TV Captured Trump by Looking Away

Characters from various tv shows of 2020.
Paul Spella / HBO / Netflix / Getty / The Atlantic

Late last year, at the end of my parental leave, I finally caught up with The Comey Rule, Showtime’s stolid adaptation of former FBI Director James Comey’s memoir about—among other things—being fired by Donald Trump. A cluster of TV stars play the civil servants elevated by the MAGA internet into almost mythological characters: Jeff Daniels as Comey, Holly Hunter as Sally Yates, Steven Pasquale and Oona Chaplin as the text-crossed lovers Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. But the real draw is Brendan Gleeson playing Trump. The Irish actor gives a fantastic performance that dances between impersonation and interpretation: Physically, Gleeson has the lunatic bronzer, the grimace, the sagging tie. More crucially, he captures the former president’s pettiness and malice in a way that communicates how dangerous those qualities can be, in tandem and totally unchecked. Gleeson’s Trump seethes and crawls around the White House like a swamp creature in a Brioni suit. It’s one of the most striking TV performances of the past four years. And I watched it and felt nothing at all.

Television during the Trump era faced a paradox: The 45th president was obsessed with TV, was saved by TV (The Apprentice resurrected him as a public figure in one of the lowest periods of his career), was influenced by TV, and seemed made to be analyzed by it. But early on, creators appeared befuddled by the project of portraying someone whose self-satirical physicality and distorted psyche defied pastiche. It didn’t help that so many viewers were, like me, exhausted by the antics of the real-life Trump and emotionally numbed by cortisol spikes of outrage.

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And yet, Trump exerted a centripetal force on pop culture. Broad swaths of works that weren’t about him at all seemed newly crucial in understanding his ascent, even as the stakes for shows that tried to deal with him directly as a subject grew impossibly high. What became clear while taking stock of TV over the past four years is that the shows and artists that most clearly and urgently responded to him did so by looking past his theatrics as an individual, and focusing instead on the elements—recurrent throughout American history—that led to his rise.

THE SATIRES

No show illustrated television’s challenges in tangling with a Trump presidency like Saturday Night Live. From 1999 to 2016, Darrell Hammond played Trump as a robotic moron, hawking Domino’s Pizza with the same inane egotism the real Trump used to hawk McDonald’s Big N’ Tasty burgers opposite Grimace. Taran Killam played Trump as a commedia dell’arte clown, his facial expression constantly darting between a pained smile and a comedic scowl. Alec Baldwin’s Trump was different: cruder, meaner, no less dangerous for being so transparently cretinous. When Baldwin debuted the role in October 2016, about a month before Trump won the election, many critics were thrilled that the actor captured some of the nativist ugliness of Trump’s pitch to the American people. After the show had controversially—and inexplicably—invited Trump to host for the second time the previous year, Baldwin’s interpretation felt like a corrective, wearing Trump’s innate bigotry and casual cruelty as obviously as his bottled bronzer.

By 2017, when Baldwin’s Trump appeared on the cover of this magazine, expectations for what a weekly sketch-comedy show might be capable of had skyrocketed. If television had created Trump, the theory went, couldn’t it make him vulnerable? But Trump’s divisiveness seemed to insulate him from satire—the people who found Baldwin’s Trump funny or cathartic hadn’t voted for him, and the people who had weren’t watching. Not to mention that nothing writers dreamed up could outdo Trump’s schtick. “Alex Baldwin, whose dieing mediocre career was saved by his impersonation of me on SNL, now says playing DJT was agony for him,” Trump tweeted in 2018. “Alex, it was also agony for those who were forced to watch.” Saturday Night Live might have ousted Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, after Melissa McCarthy’s portrayal of him as a belligerent, raving drill sergeant supposedly displeased Trump. (The issue wasn’t the specific notes of the characterization so much as Trump reportedly thinking that it weakened Spicer to be played by a woman.) But Baldwin’s hope, as the writer Chris Jones described it, that SNL’s “constant belittlement might sting [the Trump administration] into submission,” looks lamentably naive in hindsight.

