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Montana-Based Cartoonist Feeds Culture War
“I do the political cartoons out of anger…When the bankers got bailed out, that’s when I discovered my meanness.”
– Ben Garrison, Cartoonist, June 2016
Anger and meanness have allowed Lakeside-based political cartoonist Ben Garrison to ride a wave of support from the Far-Right fringe to national notoriety. Calling himself the “Rogue Cartoonist,” Garrison uses his drawings to wage a war against what he sees as political correctness, which he describes as nothing but “fascism with manners.”
His cartoons are rabidly pro-Trump and anti-liberal, while also enthusiastically supporting conspiracy theories like the Deep State and Q-Anon. He faces criticism that his images are racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and sexist. Each new wave of controversy seems to bring him more fans from the most vitriolic corners of social media. It was a Garrison cartoon deemed anti-Semitic that transformed him from being popular with the white nationalist alt-right into a major headache for the White House.
White House Drops Garrison from Social Media Summit
In July 2019, President Donald Trump held what he called a “Social Media Summit.” The event was meant to put pressure on social media outlets like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, which Trump and his supporters frequently claim discriminate against and censor conservatives. The guest list included characters promoting pretty much every right-wing conspiracy theory making the rounds at the time. U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) noted that those attending were “the very folks who are misusing social media.”
On July 5, Garrison posted on Facebook that he was “honored” to be invited to the Summit. Reporters quickly questioned why the White House would invite Garrison, citing one of his cartoons that had been categorized as anti-Semitic. In 2017, Garrison drew a cartoon for Mike Cernovich, a prominent personality of and social media troll for the alt-right. A male supremacist and rape apologist ,Cernovich is most well-known for creating the “Pizzagate” conspiracy, which claimed that Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager was using a pizzeria to run a child sex trafficking operation. Despite its absurdity, Pizzagate spread like wildfire through alt-right social media. Garrison has called Cernovich a “good buddy” and promoted Pizzagate in his cartoons.
Garrison’s cartoon for Cernovich featured Jewish philanthropist George Soros using puppet strings to control H.R. McMaster, who was Trump’s National Security Advisor at the time. There was another hand featuring the word “Rothschilds” controlling puppet strings attached to Soros. These days the white nationalist movement uses references to Soros as shorthand for its longtime anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that claim Jews control the banking industry, government, media, and other institutions. The reference to the Rothschilds is a more traditional reference to the same anti-Semitic narratives.
The Anti-Defamation League called Garrison’s cartoon “blatantly anti-Semitic” and said that “the thrust of the cartoon is clear: McMaster is merely a puppet of a Jewish conspiracy.” The ADL noted that, after people began complaining about it, Cernovich posted a cropped version of the cartoon that removed the Rothschild reference. However, Soros was still left as the Jewish puppeteer.
After all the media attention to the cartoon, the White House announced on July 10, 2019, that Garrison wouldn’t be attending the Social Media Summit. Garrison claimed his cartoon “wasn’t blatant and it wasn’t anti-Semitic.” According to Garrison, the White House contacted him and asked him to voluntarily withdraw from the Summit, which he did. He gladly reported he attended the Summit’s after party and received lots of support from attendees. He said he didn’t blame the White House for what happened. Instead he criticized the media coverage.
While saying he wasn’t anti-Semitic, Garrison said the Rothschild reference in the cartoon was warranted, as they run a “debt money system” that “hurts us all.” This is hardly the only instance of Garrison using language and images that align with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In another cartoon, he featured an anti-Semitic caricature of a Jewish person holding money with the words “I am the great and powerful wizard of debt” written above it. The cartoon also called the Federal Reserve “the Jewish money bank” and featured the statement, “You gutless goyim lack the heart and brains to understand what we do!” The cartoon represents historic anti-Semitic conspiracy theories so well that the ADL featured it with a publication to describe classic anti-Semitic myths. This dynamic of Garrison using language and drawings that call upon anti-Semitic conspiracies, while denying he is anti-Semitic, plays out time and time again. It also helps explain his relationship with the alt-right.
Garrison Both Celebrated, Trolled by the Alt-Right
Garrison’s cartoons have been spread far and wide by both the alt-right and the “alt-lite.” Those in the alt-lite rarely call for the creation of a white ethnostate in the blatant terms used by the alt-right, and they try to avoid brazen racism and anti-Semitism. In other words, the alt-lite pushes a more subtle and mainstream version of white nationalism. Garrison frequently features alt-lite figures in his cartoons. While those in the alt-lite try and position themselves as apart from the alt-right, it’s often difficult to see where one ends and other begins. This is no doubt why white nationalists have spread Garrison’s cartoons around social media, sometimes modifying them to better suit their ideological and rhetorical needs.
