This Week in Doonesbury: In Search of Trump’s Brain

The most popular post that I have written is my look at how Garry Trudeau resurrected what is possibly his most famous comic strip, Mark Slackmeyer’s 1974 proclamation that Attorney General John Mitchell was “GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY!” of crimes associated with the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up. GBT revived the gag in 1987 in reference to the conduct of Reagan administration officials during the Iran-Contra scandal, and again in 1994 as a commentary on how pundits soft-pedalled their critiques of Richard Nixon and his criminality in the wake of his death. The 2018 iteration of the gag compared Nixon’s misdeeds to those of the current occupant of the White House.

This week’s Doonesbury strip revives another of Trudeau’s best-known, and most controversial, bits of satire against a Republican president as a commentary on Donald Trump’s shortcomings – this time, however, it’s Trump’s grey matter, not his blatant crookedness, that’s Trudeau’s target.

On 27 October 1980, intrepid reporter Roland Hedley Jr. took a “journey into the unknown – a fantastic voyage through the brain of Ronald Reagan.” Reagan was a week away from being elected president and would, at the age of 69 years and 349 days, become the oldest person to date to assume the nation’s highest office. Reagan’s age was a issue during the 1980 campaign. Polling done during the primaries indicated that “pluralities and majorities” of voters were opposed to a man nearing 70 becoming president: the Reagan campaign distributed lists of world leaders and members of Congress over the age of 65 in an attempt to demonstrate that there was nothing remarkable about a man of his age holding high office.

Hedley’s tour of Reagan’s brain focuses partly on how age and “the rigors of the campaign trail” affected the candidate’s ability to think cogently: there is, Hedley reasons, no other way to explain Reagan’s “ability to reconcile huge tax cuts with massive military spending” than to blame a deteriorating brain. Hedley points out that the neurons in the cerebellum begin to deteriorate around age twenty: while Reagan’s brain “has been shrinking ever since 1931,” the brain of his Democratic opponent Jimmy Carter has only been degenerating since 1944. “To the trained scientist,” Hedley concludes, “this represents a clear choice.” Other strips examined how Reagan’s aged brain gave him a worldview that was fundamentally out-of-touch with the times. Reagan’s visual cortex is marked by a disorder that renders him incapable of “looking forward through clear eyes”; instead, “Reagan is only able to see backwards, through a rose-colored mist.” Examining the fornix, where the brain stores memories, reveals that Reagan’s memory banks are filled with reminiscences of “an idyllic America, with 5-cent cokes, Burma-Shave signs, and hard-working white people.”

The first trip to Reagan’s brain. Doonesbury, 31 October 1980

The Reagan’s brain strips generated a certain amount of controversy. The New York Times ran an editorial criticizing the series that was titled “Meaner than a Junkyard Dog,” and newspapers across the country spiked the strips, with one editor calling them “unconscionable and not funny at all.”

In March 1987, Hedley returned to Reagan’s brain, but this time, the trip was not a simple guided tour of the inside of Reagan’s head. Instead, Hedley came to discover what hidden memories Reagan had about his role in Iran-Contra: Reagan had recently stated that he had no memory of approving illegal arms sales to the Islamic Republic. After a series of close calls, including an encounter with Nancy Reagan’s psychic alter-ego She-Mommy and being caught in a section of the brain that goes haywire after Reagan attempts to have two simultaneous thoughts, Hedley discovers the missing memories. He dislodges the memories in order to get Reagan to remember his role in the Iranian arms deal, but his efforts are in vain: but all that Reagan ends up retaining are “baseball scores from the ’30s.” Reagan’s self-proclaimed memory lapses may not have just been a means by which to hide criminal actions: while some experts have maintained that Reagan did not suffer from Alzheimer’s while in office, reading first-hand accounts of testimony he gave a year after leaving office makes it clear that for Reagan, sharp mental decline was not far away.

The return. Doonesbury, 30 March 1987

This week, Hedley set out to explore the inner workings of the brain of a president whose intellectual abilities, commitment to honesty, and ability to treat other people as human beings are suspect, at best. Trump easily beat Reagan’s record as the oldest person to assume the Oval Office, but Hedley doesn’t spend much time discussing how the ravages of time have affected Trump’s mental sharpness. Rather, he’s interested in exploring the potential reasons for Trump’s basic personality flaws. We discover that Trump’s prefrontal cortex, the “home to executive planning, judgement, and social control” is completely vacant. Broca’s area, the part of the brain that deals with language, is where Trump “traps and kills facts and data before they can be processed.” Trump’s supramarginal gyrus, which shapes our ability to feel empathy, is a “calcified cavern,” where all Hedley can hear is the “drip drip of sorrow into a pool of difference.” We end our tour in the amygdala, which is where the fear response is shaped: Trump’s is “a vast echo chamber, where conspiracy theory is amplified.”

A third voyage. Doonesbury, 30 December 2018

I knew that GBT would bring back the “GUILTY” gag, but for some reason the idea that he might again sent Hedley to explore to the inner workings of a problematic president’s brain never occurred to me, though it should have: Trump’s mendacity, his fraught relationship with language, and his absolute lack of common good judgement and basic human empathy reveal the workings of a deeply-troubled mind, and perhaps a deeply-damaged brain. To some mental health professionals, the symptoms are so obvious that they have taken the unprecedented step of making tentative public diagnoses of a subject they have not examined in person. Like them, Hedley knew that he had to do something that involved an element of professional danger in order to figure out what is going on in that man’s head.

I can imagine some critics accusing GBT of recycling old material, like Jim Davis still writing gags about Garfield hating Mondays, but I don’t see it that way. As with the “GUILTY” strip, the voyage to Trump’s brain shows that Trudeau is using a set of symbols developed during a lifetime of satirizing American politics to reveal critical continuities in crucial political domains, such as the question of how American democracy somehow continues to produce leaders like Nixon, Reagan and Trump – men who clearly never had business holding high office.

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