This Trump took the stage and promised to be “so presidential,” then almost immediately offered up some casually racist and sexist remarks. He called the moderator Lester Holt (as played by Michael Che) “Coltrane” and “jazzman”; he accused Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama of taking his microphone “to Kenya” and breaking it; he proudly brought up Monica Lewinsky, calling her “very heavy.” Throughout the sketch, he sniffed, grunted, and grimaced at his opponent; Baldwin’s Trump seemed less like a class clown and more like a demonic version of SNL’s Drunk Uncle.
It felt like the first time the show was going after the candidate’s controversial policies and inflammatory rhetoric. But just as powerful was how little the writers needed to stray from his actual words in order to make a point. “We should be talking about the important issues, like Rosie O’Donnell and how she’s a fat loser,” Baldwin’s Trump yelled when asked about Alicia Machado; “And everyone agrees with me, and I just wanted to bring that up at a presidential debate of my own volition. Good idea, I did it.” It might have seemed ridiculous if it wasn’t almost exactly how it played out in real life.
Trump has been a figurative and literal character on Saturday Night Live for many years. He’s hosted twice: once in 2004, and again in 2015, in the middle of his presidential campaign. Phil Hartman played Trump as a blustery tycoon for a handful of sketches in the late ’80s; Hammond’s version was more rooted in Trump’s persona on The Apprentice. After one ill-fated sketch where the now-fired cast member Taran Killam tried the role, Hammond was brought back—but his Trump was still the smug playground bully who called Jeb Bush “Jeborah.” Despite being known as the show’s master impressionist, he never quite had Trump’s cadence down. Beyond that, his take on the character seemed oddly neutral at a time when Trump was proposing a ban on Muslims entering the United States and calling Mexican immigrants “rapists.”
Baldwin’s Trump is the show’s canniest yet. His character is heavier on the makeup—his face is craggy and deeply perma-tanned, while his gigantic eyebrows practically jump through the screen. It seems a little inspired by Baldwin’s take on Richard Nixon, whom he parodied on 30 Rock—grumpily paranoid, hunched over with his mouth hanging open, and wagging his fingers at the audience furiously. But the verbal impression also sounds more accurate, especially when he hits words like “Clinton” (spat out with derision) or “China” (delivered with an elongated groan).
Still, the biggest change came through in the writing itself—SNL now seems unafraid to use Trump’s own ideas and words to paint him as a sneering racist, rather than a harmless blowhard. “The thing about the blacks is that they’re killing each other,” Baldwin growled in the debate sketch. “All the blacks live on one street in Chicago ... it’s called Hell Street, and they’re on Hell Street, and they’re all just killing each other, just like I am killing this debate.” It was an only slightly heightened version of Trump’s actual pitch to black voters, itself rooted in racist stereotypes.