The cast of SNL as the Trump Family.
Will Heath / NBCUniversal / Getty

Comedy couldn’t uncover any buried facets of Trump—he was an open book, his narcissism and caustic insecurity self-stamped across Twitter every day. The directly satirical shows that emerged (Comedy Central’s The President Show and Showtime’s Our Cartoon President) inevitably relied on threadbare gags—the president’s uncomfortable comments about his daughter Ivanka, or his predilection for fast food. In the meantime, children were being caged at the border, white nationalists were marching with tiki torches, and entire branches of government were being co-opted in service of Trump’s innumerable grudges.

By 2020, the only comedian who could make Trump funny was Sarah Cooper, whose TikTok bits of herself lip-synching to Trump’s own words became viral motifs of a terrible year. Notably, Cooper didn’t try to perform Trump. No one, she seemed to sense, could top the man himself. But by miming his speech as a Black woman, she redirected the joke outward, to an American electorate normalizing nonsensical verbiage because it came out of the mouth of a famous white man. Other comedians mimicked and mocked the smoke and mirrors Trump constructed around himself—his hair, his chalky concealer, his puckered mouth and angrily jutting chin. But these elements were tricks Trump relied on—whether consciously or not—to deflect from his woeful record, his unparalleled ignorance, and his platform of hate. Cooper dispelled the illusion.

THE VANGUARD

In early 2017, as the Vulture writer Jen Chaney wrote that January, absolutely everything in culture seemed to be about Trump. The Young Pope, a surreal drama about a brash American elevated to one of the most powerful roles in the world, felt Trump-inflected; Veep turned out to have been an actual prophecy; Nineteen Eighty-Four soared up the Amazon charts when the Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway used the phrase alternative facts on Meet the Press. And at the Women’s March in Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration, protesters carried signs that read Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again.

Elizabeth Moss in The Handmaid's Tale.
Hulu

The Handmaid’s Tale debuted on Hulu in April 2017, three months into Trump’s presidency, and its timing was as serendipitous as its subject matter—the show adapts Atwood’s novel about a repressive totalitarian U.S. government. The fervor with which it was received was emotional more than it was logical; for all his alleged sins against women, Trump never proposed forcing them into reproductive servitude or installing a Christian theocracy that forbade women from working or owning property. (Mike Pence’s reported refusal to eat alone with a woman who wasn’t his wife bore more obvious parallels to Gilead.) But Handmaid’s resonated with so many women because the election of a flagrantly sexist man made a nebulous feeling tangible—the sense that progress, for women, wasn’t inevitable and could easily be reversed. The series occasionally came discomfitingly close to real life. Trump’s separation of children from their parents at the border, which the administration justified using Bible passages, mirrored children’s removal from parents who were deemed “morally unfit” on the show. “It is very biblical to enforce the law,” then–Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters in 2018. Protesters dressed in red cloaks and white bonnets would join scarlet MAGA hats and smirking Pepe as icons of the Trump era.

Another early show to adroitly reflect the period was Orange Is the New Black. The series first debuted before Trump’s presidency but, throughout his term in office, focused on the fundamental imbalance of power in America via the lens of the carceral system. Orange began as a comedy; it ended as a gutting exposé of how stacked and inhumane the justice and immigration systems can be. The fifth season, released in the summer of 2017, saw the women of Litchfield prison riot in response to an inmate’s death at the hands of a guard. Initially, the rebellion was cathartic. But Orange was never an idealistic show, and the women’s display of power couldn’t end well.

Danielle Brooks in Orange is The New Black.
Netflix

Now I can’t help thinking about Orange in tandem with another Netflix series that came out later in 2017, Marvel’s The Punisher. The show has received new attention since the Trump-incited Capitol riot earlier this month, during which men with zip ties and Punisher motifs on their body armor seemed to be seeking out politicians—the bad guys in their mind—because they’d bought into the lie that they were being disenfranchised. At the time of its debut, the series, starring Jon Bernthal as the veteran and gun-toting vigilante Frank Castle, didn’t seem to offer much insight into politics, even though it was an uneasy release, given the mass shootings that had occurred throughout the year. Castle’s extralegal activities are justified in the comics and on the show because he kills only bad guys. But what constitutes a bad guy, it turns out, is more complicated outside the realm of comics. On Season 5 of Orange, female prisoners rioted against cruelty and inhumane conditions and the system crushed them further in return. Both series depicted a rotten setup, but only one heroized a character who took the law into his own hands.

