Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Ben Garrison: Sketched and Labeled

Like the country, the controversial cartoonist has been through the ringer, but he’s finally found his groove.

When the Pulitzer Prize Board announced in June that no one would receive its annual award for excellence in editorial cartooning, many political artists were outraged.

The decision seemingly made no sense, especially since so many cartoonists thought they produced great work throughout a hectic year. The finalists themselves felt insulted. Ruben Bolling, one of the three people recommended to the board, called the snub “frustrating, baffling, and wrongheaded.” Many of his colleagues agreed. The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, of which Bolling and another finalist, Lalo Alcaraz, are members, decried the whole institution of the Pulitzers as “narrow-minded” and blinded by “hubris.”

But elsewhere, there were whispers—well, sniggers, really—that the board hadn’t goofed. It had just robbed the wrong guy. The real reason it didn’t choose a winner, these sniggerers smirked, was not that no one deserved the prize, but that the board couldn’t bear to recognize the one man who did. And to the honest observer, he was the only serious contender. Did anyone else, in a year marked by medical and political hysteria, produce more Pulitzer-worthy work than Ben Garrison?

The Pulitzer Prize Board won’t say, of course. And Garrison, who recently turned 64, laughed when I posed the question. Even if the board were to approach him, he would refuse the honor. A Pulitzer is a career-ender in his world.

“It would be the acme of embarrassment,” Garrison said.

After all, Garrison’s success depends on his notoriety, which the self-styled “rogue cartoonist” has maintained since he began drawing during Barack Obama’s presidency. And when Donald Trump burst into the political arena, Garrison reinvented himself as one of the foremost fire-breathing America First cheerleaders. In the past year, as fallout from the pandemic and the 2020 presidential election consumed the political right, Garrison has ascended to new heights. Now he is the pissed-off oracle through which the MAGA movement’s fear and rage translates into gut-punch images.

No one, least of all Garrison, would have predicted any of this a decade ago. At that time, he had recently moved from Seattle to Montana and was working as a freelance commercial artist, specializing in infographics. He was a libertarian, broadly speaking, but politics weren’t a huge part of his life. Years before, he had tried editorial cartooning while working on a local Texas newspaper, but his friends discouraged his efforts. “You’re not funny,” the paper’s art director told him. “You’re a nice guy,” a staff cartoonist added. “You’ve got to be mean to be a cartoonist.”

But in the wake of the Great Recession, Garrison discovered that he didn’t need to be very funny or even necessarily mean to succeed. He just needed to be angry. That wasn’t hard. The Bush bailouts, followed by the Obama bailouts, infuriated him. And he feared that the Federal Reserve was bankrupting his future. When letters to his senators and his congressman produced no effect, he turned to cartoons.

One went viral. Then another and another. Garrison’s jibes made waves within the then-powerful Tea Party movement. But not all the attention was complimentary. In addition to attracting the sympathy of like-minded libertarians, Garrison also found an unwelcome audience among trolls who photoshopped antisemitic gags into his cartoons. Nearly every time he published something new, an army of ill-wishers would tack on offensive images, often drawn by A. Wyatt Mann, a pseudonymous artist whose work commands outsized prominence in online antisemitism. And since Garrison always signed his work, people who had never seen it before assumed that he had drawn the doctored images himself.

When Garrison’s professional clients discovered the antisemitic doctored cartoons, most cut ties with him immediately. He tried to explain, but to no avail. Even those who understood said that they couldn’t risk working with someone who was even suspected of antisemitism. At the same time, Garrison’s trolls ramped up their war against him, spamming anyone connected to his work with accusations that he was a neo-Nazi, a klansman, and a generally hateful human being. This one-sided war went on for about five years, until Garrison lost every job he held. He was nearly broke and careening toward a mental breakdown.

“I started getting more and more afraid,” he said. “And I had a lot of anger boiling up in me. I lived in this untenable emotional state of anger and fear, especially a fear that I could end up homeless.”

