There’s a fierce debate going on inside the Democratic Party right now—mostly between Joe Biden and observable reality, to be honest—over whether Donald Trump is some sort of dark aberration in American history or just a particularly exuberant expression of the greed, fear, and hatred that have powered the Republican Party for decades. But there’s one way in which Trump undeniably represents a break from the past: His braying, cracking voice is impossible for comedians to resist imitating, and nearly as impossible for them to make funny, or even tolerable. Countless late-night monologues have run aground on this shoal, because it’s hard to write jokes about Donald Trump without quoting or imitating the absurd things Donald Trump says; but as soon as you give a comedian the chance to do his voice, they’ll do it; and as soon as any version of Donald Trump’s voice goes out over the airwaves, a significant portion of the audience will be involuntarily plunged into eyelid-twitching paroxysms of rage and sorrow. That’s not exactly a comedy sweet spot, but it’s interesting, because it represents a way in which the Republicans have actually disgraced themselves in the Trump era, as opposed to just being a little more honest about who they always were and what they always wanted.
Take Richard Nixon, for instance. Perhaps no Republican president before Trump did more to align the Republican Party with white supremacy—although there’s certainly stiff competition—and while every president of every party abuses their power to some degree, Nixon was forced to resign in disgrace, the very definition of overstepping your bounds. But although Republicans long ago abandoned their commitment to the rule of law and our common humanity, there was one responsibility Nixon took very seriously: He was funny in a way that insured basic minimum standards for Nixon impressionists. On Friday’s Late Show With Stephen Colbert,* the host briefly took the audience back to the halcyon days of a more civilized era:
Colbert’s Nixon impression alternates between not sounding much like Richard Nixon and not sounding anything like Richard Nixon, but it’s still funny: The victory sign, the hunched shoulders, and the basset hound jowl shake do most of the work. Even fictional characters can do a good Nixon—see, e.g., Mr. Burns’ Nixon on The Simpsons, in which Harry Shearer filters a Nixon impression through his Mr. Burns voice, itself a combination of Lionel Barrymore and Ronald Reagan. Tracy Morgan set out to do a bad impression of Nixon and still couldn’t stop it from being hilarious, as this video, entitled “Tracy Morgan’s Terrible Nixon Impression” and previously hailed in the pages of Slate as “the nation’s worst Nixon impression,” proves. As a bonus, it also features Conan O’Brien’s Nixon:
It’s true that a gifted Trump impressionist like Anthony Atamanuik can somehow turn Trump’s unbearable personal affect into laughter, but this is expert-level work: For everyday, run-of-the-mill hosts of major network late-night television shows, Trump’s voice is a tar pit where laughter goes to die. In Lincoln’s day—and even in Nixon’s—the Republican Party was committed to helping all comedians succeed, backing a slate of candidates with silly, easy-to-parody affectations ranging from stovepipe hats to handlebar mustaches. With a simple, graceful shake of his jowls, Stephen Colbert reminded the nation just how far the GOP has fallen.
Correction, May 5, 2019: This post originally misidentified Stephen Colbert’s show as Late Night With Stephen Colbert. It is The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.