'Recruit Rosie': When Satire Joins the Resistance

“If called I will serve,” the comedian said of the requests that she play Steve Bannon on Saturday Night Live. It was a joke—and, also, extremely serious.

Evan Agostini / Invision / AP

It went, roughly, like this: Over the weekend, Melissa McCarthy made a surprise appearance on Saturday Night Live, making sweaty, swaggery fun of Donald Trump’s combative press secretary, Sean Spicer. On Monday, Politico reported that Trump had been angered by SNL’s mockery of Spicer—not, it contended, because of McCarthy’s eviscerating portrayal of him, but because of the person of McCarthy herself. “More than being lampooned as a press secretary who makes up facts,” Politico noted, “it was Spicer’s portrayal by a woman that was most problematic in the president’s eyes, according to sources close to him.” As a top Trump donor added, bringing another voice to an idea that has become prominent in the early days of the new presidential administration: “Trump doesn’t like his people to look weak.”

From there it went, roughly, like this: You know, people began asking on Monday, what Trump would probably really, really hate? Say, just for instance, that SNL found a woman to play top presidential advisor Stephen Bannon. And say that they found not just any woman, but the woman Trump has sparred with more publicly, and more reliably, than any other. The one the president has referred to, over the course of their more-than-decade-long feud, as “a real loser” and “a total trainwreck” and “crude, rude, obnoxious, and dumb” and a “fat pig” and a “slob.”

The idea spread. Recruit Rosie! the people cried. Enlist O’Donnell! Who better than Trump’s so-called “pig” to really get his goat!

Rosie, it seems, read the tweets. And on Monday evening, jokingly-or-maybe-not-so-jokingly summoning George Washington and William Sherman and Franklin Roosevelt, the comedian gave her succinct reply: “I will serve,” O’Donnell tweeted.

It was all, on the one hand, a low-stakes joke—not so much at the expense of Steve Bannon as it was at the expense of a president who seems to be unprecedentedly thin-skinned. But “Recruit Rosie” was also, despite its tempest-in-a-tweetstorm setting, much more than a joke: It operated on the premise that jokes can effect significant changes in the daily operations of the White House. It assumed that one bit—O’Donnell playing Bannon, the “real loser” playing the person who seems to be, in Trump’s mind, the ultimate winner—could have not just a comedic punchline, but also a political upshot. Recruit Rosie took for granted that satire can be, at this moment, and with this president, not just a distraction or an amusement, but indeed a weapon of resistance.

In one sense, certainly, that’s an extremely old and bland idea. Call it the banality of comedy: Politics and satire have been intertwined since at least the earliest days of democracy. The Roman poet Juvenal, famed practitioner of the art of Satura, noted that it was hard not to write satire, living as he did within the corruption and decadence of the “unjust City.” Juvenal was, of course, not alone in that sentiment. Shed of the particularities of geography or generation or political system, it is a very human tendency—perhaps the human tendency—to puncture those in power. And American democracy, in particular, with its lively media culture and its hosting of Thomas Nast and Ambrose Bierce and the writers of SNL, has been a particularly eager adopter of the practice. “We, the people” have become, over the years, extremely adept with our side-eye.

But here’s where Recruit Rosie breaks, just a little bit, with all that. Many of the most recent, and most memorable, of the presidential satires—Ronald Reagan, secret genius; Gerald Ford, obvious klutz; George W. Bush, sworn enemy of the English language—have existed not just to amuse their audiences, but also to influence the people’s perception of their targets. They have aimed at the zeitgeist, and, as such, have been less concerned with direct impact than with a softer kind of power: They have generally been concerned with shaping the public impressions that congeal into historical memory. Did George W. Bush, the person, talk about “strategery”—or did his SNL persona? Satire, when done well, makes it hard to remember for sure. Satire, traditionally, has played the long game.

Trump, however, is not a traditional president. And the satire aimed at him and his administration has been, along with so much else, adjusting accordingly. And thus: Recruit Rosie—which is about humor, sure (O’Donnell as Bannon! Can you even imagine?), but which is also, and more directly, premised on action. It sees itself, as @CaptJaneway2017 suggested, as part of #TheResistance. Its real punchline is that President Trump is so sensitive about his public image that an unflattering portrayal of his primary advisor—which is also an unflattering portrayal of the president—might remove that advisor from the president’s good graces. Taken to its logical extreme … it might even get Bannon fired.

The news cycle that hosted the Politico piece about Trump’s SNL-driven anger with Spicer also featured another story: The New York Times reported that Trump has been spending the early evenings of his young presidency by retiring to the residence of the White House and watching cable news. It was a revelation that would surprise nobody who follows the president’s cable-driven Twitter feed (though Spicer, for the record, dismissed the entire Times story as one more instance—and, indeed, “the epitome”—of “fake news”).

Coupled with the Politico story, though, the Times’s reporting suggested just how powerful television has become as a means of shaping not just the public’s worldview, but also the president’s. Savvy lobbyists are now buying ads that air during the Fox News Channel and MSNBC shows the president is known to watch, on the assumption that it’s more efficient to buy presidential attention through ads than it is to try to obtain that most precious of commodities through more traditional means. And, now, people are suggesting that SNL and its satire can function in a similar way.

Recruit Rosie, that meme-y movement, acknowledges how protective of his public image the current occupant of the West Wing seems to be. It recognizes the extent to which President Trump, as a creature of reality TV, remains deeply concerned about his ratings, whether they be manifested through Nielsen scores or crowd sizes or polling numbers or, indeed, late-night comedy sketches. Progressives—and non-progressives along with them—have been publicly wondering how to resist the new president and his policies. Recruit Rosie hints at a tool that might have been overlooked, so far, in those discussions—one that is powerful precisely because it is so basic: Americans’ ability—at once cherished and time-tested and constitutionally stipulated—to laugh at their leaders.