In the past week, Donald Trump has pivoted, as they say, to try to appeal to African-American voters. He’s convinced he can win them over. Indeed, he claims his policies as president will be so transformative that, "At the end of four years, I guarantee you that I will get over 95 percent of the African-American vote. I promise you."
Some effort in this direction by the Republican nominee, even if performed in a clumsy way and marred by braggadocio, is presumably better than none. Still, it's hard to dispute the judgment of James Hohmann of the Washington Post: "Donald Trump's outreach to the black community is so sudden, so over the top and so ham-handed that it is cartoonish."
And Trump's week of African-American outreach culminated in his charge that "Hillary Clinton is a bigot who sees people of color only as votes, not as human beings worthy of a better future." One does not have to be in any way a fan of Hillary Clinton to say that this personal accusation—that she is a bigot—is, so far as one can tell, untrue. Indeed, it is a characteristically Trumpian way of ruining a legitimate argument. It is certainly reasonable to claim that Democrats have been far more interested in winning African-American votes by demonizing Republicans and conservatives than in pursuing policies (e.g., school choice) that would help African Americans but would antagonize other elements of the Democratic coalition (e.g., teachers' unions). But calling Hillary Clinton a bigot isn't reasonable. And of course it invites this type of response from Hohmann: "This is the same guy who in June paused mid-sentence to point out a black man in the audience before him during a rally in Northern California. 'Oh, look at my African-American over here,' Trump said. 'Look at him.' "
Of course, interpreting the zigs and zags of the Trump campaign as having any lasting significance is like investing great meaning in the changing moods of a 2-year-old. But Hohmann's characterization of this episode is true of Trump's entire campaign: It has been "cartoonish." Needless to say, it's also been successful at winning the nomination of one of the two major parties. Perhaps that's because American politics as a whole has become so cartoonish.
One could say this is no big deal. Hasn't political life always had cartoonish elements? Yes. But surely they've gotten more pronounced in recent decades. The 2012 Obama campaign showcased an actual cartoon—"Life of Julia"—which conservatives justly mocked for its unbelievably simple-minded attempt to appeal to single women by emphasizing their dependence on the welfare state. But for all we know, "Life of Julia" worked. As did the faux-classical-columned backdrop for Obama's speech at the 2008 Democratic convention. As did George H. W. Bush's eating pork rinds in 1988.
And so, in some ways, it has always been: Abraham Lincoln and the log cabin, George Washington and the cherry tree—these tropes were somewhat cartoonish. To paraphrase Winston Churchill (who appreciated the value of cartoons, both literal and metaphorical, in political life), the Muse of Politics must not be fastidious.
Are we doomed to live in a political age of ever-increasing cartoonism? Perhaps not. After all, the original cartoons—Raphael's cartoons for the tapestries intended for the Sistine Chapel, for example—were preparatory sketches for works of fine art. Political cartoons at their best point beyond themselves to fundamental issues and choices.
But when we descend from a politics with cartoonish touches to a politics of cartoonism, we become unmoored. Conservatism in particular suffers, since so many conservative arguments are appeals to reality against wishfulness and oversimplification. That's why those conservatives who have tried to excuse Trump's cartoonism by claiming that it's an understandable response to Obama's have damaged conservatism more than Obama has damaged liberalism. But the deeper damage has been to our political health and to the cause of self-government. We will spend much of the next four years arguing about liberalism and conservatism. But the more important task may be to lift ourselves up from cartoonism.