more moderate, middle-of-the-road Democrats will tell you that there was no way the bill would have been passed without these compromises. And you know what? We’ll never know because they didn’t even try. 

I use humor quite a bit when I write on the blog. But sometimes I wake up in the morning and I read the news and I just can’t. Do you face kind that sense that it’s not funny anymore? This is just not funny. Do you ever have that kind of sense of burnout? 

TT: Oh, yeah. 

How do you work through that? 

TT: Well, I think the deadline is a great motivator. (Laughter)  It really focuses the mind. I  have to put out the work because it’s this thing that I’ve agreed to do. It's my job, it's what these newspapers and websites are paying me to do. So I find it in myself. And I’ve been doing it for a long time. 

But yeah. Hopefully, it doesn’t trickle out into the cartoon too much, but there are definitely mornings where I just feel – I mean, my job requires me to spend a lot of time in the sewer, metaphorically speaking.  Reading and thinking about hateful and terrible things.  And this art form doesn’t really allow me to rise above that. If you’re a songwriter, or a painter or whatever, you don’t have to be quite as constantly immersed in the sewer as a political cartoonist. But it’s what I do. And I just keep plugging away at it. I don’t know how else to put it. 

Let me go back to a little bit of inside baseball about cartoons and publishing. With the decline of newspapers, what is the future of your field? Are we going to see Tom Tomorrows come along in the future and be able to make a living? 

TT:  I’m not entirely sure, to tell you the truth.  As I say in the introduction to the new book, I get a lot of advice about how to make a living online, mostly from people who don’t. There are people who are apparently making a good go of it online, but they seem to be relatively few and they seem to be mostly doing comics about gaming and online culture. It’s a different thing. None of my peers, none of the other alt-weekly political cartoonists – we’re not ever going to make a living selling T-shirts. It just doesn’t work that way.  And you don't make significant money from books.  I have never lived off the books alone. So if I don’t continue to publish books, that’s more of a loss just because I really like publishing books.   

And we have to piss people off for a living. Making people angry, pushing people past their comfort zone, that's our job. So direct audience support is a questionable model for us.   

For me personally, the past few years have been very up and down. The Village Voice Media chain cut cartoons from all their papers except the Voice itself.  Losing all those papers -- I spent a decade building up and establishing this syndication. Having this cartoon run in newspapers literally in every major American city.  And then they called me up, told me they were cutting cartoons so they didn't have to eliminate somebody's job.  And, you know, your heart goes out to that person. 

But the alt-weeklies are still the primary steward of this thing that I do and some of my friends do. There’s not very many of us. And there’s fewer, it seems, every month. I know we’re all moving online and yada, yada, yada. But honestly, what we do grew up around the alt-weeklies,  grew up for the alt-weeklies.  And if the alt-weeklies don’t honor that stewardship, I'm not sure the art form survives. And I think that would be a shame. I mean, nobody’s committing hari kari -- I'm sure everyone will go off and do other creative things. But I do think something will be lost. And I just wish there was more recognition of that.

After many years at Salon, you recently made a move to DailyKos. How's that working out?

TT: So far so good.  Salon is a fantastic site and I've run there a very long time, so it was a tough decision, which cost me more than a few sleepless nights.  But for whatever reason Salon was moving away from comics, while Markos was very enthusiastic about the idea of a new comics section, with my strip as the anchor.   If I took a leap of faith, I could help create an entirely new space online for political cartoons.   I complain a lot about the state of cartooning these days, and this was my chance to actually do something about it.  

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