How do you satirize Donald Trump? The man is made of the stuff of spoof. A fiction writer, trying to animate the contradictions and black holes of the American psyche, would not be able to create a believable character so purple. A self-styled truth-teller who wears a lie on his very head, a billionaire who shares the paranoia of the working class, Trump’s every word could be a punch line, if it was not received by so many as plain-spoken revelation.
And so before Trump was running for president, when he was just a garish billionaire and TV personality full of blunt and blustering over-confidence, people in the satire business wisely left him pretty much as he was, already an unmatchable satire of himself.
When Trump first hosted Saturday Night Live, in 2004, at the height of The Apprentice’s popularity, his monologue was all self-praise. He congratulated himself for the success of The Apprentice, for his taste in women, for his salary. He invited Darrell Hammond, the cast member then doing the Trump impersonation, on stage to deploy the Trump catchphrase, “You’re fired.” Each time Hammond delivered it, Trump would say, “I love it. Do it again.” At that time, Trump and Saturday Night Live were simpatico. Saturday Night Live believed that his display of gargantuan ego was what was funny about Donald Trump. Donald Trump believed that his display of gargantuan ego was what was charming about Donald Trump. They could work together.
Eleven years later, Donald Trump is now a serious presidential candidate full of blunt and blustering over-confidence, and, as last night’s Trump-hosted Saturday Night Live made clear, SNL and Trump’s compromise has been compromised. In a vacuum, or even just amongst the part of the American electorate not guided by frustration and racism, Donald Trump’s peerless ego might still be funny. But Saturday Night Live does not exist in a vacuum, even if its viewership does not much overlap with prospective Trump voters. Trump’s egomania may be amusing and absurd, but it is also one of his most compelling qualities. The satire has become indistinguishable from a campaign ad.
Saturday Night Live’s cast members seemed to know this, or at least, that’s one explanation for how unfunny the show was. Trump had relatively little screen time, but when Trump did show up, he got to do so entirely on his own terms. The only sketch of the night that focused on Trump and politics was one that took place two years into his first term, in which everything has worked out: Syria is solved, Putin is cowed, the wall with Mexico is up and a success, and the American people’s only problem is that they are tired of “winning.” How did all of this happen? “It’s just magic,” Trump says. “It’s always been that way my whole life.” The ostensible joke of this sketch—which was framed as an ad for Melania Trump to become first lady—was, once again, Trump’s ego. “I said to the writers of this sketch, keep it modest. It will be even better,” Trump tells the audience. This is supposed to be funny, because it is so grossly self-aggrandizing and ridiculous, and yet it is also Trump’s campaign message: He will fix everything, by magic. Don’t laugh, because if you do, you won’t hear the dog whistle.
Just to appear on Saturday Night Live is seen as an act of self-deprecation. (“I can take a joke,” Trump said during his monologue.) But Trump should get no credit for being self-effacing. SNL’s impersonation of him, its understanding of him, carries no bite. Yes, he’s a ridiculous personality beloved by drunk uncles everywhere, but Trump knows and loves this about himself. SNL made multiple cracks about Trump’s racism during the episode: Larry David called him racist during the monologue, a sketch about Trump’s tweets ended with a remark about black people, and Michael Che of “Weekend Update” skewered the guy “hosting this show” for getting Che’s “negro senses” tingling with the subtitle of his book, Making America Great Again. But this is perfect for Trump, who gets to affably take his punches for being racist, which only makes his racism appear less virulent, a boon to him and his voters.
Trump was probably not willing to explore anything on SNL that might actually jab him— like his un-electability, his relationship with Fox News or his issues with women. (In fact, he got to insult poor Rosie O’Donnell yet again, and, at the end of a campaign ad for him, starring Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong’s recurring porn-star character, he got to disavow their endorsement, while also suggesting he had once slept with them: What a hound that virile Trump is!) But did SNL have to do an entire sketch about how fearful the cast is of Trump’s searingly mean tweets? His insulting tweets are nothing but a compliment! And these are comedians! “Total loser” would not send them to pieces.
It’s hard to make fun of the person onstage with you, but SNL has successfully dinged political candidates—Sarah Palin—to their face before. Hillary Clinton’s recent appearance with Kate McKinnon, while ultimately positive for Clinton, was pointed. McKinnon, with her rictus grin, and her fixation on Clinton’s inability to relax or jibe with regular people, gets at an aspect of Clinton’s persona that is actually a problem for her. The night’s opening sketch saw McKinnon’s Clinton wishing she could speak “casual language.” Larry David played Bernie Sanders as an unfriendly kook with a problem with black voters. Meanwhile, Trump was getting teased for imagining he can save the world. With insults like that, he has no need for compliments.