THE PARABLES

The more writers and showrunners sensed that Trump himself was an impossible subject, the more they looked instead to the landscape that fostered him: the ascendance of anti-elitism, the absurdity of jingoism-as-exceptionalism, the legacy of American racism. Some of these takes worked better than others.

A month or so before Q Clearance Patriot began posting cryptic messages about celebrities sex-trafficking children on 4chan, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk debuted American Horror Story: Cult. The FX series was a hastily rewritten addition to the AHS franchise starring Evan Peters as Kai, a Trump fan leading a murderous cult whose ultimate goal was … getting elected to city council? AHS: Cult was nonsensical and gruesome and apparently unfamiliar with the motivations of human beings. But it was the first TV show to tap into the idea of a Trumpian cult, and probe the fealty of its devotees. Space Force, a shaky satire pegged to Trump’s creation of a galactic branch of the U.S. military, was a show solely about the funniness of American idiocy, an uneasy subject during a deadly pandemic. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? gave a bothsidesish and caustic treatment to ludicrous excess on the left and the right, although in its more perspicacious moments, it revealed how hatred can be a passive thing rather than an active one—how simply going along with something despicable, or even just declining to object, enables atrocities.

Some of the series that were most incisive about Trumpism weren’t intended to address it at all. Stranger Things 3, the third installment of the sci-fi series from the Duffer Brothers dug into a paranoiac strain in the American imagination that seemed to anticipate QAnon’s peak the following year; the show included conspiracy theories about a parallel universe riven by bloodthirsty monsters and unethical experiments on children. Tiger King’s documentation of the strange cult of personality surrounding an outrageous big-cat collector named Joe Exotic seemed inextricable from Trumpism. “Even though [people] were making fun of him,” one person recalled about Exotic’s rise to fame, “Joe was the star.” Meanwhile, one of the superlative shows of the Trump period, HBO’s Succession, proffered the barbed comedy and surprisingly poignant tragedy of a clan of media moguls raised by a pugnacious and hopelessly damaged father. Even food shows offered a window into the 45th presidency: Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation, on Hulu, was a notable exploration of how America has co-opted the cooking of immigrants while rejecting the people who have been making it since before the country’s inception.

Joe Exotica in Tiger King.
Netflix

Other shows used allegory more intentionally. In 2019, HBO aired Chernobyl—a five-part series about the devastating 1986 explosion of a nuclear reactor. In the immediate aftermath of an unimaginable crisis, government leaders responded by rejecting reality. “The official position of the state,” one character says, “is that global nuclear catastrophe is not possible in the Soviet Union.” When I watched Chernobyl in 2019, it felt like a striking parable about the limits of a regime that refused to accept science and reason as principles. Thinking about the show now, with 400,000 Americans dead despite Trump’s insistent assurances that one day COVID-19 would just go away, I see that Chernobyl was more urgent than anyone could have guessed.

But the best show over the past four years, both as a response to the Trump presidency and a corrective to the notion that it was an aberration, was HBO’s Watchmen. Maybe it was appropriate, given the technicolor chaos and extravagant villainy of the moment, that the miniseries was a comic-book adaptation. Watchmen started with a depiction of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, in which white supremacists burned down the wealthiest Black community in the country, murdered likely hundreds of its residents, and left 10,000 others homeless. It imagined a world where reparations had been paid to Black Americans, and how the heirs of those white supremacists would respond in turn. It considered the legacy of trauma and proposed that a reckoning with racism is the most urgent and necessary issue of modern times. More than one scene predicted the storming of the Capitol by wannabe fascists in costume.

It’s too early to say what will become of the insurrectionists and their movement. But TV’s explorations of Trump and his enablers, at their best, showed how fragile American democracy is, that it could be easily challenged and corrupted. The person I thought of more than any other in the waning moments of the 45th presidency was Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn. The HBO documentary Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn explored how Cohn aggressively rejected all qualities that might weaken him, including loyalty, respect, and love. But it also used Cohn’s own end to offer a warning: The cost of ruling by fear is that nothing else is left when power is gone. Roy Cohn died alone, in debt, disgraced, and abandoned by everyone, even his protégé Donald Trump.