In early 2015, he spent the last of his savings publishing a book that an attorney advised could help set the record straight. It only sold about 100 copies, and its failure left Garrison destitute. He was unable to pay his rent. He asked his wife, Tina Norton Garrison, to borrow money from her mother, an indignity which still embarrasses him. He decided to give up cartooning and began looking for service industry jobs—anything to escape his internet hellhole.

But, Garrison recalls with pride, Tina, who is also a cartoonist, stopped him short of that. She insisted that he keep working while she became his fulltime promoter. Her intervention saved his career. And to this day, their arrangement remains the same: he draws, she tweets.

The other person who put Garrison back on track was, of course, Donald Trump. During the first Republican primary debate, Garrison recognized a great potential. Here, at last, was an alpha male who was fun to draw, and whose off-color humor matched Garrison’s own discontents. What’s more, Trump was an immigration hawk and an isolationist. In Garrison’s view, he didn’t just save the country. Trump saved the Ben Garrison brand.

“Trump saved us in so many ways,” Garrison said. “I started getting more attention and notoriety. And I started finding my own voice.”

And what a voice. Garrison has the biting humor of Thomas Nast paired with the visual loopiness of Thomas Hart Benton. He draws on massive boards, sketching in pencil before inking in a panoply of clashing colors. His figures are rubbery, near lifelike freaks, who always seem to have juicy posteriors. And then there’s the labels. Garrison has a habit of explaining the significance of every object in the frame, a tic he picked up while designing infographics.

Garrison claims that he doesn’t come up with his own ideas. They present themselves to him, usually after he’s spent all morning soaking up the dregs of the internet—aggregate news sites, Twitter, Reddit—and allowing its contents to seep into his mind. From there, it’s easy.

“I go on a walk, and I say, ‘Okay, Subconscious, see if you can do something,’” Garrison said. “More often than not I get a bolt out of the blue.”

Then he sits down at his desk and surrenders his mind to his hand. Little things (pop culture references, twinges of satire) often suggest themselves, so he throws them in, even if they don’t quite make sense. In a cartoon drawn on the occasion of Donald Rumsfeld’s death, Garrison depicted St. Peter refusing Rumsfeld entrance into Heaven. The cartoon was originally a straightforward 9/11 conspiracy gag, but as Garrison worked, the same George Carlin line kept occurring to him: “It’s a big club … and you ain’t in it.” He tossed it in, and the cartoon went viral. Garrison always trusts his instincts on little things like that.

Garrison’s creative process made him a great match for Trump, whose best lines are absurd riffs on worn-out political tropes. Trump in 2016 was campy, crass, and mean. He was an ironist, a sexist, and a race-baiter, with skills in that last regard rivaled only by Hillary Clinton. Garrison adopted a similar persona and learned that when people hate you, they at least pay attention.

“Too many other cartoonists are just trying to be funny, but I wanted to go deeper,” he said. “If a cartoon is like a sock in the gut, then people get mad. And if they get mad, they remember it. And maybe then they reflect upon it.”

This approach has some occupational hazards, but Garrison didn’t see those until they nearly wrecked his career. In 2017, he undertook a commission from internet personality Mike Cernovich to draw a cartoon mocking Trump’s then-National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. It shows McMaster and retired Gen. David Petraeus as marionettes controlled by a marionette George Soros, who in turn is controlled by a withered green hand labeled “Rothschilds.” The message, Garrison said, was that McMaster was a pawn of the Fed and therefore not totally signed onto the Trump project. But that’s not what most people got out of it. For the first time, Garrison, who for years had successfully acquitted himself in the court of antisemitism, had inserted an image into his work readily interpreted as antisemitic.

Garrison still insists that the image has nothing to do with the Jewish people at large.

“Drawing cartoons that are against the Federal Reserve or banking cartels or the history of central banks, which involves the Rothschilds—I’m criticizing them for what they did, not because of their religion,” he said.

And to make that point clear, he found a Jewish authority to back him up. Garrison is not antisemitic, said Rabbi Joseph Kowalski after he saw the cartoon, because Judaism is a religion, not a race, and “evil heretics like Soros and the secularist Rothschilds bankers have nothing to do with my community of faith.”

