Critique: Will McPhail’s New Yorker Cartoon




I am of the adolescent opinion that a cartoon can say more than a think piece and can probably say it better.

The New Yorker ran the cartoon you see above on January 2nd, almost two months after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. It was drawn by the artist Will McPhail.

And then there was a subsequent firestorm on social media regarding the cartoon.

There are a few ways to read this cartoon, but based on a recent tweet from McPhail regarding the electoral college, I think we’re safe in assuming the guy in the black shirt is meant to represent Donald Trump:


So the political analogy begins to emerge. Donald Trump the buffoon pronounces himself capable of taking over the pilot’s job even though he is just a ‘regular passenger’ who probably doesn’t know how to fly a plane.

This is a funny critique of Trump himself: the crudity of his campaign message and public persona, his lack of experience in politics, and his open appeal to the ‘regular passengers like us,’ taken together do seem ridiculous, worth lampooning.

But who are these ‘smug’ pilots, and why are so many passengers raising their hands? Could they be the current administration? Progressive media? A conflation of the two?

Are these passengers wrong to consider the pilots smug? If not, are they only incorrect in asserting smugness matters when considering a pilot’s qualifications?

The deeper level of the joke takes hold, given the recent accusations of the Democratic party being smug and also the media class—so they are therefore partially to blame for Trump’s win, so the story goes. (See 1. Emmett Rensin, 2. Anthony Bourdain, 3. Mark Lilla, 4. Nikki Johnson-Huston, 5. Michael Lerner, and 6. Glenn Greenwald to cite just a few examples.)

And whether this charge of smugness in progressive media is an overgeneralization or not, the cartoon is a striking counter-narrative to that claim. The cartoon mocks those who voted for Donald Trump as misguided for registering smugness on the part of the media class/progressives; but it also grants the sole technical competence to the current ‘power structure,’ to borrow a progressive phrase. In other words, it is a breathtakingly smug move on the part of a progressive publication to literally put the status quo in the cockpit and all Trump naysayers in the coach seats, double-downing on its insistence that it alone can fly the plane—especially in a piece that is ostensibly trying to counter to the claim that they are smug in the first place, or that it matters.

This is more than the cartoon wants to say but I think it’s pretty clear this is what it’s saying, intended or not.

It’s a statement about who is in power now and who is about to be in power and why. It’s a statement blind to its own blindness: insufficiently and inaccurately registering the dissent that exists against it, with a moral imagination too small to impute anything but negative qualities to those who support the opposition.

The cartoon itself is not anything too bad or morally egregious. It is normal, especially in election years, to throw rocks at the other side. It’s part of the democratic process.

But I’ve never seen a cartoon that so embodies the thing it’s critiquing, that so shoots up its own asshole.

2 thoughts on “Critique: Will McPhail’s New Yorker Cartoon

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