Saturday Night Live has been on television for nearly 42 years, and in that time, it has mocked seven presidents, with an eighth, Donald Trump, now firmly in its sights. The show’s satire is essentially part of the political scenery; at best, a president might knowingly reference it as a sign of self-awareness. Chevy Chase, in his portrayal of Gerald Ford, mocked the president as clumsy and accident-prone. President Ford did not respond by publicly demonstrating his grace and poise, obeying the old maxim about not protesting too much.
Playing Trump on last weekend’s show, Alec Baldwin mocked the president-elect’s impulse control in a sketch that saw him retweeting random high-school students during a national security briefing. The real Trump was not pleased. “Just tried watching Saturday Night Live - unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse. Sad,” he tweeted at 12:13 a.m., about halfway through the episode. The irony couldn’t have been more plain: In response to a sketch mocking his propensity for impulsive tweeting, the president-elect ... impulsively tweeted about it. Satire in the age of Trump has already been difficult for Saturday Night Live, but it seems increasingly caught in a feedback loop: Any ridiculous heightening of his behavior is doomed to instant irrelevance by Trump’s reaction to it.
The show’s original attempts at portraying Trump the presidential candidate were abortive. Taran Killam was unmemorable in the role, and Darrell Hammond’s take was that of a knowing circus clown, a provocateur throwing self-aware winks to the audience as he mowed down his Republican opposition. Baldwin’s work has been crucial to a revitalization of Saturday Night Live’s political relevance; his Trump is more straightforwardly combative, a man deeply confused about the power that has been thrust upon him.
“There is a reason, actually, that Donald tweets so much,” his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway (played by Kate McKinnon) says in the sketch. “He does it to distract the media from all his business conflicts and all the very scary people in his cabinet.” Not so, says Baldwin’s Trump. “That’s not why I do it. I do it because my brain is bad.” As SNL prepares for a Trump administration, it’s still playing out the debate over whether the president-elect is trying to throw Americans off the scent of bigger stories with his angry tweetstorms.
The self-awareness that was on display in Hammond’s performance as Trump has shifted over to McKinnon’s portrayal of Conway, who has become the audience surrogate for these sketches. It’s an odd if interesting choice; Conway, the most prominent mouthpiece of the Trump campaign, doesn’t seem like the obvious choice with whom to break the fourth wall. But McKinnon is still best known for her work as Hillary Clinton, and the sense of long-suffering she deployed there somehow filters through to her performance as Conway, whose face is stuck in a permanent grimace.
Baldwin’s Trump has no such humanity, obsessing only over his personal image and uninterested in getting any work done (he tells Conway that he’s going to “build that swamp,” since it’ll be faster than “building a wall” and “draining the swamp”). When he summons his personal adviser Stephen Bannon into the room, a Grim Reaper figure arrives in a black cloak, bellowing, “SORRY I’M LATE.” Perhaps this is what President-elect Trump is referring to when he says the show is “totally biased,” something he’s claimed in previous tweets. But Trump appears confused about the role of satire, geared as it is, at its best, toward challenging those in power. In loudly (and repeatedly) dismissing his own parody, Trump is defying yet another unspoken rule of politics. And as with so many other unspoken rules he’s broken, he’s seemingly suffering little consequence.
SNL’s challenge will be breaking the feedback loop (though the show’s ability to do so is as much up to Trump as it is to the program’s writers). Every president has had his own persona on the show—Ford was clumsy, George H.W. Bush a patronizing scold, Bill Clinton a boisterous cartoon. Now, the show is tasked with delivering a heightened portrayal of a man who, in real life, detests Saturday Night Live and wants the world to know it. In the past, SNL has tried to dispel tension by inviting targets of mockery onto the show, so that they can be in on the joke—Sarah Palin dropped by during the 2008 campaign, and Hillary Clinton played a world-weary bartender in 2016, parodying her own standoffish persona.
Trump has, of course, already appeared on SNL multiple times, and his 2015 hosting effort was widely criticized as helping to “normalize” a candidate who had called Mexican immigrants rapists and proposed banning Muslims from entering the country. As a host, he was an affable, largely forgettable presence, uninterested in poking fun at himself in any significant way and making SNL look toothless. His return to the show seems unlikely, though Trump has defied expectation before.
Next week, the show could mock Trump’s public hatred of SNL, in effect holding a mirror up to a mirror. But that approach would quickly grow unsustainable—SNL itself can’t always be part of the story in an SNL sketch. Still, ignoring Trump’s behavior could also be a misstep; his apparently thin-skinned tweets and the ease with which the show has baited him may point to how he’ll conduct himself as president. After the episode, Baldwin took to Twitter to try and reason with the President-elect, joking that he’d stop his impersonation if Trump released his tax returns. The gag wasn’t so much Baldwin’s acknowledgement that Trump’s tax returns remain secret, but rather the idea that Baldwin could very well strike a deal with the social-media-friendly politician online. Reality is melding with performance, and the world of politics and satire now feel one and the same.