Starting around 2009,Garrison noticed that white nationalist trolls were altering his cartoons on popular alt-right social media platforms like 4chan, Gab, and The Daily Stormer to include even more blatant anti-Semitic and racist imagery and rhetoric. After Garrison publicly said he found the altered images offensive, the trolls upped the ante by also deploying photos of Garrison and attributing fake quotes to him that were blatantly racist and anti-Semitic.
One of these altered images was used to threaten a member of the Jewish community during the Nazi troll storm unleashed by Andrew Anglin of The Daily Stormer on the Whitefish community in 2016. The image was a photo of Garrison looking down a double-barrel shotgun with a caption stating, “She [the troll storm’s main target] needs a visit from the ‘Montana Mangler.’” Garrison has claimed that he wasn’t responsible for the image, saying it was created by white nationalist trolls. Additionally, somebody using the name “Ben Garrison” sent an e-mail to MHRN’s local affiliate in Whitefish during the troll storm that said Republicans supported the family of alt-right leader Richard Spencer. The e-mail linked to content on The Daily Stormer website.
Due to his battle with the trolls, Garrison was referred to as the “most trolled cartoonist in the world.” After trying many tactics to try to stop the white nationalist trolls, he and his wife decided the best thing to do was to “share the real cartoons enough to outspread the fake ones.” He told the alt-right Breitbart News that the trolls made him increase the volume of cartoons he created to “recapture my voice” and that this approach seemed to be working.
Garrison maintains that he isn’t racist or anti-Semitic, a common tactic among the alt-lite. In a 2011 statement posted on his website regarding the trolls, Garrison stressed that his “target is the elite international banking system and the Federal Reserve,” but “NOT Jews.” While he apologized to anyone offended by the “hijacked cartoons,” it’s easy to see why white nationalists used his images to spread the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in which a shadowy cabal of Jews control the world’s banking system. While Garrison may fall more into the alt-lite camp, it’s clear from how his cartoons spread online that many in the alt-right love his work and have helped contribute to his rising profile. Wired called Garrison a “darling of the alt-right” and described his work this way:
“In Garrison’s work, ‘social justice warriors’ are pudgy, pink-haired, and squalling; mainstream media outlets are metaphorical trash cans and dinosaurs; Islam is a murderous wolf devouring politically correct sheep. Hillary Clinton’s a corrupt witch, and President Trump is muscular, square-jawed, and beige, with flowing yellow hair.”
Those themes are part of the alt-right’s narratives, and his seemingly endless winks and nods to anti-Semitic beliefs only strengthen the bond. Garrison claims one positive result came from his experience with the white nationalist trolls — they taught him how to weaponize online culture. As Wired noted, his cartoons are “tailored to its [social media] worst fringes,” and Garrison acknowledges that, without the trolls, he’d still just be “an obscure Montana crank.”
Garrison Promotes Conspiracies, Works with the Far Right
Examples included above detail how Garrison’s criticisms of international bankers and the images he draws echo longtime anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. His tactic of trying to downplay the anti-Semitism by replacing straight up references to a “Jewish cabal” with “international bankers” has been used as a mainstreaming vehicle before, including with the formation of the 1990’s militia movement. The founding architects of that movement came from the white nationalist movement, and they realized overt racism and anti-Semitism were unappealing to most people. They kept the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, but they substituted in different code words. It often appears Garrison is playing the same game.
The commentaries Garrison writes when he issues his cartoons are filled with coded anti-Semitic language, along with blatant support for conspiracy theories like Q-Anon, the Deep State, and dangers of supposed one-world government. He has claimed the Deep State consists of:
“the Illuminati, who control vast fortunes. It includes the central bankers, the Bilderbergs, the CFR [Council on Foreign Relations], and the spy agencies that illegally track and record Americans.”
In the same rant, he commended President Trump for battling the “New World Order,” a reference to the one-world government conspiracy theory popularized by the militia movement. Garrison frequently uses other rhetoric very common to the anti-government “patriot” movement. For example, he constantly rails against “globalists” that he perceives as enemies of America. Garrison has claimed climate change is a “farce” that is “nothing but globalism in disguise.” Additionally, he’s castigated “globalist tyrants” for using climate change to “crush our economy and freedom and usher in socialism.” A major reason Garrison supports Trump, according to the cartoonist, is that Garrison sees the president as willing to fight the globalists.
As he did above, Garrison mentions the Bilderbergs in cartoons and his commentary repeatedly, including in one cartoon where he claimed the group controls the media. The Bilderbergs have been a mainstay in conspiracy theories promoted by anti-Semites, especially through publications like American Free Press and its predecessor, The Spotlight, that cater to that crowd.
