President Trump is a dream come true for most cartoonists. His toupee-style golden hair, large figure, and even larger mouth have made him the target of endless ridicule and derision from illustrators across the country. But one Montana-based artist approaches his depictions of the president from a vastly different angle.
Spend any time on some of the internet’s more devoted pro-Trump sites and you’ll likely come across one of Ben Garrison’s cartoons. Instead of using his artwork to mock the president, he frequently depicts Trump as a young, muscular, all-American hero, standing up to the Deep State swamp monster or slaying the dragon of Political Correctness. Other prominent far-right figures also feature, including Milo Yiannopoulos, who is drawn in one cartoon as a suited JFK lookalike. Meanwhile “SJWs” — internet slang used to refer to liberal activists, or “social justice warriors” — are blue-haired and shrill.
Since 2015, Garrison has been the de facto chief cartoonist for right-wing communities online. His work regularly features at the top of the popular sub-reddit, r/The_Donald, and has been shared by Mike Cernovich and Julian Assange. Garrison now has nearly 100,000 followers on Twitter. He is also no stranger to controversy. In 2016 he was accused of racism for drawing a cartoon that featured a pageant-ready Melania Trump next to a butch, unhappy-looking Michelle Obama.
Garrison maintains that he is a conservative libertarian cartoonist and that there is no “racist oil” buried within his work. “I don’t draw racist or anti-Semitic cartoons,” he said, speaking with ThinkProgress. “To be sure, many are interpreted…as such, but I have no control over what people read into them.”
“I’ve lost nearly all of my old liberal friends from Seattle due to my cartoons. They think I’ve gone off the deep end,” he continued. “My former friends and co-workers are smart people, but when it comes to politics, they’ve become too brainwashed by political correctness.”
The most surprising fact about Garrison: he himself was once subject to a vicious online trolling campaign – from the far-right. Since 2010 Garrison’s work has been repeatedly altered to create some of the internet’s most vitriolic, anti-Semitic cartoons which, despite his best efforts, still regularly appear on far-right websites and can act as a gateway drug to white nationalism.
The trolling began in earnest after Garrison published a cartoon titled “The March of Tyranny” depicting “Global Elite Bankers” walking in jackboots over both Democrats and Republicans. While it’s often suggested that “globalist” language is a dog-whistle to anti-Semitism, Garrison’s work was then altered to be explicitly so, featuring the “Happy Merchant”, which is arguably one of the most widely seen anti-Semitic images in history.
Garrison tried his best to get the hijacked cartoons taken down, claiming that they were libelous. In 2011 he posted on his personal blog that “there’s an entity or unknown cretin out there changing my cartoons – adding in offensive Jewish stereotypes – and then spreading them throughout the internet.” The trolling continued unabated. In 2014, Garrison once again wrote that “Trolls had stolen my artwork and…concocted an entire page devoted to spewing libelous hate.” At one point he wanted to sue Andrew Anglin, the founder of the Neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, but lacked the financial means to follow through.
According to Garrison, “the dopplegänger created by the trolls is finally dead, but it took plenty of hard work to reclaim [his] own voice.” Despite this, remnants of the trolls’ libelous hatred remain. Type in “Ben Garrison quotes” into Google images and you’ll see dozens of photoshopped pictures of Garrison with quotes advocating a second Holocaust and a race war. Type in “Zyklon Ben” — a nickname the internet concocted for him — and you’ll be linked to images of racist and virulently anti-Semitic cartoons.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), these cartoons have helped white nationalists spread their message online by coating the themes of racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny in layers of humor and irony. This then creates a feedback loop where individuals become more and more radicalized and seduced by the transgressive humor of far-right ideology to the point where they become actively involved in the movement, even attending events like the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, for example.
“These cartoons make the rounds on every white nationalist site I know,” said Keegan Hankes, Intelligence Analyst for the SPLC. “They’ve become the trading cards of the alt-right, these memes, they play a huge role in getting people active online. There are tons of [alt-right] Facebook groups which have started by sharing them.”
Hankes went on to describe Garrison’s cartoons, both real and fake, as part of the collage of internet images that can act as a gateway drug to white nationalist positions. He pointed that many of Garrison’s original images, like the cartoon of Bernie Sanders as KFC Colonel Sanders, were a dog whistle to the same racist positions that white nationalists argued for.
“Sometimes guys straddling the fence are almost acting as euphemizers with one foot in both camps,” Hankes said. “It’s a position of convenience and they provide cover for their own worst elements.” Garrison, he said, “trades in the ideas and political positions of far-right groups, it’s not a coincidence why his images [real and altered] show up in some of the most racist and violent sites we track.”
When asked about the SPLC’s comments, Garrison described them as “utter bunk and sactimonious pap” which he would gladly ignore. “I’m a conservative and anyone conservative is automatically labelled as ‘far right’ by them,” he said. “It’s similar to Hillary arbitrarily deciding the Pepé the Frog is a symbol of Nazi hate speech. Pepé is a symbol of freedom of expression and various emotional and political states by a vast number of young people from all political persuasions.”
For his part, in 2014, Garrison called on Facebook to block hate speech, like the hijacked cartoons his trolls post, before it became more established on mainstream social networks. “Hate speech is not free speech,” he wrote at the time. “Hate speech is blind, one-dimensional blackness. It is not reasoned debate. It loudly shouts for the murder of human beings and Facebook is providing them a megaphone for that purpose.”
Garrison told ThinkProgress that as many as 10 instances of fake Facebook pages containing his work cropped up in 2014 alone and that he had to “jump through hoops” to get them taken down. Even then, he said, most of them remained.
There’s a certain irony in looking at Garrison’s cartoons after reading his comments advocating for Facebook censorship, given that so many of them revolve around the sacred notion of “free speech.” One cartoon depicts Antifa stringing it up at Berkley, another with Google kicking the “Alt-Media” off the internet.
“[There are] lines being drawn in our country and one’s ability to make a living is on the line,” Garrison said, describing the motivation for this particular theme. “Silicon Valley is shutting down internet free speech and it’s a matter of time before I’m silenced too.”
Conversely, Garrison has described Trump as the “last, best chance to restore justice and the Constitutional Republic as it should be.” In particular, he added that he was glad Trump was trying to secure the United States’ borders “from endless immigration – particularly a flood of Muslim immigration that is currently destroying Europe.” He added that he viewed Trump’s most perilous task as dismantling the Deep State.
Still, Garrison isn’t in favor of everything Trump has done so far. He added that he was disappointed in several policy decisions made by Trump, including the “continuance of the perpetual quagmire in Afghanistan” and his decision to “populate his administration with Goldman Sachs men.” Like many Libertarians, he maintains a deep-seated hatred for the Federal Reserve. “Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck and own no stocks while the ultra rich rig the system to get stupendously wealthy because they have access to the Fed printing press,” he said. “We have a fundamentally immoral system of money and Trump is apparently not going to try and fix it.”
Garrison is entirely unapologetic — for his political views, his stances, and his cartooning style. He’s not at all bothered that many on the left view them with contempt. What’s more, his popularity on the right wing, especially among a pastiche of alternative media figureheads, means he’s unlikely to be stopping anytime soon.
“During my newspaper days, I observed several neo-liberal cartoonists spending years fretting about winning a Pulitzer. They all had big egos and wanted to be ‘the best’” he said. “I’ll never be the best and I don’t think in those terms. If my cartoons sway .001 per cent of the population, then it would be worthwhile for me.”