Saturday Night Live was off this week, which meant that a grateful nation woke up refreshed and relaxed on Sunday morning, secure in their belief that, although we no longer live in a world where the president of the United States can be trusted not to fuss and cry like a cranky little baby whenever a show that has been dedicated to making fun of presidents for more than 40 years continues to make fun of the president, we at least lived in a world where the president of the United States could be trusted not to fuss and cry like a cranky little baby over a rerun.
Well, it turns out we don’t live in that world either:
To be fair to Donald Trump, his usual Saturday night plan of spending some executive time with Jeanine Pirro’s white supremacist ravings was scuttled by Fox News, which pulled her off the air Saturday after she suggested last week that Rep. Ilhan Omar was un-American because of her religion. How else was the president of the United States—not only the most powerful person on the entire planet, but also a guy who lives in a house that has a movie theater and a bowling alley—supposed to spend his time, if not by watching reruns of a television show he loathes? Trump was a victim of circumstance, left with no other option than to suggest on Twitter that Saturday Night Live was making fun of him at the behest of the Democratic Party and Vladimir Putin. But what was it about the particular Saturday Night Live episode NBC reran—the Matt Damon–hosted one from December—that enraged Donald Trump?
Usually, this is an easy question to answer: Trump gets mad about the cold open, which is almost always so explicitly about Donald Trump that even Donald Trump understands he’s being made fun of. In fact, the cold open of the Matt Damon episode, a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life that doubles as a riff on a famous SNL riff on It’s a Wonderful Life, pissed Trump off enough that he suggested on Twitter that the show was colluding with the Russians when it aired the first time around. If you haven’t seen it recently, it’s easy to understand why Trump would take it personally:
But although it’s tempting to assume that if Donald Trump is mad about a Saturday Night Live sketch, it’s because that Saturday Night Live sketch is about Donald Trump, this gives Trump far too little credit for his extraordinary ability to make things that are not about Donald Trump all about Donald Trump. (If we learned nothing else from the 2016 election, we should at least stop underestimating the guy.) So we must at least consider the proposition that the president was enraged by this “Westminster Daddy Show” sketch, because he wasn’t one of the contestants:
Both “West Palm Golf Daddy” and “Wall Street Business Daddy” are aspirational figures for Trump, so his forehead veins must have been throbbing upon seeing a fake news guy like “Broadcast Daddy” win Best in Show without even entering. But to really get inside Donald Trump’s head—if that’s something you want to do for some reason—you have to keep in mind that the Matt Damon episode wasn’t the only SNL episode broadcast in the Washington area on the night of March 16. NBC also reran an episode from March 15, 2008, hosted by Jonah Hill, chock full of sketches that seem tailor-made to stoke Donald Trump’s paranoia and insecurity. For example, here’s a MacGruber sketch from that episode about a guy whose co-workers all secretly loathe him and talk about him behind his back because he is spectacularly incompetent and keeps blowing everything up:
It makes superficial sense to assume that Donald Trump might hear something that speaks to him in a song that goes “His co-workers are buzzing ’bout his total incompetence/ He’s trying to ignore it, but it really hurts his feelings/ He’s lashing out at everyone!” But giving Trump too much credit is as dangerous as giving him too little, and if the man were capable of that sort of empathetic leap—“a person who is not me is suffering in a way that I can understand”—his political agenda would include less white supremacy. To really understand what’s going on here, you have to look at the historical context surrounding Jonah Hill’s Saturday Night Live episode. On March 12, 2008, just a few days before Hill took the stage in Studio 8H, future Slate columnist Eliot Spitzer held a grim press conference announcing he would resign as the Governor of New York in the wake of a prostitution scandal. It was the biggest television trainwreck of the week—things were a lot simpler in the pre-Trump era—and so it made the cold open:
Now we’re getting somewhere. This sketch is based on a number of propositions that would be baffling and infuriating to Trump:
• People don’t like it when their spouses are caught in tawdry sex scandals!
• Getting caught up in a tawdry sex scandal is deeply embarrassing!
• Politicians who get caught up in tawdry sex scandals should resign from office!
This makes the Eliot Spitzer cold open the most likely candidate as the cause of Trump’s anger so far, but there’s one piece of textual evidence it doesn’t account for. After complaining about SNL being “not funny/no talent,” Trump broadened his critique of American television, writing, “Same with Late Night Shows……” As we all know, the president is not in the habit of making connections between concepts, no matter how closely related, without heavy coaching, so something must have set him off. And then, in the middle of the “Weekend Update” segment from March 15, 2008, there it is:
It’s Amy Poehler and late night television host Seth Meyers, the very man whose merciless mocking of Donald Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner supposedly inspired him to run for president in the first place, going down a list of all the hilariously stupid and incompetent decisions Eliot Spitzer made while trying to cover up a tawdry sex scandal. It’s difficult to read this passage, for example, as anything but a scathing takedown of Donald Trump’s entire worldview, particularly if you happen to be a sociopathic narcissist named Donald Trump:
Really, Eliot Spitzer, really? … the service you used was called “Emperor’s Club V.I.P.” Really? You know, as a rule, if something has “VIP” in the title, it’s not for V.I.P.s. If you see a place called the V.I.P. Nail Salon in midtown you will not find Kiera Knightly there.
That’s gotta be the sketch that enraged Donald Trump this Sunday morning. And as much as I hate to admit it, the president has a point: He has enough on his plate, what with his sex scandals and his legal woes and his unprecedented stupidity; he shouldn’t have to turn on the television and see people making fun of Eliot Spitzer, too. But although it’s fun to watch the president get impotently furious about a television show, there’s a darker truth here: Poehler and Meyers take it for granted that a sex scandal with Spitzer-levels of tawdriness would end any political career. So who is this joke on, really?