Cover to cover: Obama v Trump

For the past eight years, writer Ben Arogundade has been collecting magazine and newspaper covers featuring Barack Obama. Here, he compares visual depictions of the former US President with new US leader Donald Trump

Time magazine's September 10, 2012 issue and New York magazine's 2016 election issue, featuring artwork by Barbara Kruger
Time magazine’s September 10, 2012 issue and New York magazine’s 2016 election issue with artwork by Barbara Kruger

On November 4 2008, I was in Times Square, along with many thousands of others, to celebrate Barack Obama’s historic election win.

I was so swept up by the occasion that the following day, I bought several newspapers, which had suddenly become commemorative collectors’ items. From here, I evolved the idea for a book of magazine covers featuring Barack Obama.

I began fanatically collecting examples from all over the world, buying them on eBay or from international newsstands, wrapping them in plastic jackets and placing them carefully into storage like ancient artefacts. Soon I had hundreds, ranging from design magazines to African American newspapers. By the time the 2012 election came round, I was ready to edit them down and make the book – but then Obama won again. Off I went once more, diligently collecting even more covers.

Eight years later and my book, Obama: 101 best covers, is finally out. It has been a long time coming, but the result is rich tapestry of covers from some of the best editors, art directors and graphic designers working today.

Now, however, we have a new President – and his extreme views have spawned an extreme set of covers. The print media’s portrayal of American politics has reached new levels of drama – and the Trump covers are considerably less flattering than those featuring Obama. Where Obama was depicted as a charismatic statesman, a family man and a Messiah figure, Trump is derided as a buffoon, a dictator and a sexual predator. Time and time again, both men are presented as polar opposites, reinforcing their differences as both people and presidents.

A new dawn vs the apocalypse

Cover of The Daily Mail's January 21, 2016 issue
Cover of The Daily Mail’s January 21, 2009 issue

Obama’s election was hailed as a historic moment and one of celebration. Headlines on the morning following his election captured a sense of hope and optimism: The Sun, The Times and La Vanguardia made reference to A New Dawn, A New World and A New Era. The Daily Mail and Time magazine ran with an image of Obama with his left hand on the Lincoln Bible – the same tome used by President Abraham Lincoln at his 1861 inauguration.

Trump’s surprise election win, however, was presented as an apocalyptic moment. A striking cover for German news weekly Der Spiegel featured an illustration of the President-elect as an orange-and-yellow meteor hurtling towards Earth, accompanied by the headline The End of the World (As We Know It). New York’s Daily News published a similarly dramatic cover in the run-up to the election, with a nuclear mushroom cloud superimposed against Trump’s day-glo bouffant hair.

Der Spiegel's November 12 2016 cover, with artwork by Edel Rodriguez, shows Trump as an orange and yellow meteor hurtling towards Earth. Image via Der Spiegel
Der Spiegel’s November 12 2016 cover, with artwork by Edel Rodriguez. Image via Der Spiegel
The March 4 2016 issue of Daily News. Image via Daily News

His victory in November last year prompted a flurry of disapproving headlines from Oh My God! to WTF?: UK newspaper the Daily Mirror used [Gee Vaucher’s] image of the Statue of Liberty sobbing, while Mexican newspaper El Grafico opted for Fuuuck – reflecting the country’s shock at an event that saw the peso hit an all-time low. The extended expletive, cast in yellow and skewed at an angle, combines with an image of Trump furiously pointing in a manner that is both funny and frightening. Around the world, the overwhelming sentiment was, what now?


Finger-pointing v smiles

Newsweek cover from August 14 2015. Image via Newsweek
Newsweek cover from August 14 2015. Image via Newsweek

Many magazine and newspaper covers feature the familiar image of Donald Trump as an angry firebrand – finger pointing, chastising, threatening, and telling the world how he thinks things should be (see Newsweek’s cover from 2015). Alongside his hair, his open mouthed expression has become a signature visual motif, as recognisable as Mick Jagger’s famous pout.


When Trump isn’t pictured shouting or wildly gesticulating, the effect is even more chilling. Often, he is pictured stony-faced or staring defiantly into the camera. A post-election cover of France’s Liberation resembles a poster for a sinister thriller, with Trump pictured in darkness alongside the headline American Psycho.

Trump via Esquire
Esquire’s February 2016 issue features Trump as its cover star. The issue also includes a survey on American Rage. Image via Esquire
Letras Libres' controversial cover drew comparisons between Donald Trump and Hitler. Image via Letras Libres
Letras Libres’ controversial cover drew comparisons between Donald Trump and Hitler. Image via Letras Libres

The October 2016 edition of Mexican lifestyle title Letras Libras went one step further and likened Trump to Hitler. The words Fascista Americano appear under his nose in a not-so-subtle nod to Hitler’s moustache. The chosen photograph is brilliantly cold-eyed and dispassionate – elements used are minimal, but their impact is big.