Garrison frequently supports, and has been interviewed by, Far-Right conspiracy monger Alex Jones. Jones heavily traffics in conspiracies involving shadowy groups within the federal government that commit terrorist attacks against the country, along with spreading fear of the “patriot” movement’s nemesis, the New World Order. At one point, Garrison was described as a contributor to Jones’ program and website. Garrison has lamented that mainstream social media outlets no longer allow Jones to use their platforms to spread his vitriol, and he has written long defenses of Jones that portray the Far-Right figure as an authority on issues like the Deep State and Bilderbergs.
Garrison also has a warm relationship with YouTube personality Stefan Molyneux, an alleged cult leader and alt-right personality. Molyneux promotes “scientific racism,” through which he makes the racist claims that science proves the white race is superior to people of color. Molyneux has commissioned pieces by Garrison, and Garrison has appeared in his online videos. Garrison has defended Molyneux, saying he is a “truth teller, not a racist.” Garrison’s site features quotes by Molyneux and links to videos by the YouTube personality.
Garrison’s belief in conspiracy theories ranges far and wide. He even told one media outlet that he believes the moon landings of the 1960s were fake. His website has claimed, “WE ARE TRYING TO DO OUR PART BY MEANS OF ARTWORK TO HELP RAISE AWARENESS OF THE DIRFT TOWARD TYRANNY.” He’s extolled followers to fight against the “tyranny of Big Government” and the “entrenched Deep State.” He’s urged his fans to “free our fellow patriots” from “the grasp of the globalist agenda.”
The Making of an Extreme Cartoonist
It appears Garrison wasn’t always destined to be the cartoonist of the alt-right. A self-described Libertarian, he started his career working as a graphic designer for mainstream newspapers. After graduating from college with an art degree, he did stints at the San Angelo Standard-Times and worked at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for years until it switched to an online-only format. According to Garrison, his creation of caustic political cartoons began in 2009, following the federal government bailing out the banking industry. “When the bankers got bailed out, that’s when I discovered my meanness,” he told the Daily Interlake in 2016.
Once he left the Post-Intelligencer, Garrison and his wife moved to Lakeside, MT. His first cartoon to go viral depicted global bankers as the all-seeing eye in a triangle that was using the mainstream media to give orders to both the political left and right. With clear allusions to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, the cartoon has been seen by millions and translated into multiple languages.
Garrison has said he’s influenced by Pat Oliphant, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his political cartoons in the late 1960s. Like Garrison, Oliphant’s work was commonly criticized. Organizations like the Asian American Journalist Association and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee have stated that some of his cartoons are racist, while the Simon Wiesenthal Center claimed some of his work mimicked Nazi propaganda.
Garrison has talked about how his personal politics have been somewhat of a journey. However, by 2008 he had decided he was a Libertarian and became a big Ron Paul supporter. Former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) has long been a favorite of the anti-government “patriot” and white nationalist movements. Author David Neiwert, who has written extensively about both movements, provides a concise description of Paul’s political career:
“Ron Paul has made a career out of transmitting extremist beliefs, particularly far-right conspiracy theories about a looming ‘New World Order,’ into the mainstream of public discourse by reframing and repackaging them for wider consumption, mostly by studiously avoiding the more noxious and often racist elements of those beliefs.”
This description of Paul holds true for Garrison. Even in his political leanings, Garrison trends toward supporting the extremes, which has continued with his support of President Trump.
Garrison Reflects and Supports Trump’s Agenda
As Garrison drew more and more cartoons featuring Trump in various forms, often slaying representations of political correctness, his cartoons gained followers across the right-wing political spectrum. Political commentators like Ann Coulter and Trump advisors are among those who have promoted his cartoons on social media.
Garrison gravitates to certain pieces of the current administration’s policies, including those that share underlying white nationalist objectives. One such area is Trump’s focus on building a wall along the country’s Southern border. Garrison has been a major supporter of this and has railed against immigrants and refugees.
The Trump Administration and Garrison are both hostile to the trans community. While the Trump Administration has sought to ban trans folks from the military and rollback trans protections put in place by the previous administration, Garrison doesn’t think trans people should even exist. “There is no such thing as ‘transgender,’” Garrison wrote in a commentary accompanying an anti-trans cartoon. “It’s a physical impossibility.” In a bigoted rant, he’s stated that trans people and their allies are “participating in a mass delusion of sorts,” go against God’s plan, and are “a form of insanity.”
Garrison loves to portray former First Lady Michelle Obama as a trans man in his cartoons. In one commentary he said, “Barak Obama loved them [the trans community]” and “may have even married one.” In one cartoon, Garrison compared Obama and First Lady Melania Trump. While Trump was pictured like a beauty pageant winner, Obama was drawn as a man in drag, complete with masculine arms and an exaggerated bulge near the waist. As Salon pointed out, “In addition to being racist and misogynistic, the cartoon is also transphobic.”