But these defenses didn’t do much to sway other audiences. Garrison had crossed an invisible line over which, as one former Trump staffer joked, is a zone where not even the right will take you seriously. For years afterward, the Rothschilds cartoon damaged Garrison’s ability to win attention within the upper echelons of the MAGA movement. The most humiliating moment came in 2019 when the White House uninvited him from a summit with Trump after an internal war erupted over the cartoon.

That disinvitation, which was spurred by denouncements from both Republicans and Democrats, hardened Garrison against his critics. The Jewish question had almost driven him to insanity once before, and he wasn’t about to let it drag him down again. He soon filed a lawsuit against the Anti-Defamation League (which labelled him an antisemite), alleging the organization destroyed his reputation, even when it knew full well that “the Rothschilds controlled Soros and that Soros controlled McMaster.” The case was eventually settled, and Garrison is bound by a court order not to comment on it.

If it weren’t for the pandemic, Garrison’s career might have petered out there. But last spring, the apparent threat of a medical oligarchy run by Dr. Anthony Fauci and controlled by billionaire Bill Gates reignited in Garrison the same rage that had animated him in the late aughts. He began drawing furiously again, decrying vaccines, Fauci, and the global medical establishment.

That anger paid off in spades. Last July, Trump aide Dan Scavino, with whom Garrison has a passing acquaintance, tweeted out perhaps his most famous cartoon, titled “Dr. Faucet.” In it, Fauci is a cold water faucet through which the filth from the Gates Foundation flows— “SCHOOLS STAY CLOSED THIS FALL!” “INDEFINITE LOCKDOWN!” “SHUT UP AND OBEY!”—while the water washes a screaming Uncle Sam down the drain. The cartoon helped expose a rift between Trump and Fauci, which would only widen throughout the rest of the president’s term.

The ensuing outrage was great press for Garrison, who had lost his mainstream notoriety since the Rothschilds incident. “Dr. Faucet” was one of the most discussed cartoons of the summer, to the point that Fox News anchor Chris Wallace held up a printed version during an interview with Trump and asked the president to clarify his relationship with Fauci. Garrison felt bolder than ever.

That boldness carried Garrison through election season. Like the pandemic, Republican cries of a stolen election were tailor-made for his skill set. And the January 6 riot inside the Capitol prompted some of his best work (even if it did get him banned from Twitter). Garrison to this day believes that Biden, a “demented imposter,” rigged the election against Trump, just as he is convinced that Bill Kristol and his band of neoconservatives robbed Ron Paul of the 2008 GOP nomination.

Even still, Garrison is certain that Trump will return in 2024. And he is holding out hope that the former president will be back much sooner.

“I’m hoping we don’t have to wait until 2024,” he said. “Because who knows what could happen before then: Martial law? A civil war? I don’t know. It’s getting really bad, and Trump needs to get back in there.”

Until then, Garrison sees a bleak future, dominated by a corrupt, baby-murdering gerontocracy whose leaders crush average people with their “horrible, Marxist, technocratic tyranny.” He predicts mandatory vaccines and harsh penalties for anyone who dares to resist. Bill Gates will tighten his grip on the country and unleash a mass extermination via on-demand abortion and autism shots.

“It’s almost a Satanic thing,” Garrison said. “But it’s my job to ring the alarm bells.”

But not everything is so bad. In the past month, Garrison scored a commercial gig, his first in nearly five years. It’s a big project, and he’ll have to work hard juggling it and his cartoons. He’s also writing another book, a long-term, somewhat scholarly study of the English language and the ways in which cliches acquire new meanings, already a frequent theme in his work. After nearly a decade, he’s restoring some balance to his life, and the tolls of online discourse don’t weigh so heavily on him. If anything, he’s pleased that he’s finally found his rut in the political muck.

“I can’t say that I’m getting ahead,” Garrison said. “I’m certainly not getting rich. But I’m happy.”

Nic Rowan is a staff writer for the Washington Examiner.