In late October 2020, just before the election that would remove Donald Trump from office and install his Big Lie, Saturday Night Live aired a fake public-service announcement. “Do we want four more years of Donald Trump, or a fresh start with Joe Biden?” the show’s cast members asked. “Can we survive four more years of scandal, name-calling, and racial division?” But then the ad took a turn. “He’s ‘historically bad for the country,’” Alex Moffat said, using exaggerated air quotes—“but he gave us so much.” “Every single day I tell someone, ‘Can you believe what Trump just said?’” Bowen Yang admitted. The PSA was grimly revealing, as, one by one, the cast members acknowledged that Trump was both a direct threat to American democracy and, for their purposes, comedy gold. “If Donald Trump isn’t president,” they asked, “then what are we gonna talk about?”
The latest episode of the show ventured a new answer to the old question: If Donald Trump isn’t president … Saturday Night Live is still going to talk about Donald Trump. The cold open of last night’s episode dedicated the majority of its time to resurrecting Trump via an impression by the comedian James Austin Johnson. Johnson’s take on the president, which had gone viral on social media before it came to SNL, embraces the truism that Trump can’t be mocked because he’s already such a mockery of himself. The impression is clinical in its precision. It is uncanny. But its implications are grim. Trump has been deplatformed from Twitter and Facebook and the U.S. presidency; still, he has been shouting from the sidelines, trying to argue that an election that did not end with his victory is an election that did not count. Trump is an ongoing emergency. But here he is, back on SNL, treated as ongoing comedy.
The cold open began in the typical way. It focused on American politics, offering a survey of some of the week’s big stories framed as an episode of Fox News’s absurdist talk show Justice With Judge Jeanine. First came the jokes about Aaron Rodgers’s vaccination lies. Then came a treatment of the Republican Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial win in Virginia. But those topics were preludes. The bulk of the sketch was dedicated to the resurgence of the man Cecily Strong’s Jeanine Pirro called “the former and basically current president of the United States.”
Trump, the politician, understands that attention—any kind of attention—is currency. And the gist of last night’s joke was that Trump still will find a way to ensure that he gets the attention he craves. As Moffat’s Youngkin watched helplessly, caught on a split screen with a guy determined to frame his victory as a Trump win, Johnson’s Trump rambled and railed. He talked about Dune, and “Denny Villenoovey,” and Star Wars, and lasers, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (“You know what, with Eternals, it was too diverse; it was too diverse, and no one wants to see that. The movie’s rotten; just ask the tomatoes.”) Adding to the joke was SNL’s version of the visual rundowns that some Fox News hosts like to employ to orient their viewers as they talk. Pirro’s show dissected one of Trump’s rants like so:
The sketch made for decent comedy. Johnson’s impression is deeply skillful, and it skewers Trump’s tendency to make himself, even in his alleged absence, inescapable. The whole thing sent up Trump’s greatest skill: his ability to hijack attention. But doing that sendup also required SNL to let Trump … hijack its attention. The sketch effectively re-platformed him. And it turned Johnson’s great impression of Trump into a paradox. Alec Baldwin’s version of Trump, inane and grotesque and saliva-forward, was—say what else you will about it—making an argument about Trump’s monstrosity. It was attempting to work as satire. Johnson’s version of Trump, in contrast, is maniacal and mechanical, and impressive because it is such a faithful replication of the original. But does such an impression add anything to the conversation about Trump? Or does it merely churn more Trump into the atmosphere?
One of the truisms of Youngkin’s win this week was that the win was also a victory for “Trumpism without Trump.” But SNL, last night, managed to give us Trump without the Trumpism: all of the absurdity of the person, none of the menace of his movement. Trump’s Big Lie lies on; you’d have no idea of that, though, watching SNL’s version of him ramble on about space lasers. This Friday, CNN began airing a special report about January 6, a mini-documentary that emphasizes the chaos of that day, the violence, the lead-up, and the aftermath. It is titled Trumping Democracy: An American Coup. “January 6 was an unconstitutional attempt led by the president of the United States to overturn an American election and reinstall himself in power illegitimately,” one of the show’s commentators, a House Republican, notes in it. You might add that power, for Trump, has always involved his ability to disguise himself through his spectacles. SNL, for too long, was so interested in Trump as a joke that it ignored him as a threat. Last night’s episode suggests that the show has looked back over the previous years—and learned precisely nothing.