Obama, in contrast, is often pictured smiling, projecting a gentler and altogether friendlier image. Covers of Rolling Stone, Time, GQ and Wired magazines feature close-up portraits that reinforce the image of the 44th president as someone who is likeable, warm and unthreatening – a stark contrast to images of Trump – and highlight his celebrity status.

Rolling Stone's July 2008 cover featuring Barack Obama
Rolling Stone’s July 2008 cover featuring Barack Obama


Sexual predator v family man

Charlie Hebdo's shocking cover from November 2016. Image via Charlie Hebdo
Charlie Hebdo’s shocking cover from November 2016. Image via Charlie Hebdo

This Charlie Hebdo cover is amongst the most disturbing to feature Trump. Published following the leak of an audio recording in which Trump bragged about grabbing women ‘by the pussy’, it features a repulsive image of him holding a woman in the air – one intended to shock, disgust and outrage.

While Trump was exposed for claiming to sexually assault women in the run up to his election, Obama was pictured as a loving family man. Covers for The Times magazine and African American lifestyle publication Essence play on themes of middle class success and family ideals. Presenting strong family values like this was crucial to Obama’s election success yet bizarrely, the opposite image failed to hinder Trump.

The antichrist vs the Messiah

Time magazine's December 19 issue
Time magazine’s December 19 issue. Trump was photographed by Nadav Kander

The good vs evil theme continues with covers depicting Barack Obama as the Messiah and Donald Trump as the devil. Time caused controversy with a cover that placed Trump’s head under the letter M in the magazine’s masthead, creating the effect of a pair of devil horns sprouting from his head.

Eight years earlier, the March 2008 cover of Rolling Stone showed Obama bathed in a heavenly flare of white light, presenting him as some kind of Messiah. The effect was prevalent that year (Deal and The New Republic also published covers depicting Obama as a God-like figure or religious icon) and again following his victory in 2012. Newsweek’s cover from January 2013 hails Obama’s re-election with the biblical headline, The Second Coming.

The fact that Obama, as a black politician, was seen by the press as ‘angel’ while Trump, his white counterpart, was seen as the ‘devil’, marked a startling reversal of historical perceptions of race.

These covers highlight not just the dichotomy between depictions of Trump and Obama, but the weight of expectation placed on Obama as President. Covers from his second term reflect a sense of disappointment at his failure to live up to these expectations: a 2013 issue of the Economist featured an image of the then-President chest deep in water under The Headline, The man who used to walk on water, while one for the Spectator pictured him as a superhero crashing down to Earth.

The Economist's November 29 2013 issue references the high expectations placed on the President
The Economist’s November 29 2013 issue references the high expectations placed on the President

Buffoon vs statesman

There are more international covers ridiculing Trump as an unintelligent buffoon than there are about any other theme. (His public humiliation at the hands of the media no doubt has something to do with his strong dislike of the mainstream press).

The New Yorker's January 23 2017 issue, with artwork by Barry Blitt. Image via The New Yorker
The New Yorker’s January 23 2017 issue, with artwork by Barry Blitt. Image via The New Yorker

Barry Blitt’s cover for the January 23 edition of The New Yorker magazine likened the newly inaugurated President to an out-of-control toddler. An earlier cover from July 27 (also by Blitt) showed Trump belly flopping into a pool. “Donald Trump has entered the fray of Republican Presidential candidates with all the grace of a bully doing cannonballs and belly flops at the local swimming pool,” Blitt told The New Yorker. The Economist has been equally disparaging: the cover of the magazine’s May 7th 2016 issue depicts Trump as a ringmaster riding atop an elephant.


Obama, however, was eulogised during his first election campaign. Covers for the New Yorker and the New Statesman compare him to George Washington and Julius Caesar – an image that could not be further from the media’s vision of Trump.

The New Yorker's Jan 26 2009 issue, with artwork by Drew Friedman
The New Yorker’s Jan 26 2009 issue, with artwork by Drew Friedman
New Statesman's 3 August 2009 cover likens Obama to Julius Caesar
New Statesman’s 3 August 2009 cover likens Obama to Julius Caesar

Based on these covers, it’s a wonder why anyone would vote for Trump. But in the end, representing America’s new president as the antithesis of Obama proved a help rather than a hindrance to his campaign. For those who opposed Obama and liberal democrats, visuals like the kind shown above reinforced the idea of Trump as a force for change and an alternative to the liberal elite.

These Trump and Obama covers also illustrate how magazine and newspapers increasingly borrow from Hollywood narratives in their coverage of American politics. Did Trump win the American election because he was the most entertaining Hollywood-style villain? Like a baddie from a superhero movie, whatever nastiness he directed against people during his campaign only seemed to add to his allure – and just as cinema audiences love charismatic villainy, American voters took to his shocking political incorrectness.

Obama: 101 Best Covers by Ben Arogundade is published by White Labels Books

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