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.