Former President Barack Obama was also a frequent target. Like President Trump, Garrison believes in the Birther conspiracy launched by the right wing against Obama. He told one media outlet that he believes Obama was “probably a Muslim and a communist” before expanding on how he bought into the Birther conspiracy. The Birther conspiracy took many forms. However, central to every version was that Obama was not the legitimate president of the United States, because Birthers believed he was not an American citizen. One of the more common conspiracies claimed Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim, and that his birth documentation from Hawaii had been faked. The Birther conspiracy originated from a core white nationalist belief that an African American could only be elected president as part of a sinister plan, which took decades to implement and included faking birth records and birth notices in local newspapers.
Garrison Won’t Stop Believing in Trump
Garrison is enthusiastically gearing up to support Trump’s re-election in 2020. On his website, he asks his fans to pay almost $40 a year to join “The Garrison.” He says the group will help him come up with ideas to help get Trump re-elected in 2020. He describes the group as being comprised of Americans who want to build the border wall, defeat the Deep State, and protect families.
The growing threat of Trump’s impeachment hasn’t soured Garrison on the president. Instead, he has claimed that the shadowy Deep State set “a Ukrainian trap” for the president that it hopes will lead to impeachment. Garrison has said “radical Democrats” have “declared war on our president and our nation.” Those leading the impeachment charge, Garrison claims, are “rife with sedition” and are planning a “coup” against the president. He believes the Democrats leading the impeachment efforts will “destroy the country.” He ended one screed against impeachment by stating, “It’s time to drain the swamp and lock up the traitors.”
Always on the Attack
Garrison uses his cartoons and website to spread conspiracy theories with racist and anti-Semitic roots. When looking at the totality of his work, his claims of not being anti-Semitic start to ring hollow. Instead, it begins to feel like he’s trying to tap into the anger and vitriol that exists among the white nationalist movement, while seeking to stay above the fray by not using blatant racism and anti-Semitism. It’s a balancing act that he appears to work hard at maintaining.
When more mainstream political commentators and operatives share his cartoons around social media, they lend him an amount of credibility that he doesn’t deserve. As the 2020 election seasons heats up, Garrison’s profile may continue to rise as he stakes out territory as Trump’s unofficial cartoonist. Overall, Garrison is capitalizing on the politics of divisiveness that continues to drive our communities apart. And, he’s doing it all on a national level from the tiny town of Lakeside, MT.
(Alphabetical by Source)
Anti-Defamation League, “Anti-Semitism Used in Attack Against National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster,” Aug. 3, 2017.
Anti-Defamation League, “Jewish ‘Control’ of the Federal Reserve: A Classic Anti-Semitic Myth,” July 10, 2019.
The Atlantic, “The Pittsburgh Suspect Lived in the Web’s Darkest Corners,” Oct. 27, 2018.
Breitbart News, “Ben Garrison: How the Internet Made a Fake White Supremacist,” Dec. 22, 2015.
Daily Interlake, “Lakeside Cartoonist a Player on the Political World Stage,” June 25, 2016.
Ben Garrison, Grrr Graphics, website.
The Guardian, “How Richard Spencer’s Hometown Weathered a Neo-Nazi ‘Troll Storm,’” Feb. 5, 2017.
Heavy, “Ben Garrison: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know,” Feb. 15, 2019.
The Hill, “Trump Set to Host Controversial Social Media Summit,” July 11, 2019.
Huffington Post, “Artist Who Created ‘Blatantly Anti-Semitic Cartoon’ Invited by Trump to White House,” July 6, 2019.
Life and News, “The ‘Rogue Cartoonist’ Ben Garrison on What It’s Like to be a Political Cartoonist During the Presidential Election,” Sept. 30, 2016.
Media Matters, “Here are the Extremist Figures Going to the White House Social Media Summit,” July 9, 2019.
Politico, “W.H. Says Cartoonist is No Longer Attending Social Media Summit,” July 10, 2019.
Right Wing Watch, “A New Wave of ‘Q-Anon’ Activists Emerge from the Cult Of MAGA,” July 9, 2018.
Salon, “No Limits to Alex Jones’ Hatred and Insanity,” May 18,2016.
Southern Poverty Law Center, “Extremist Files.”
Vice News, “We Analyzed More Than 1 Million Comments on 4chan. Hate Speech There Has Spiked by 40% Since 2015,” July 10, 2019.
Village Voice, “The Voice Explores the Right-Wing Blogosphere,” Nov. 28, 2016.
Washington Post, “Anonymous’ KKK ‘Leak’ Targets the Elusive Online World of White Nationalism,” Nov.5, 2015.
Wired, “The Alt-Right Found Its Favorite Cartoonist – and Almost Ruined His Life,” June 19, 2017.