Donald Trump Is No Joke

Alec Baldwin’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ impression reflects America’s belated shock at the monster it underestimated

My favorite Donald Trump impression has always been Darrell Hammond’s. Specifically, a Saturday Night Live skit from 2005 in which he played Trump as a pitchman for Domino’s. It was perfect: inspired by an actual commercial in which a Domino’s deliveryman gives Trump a cheeseburger pizza, and then Trump acts like he came up with the idea (for a cheeseburger pizza):

In the skit, Trump is shooting a Domino’s commercial dressed as a slice of Domino’s cheeseburger pizza. The reason this is my favorite impression is that it’s the version of The Donald that I used to love (and now very much miss): totally arrogant, absolutely clueless, confident in his abilities — and utterly harmless. Sure, he was a raving egomaniac and pathetic self-promoter but, hey, he was just a dumb huckster.

If anything, the guy was downright adorable in his pathetic shamelessness:

For much of the last year and a half, this is the Trump that political junkies, journalists, comedians and many Americans were thinking of. We kept laughing at him because, deep down, we all assumed that his White House run was just another stunt, worthy of a familiar SNL gag. Nobody was really going to fall for it, we thought; no point in taking it seriously.

This dopey Donald — the loudmouth with the awful hair — was the Trump that President Obama famously mocked back at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner:

But as The New Yorker mentioned last September, it was that very public humiliation of Trump that helped inspire him to run for president. A way to get back at those who didn’t take him seriously. Remember, Trump was in the room that night when Obama took him apart:

[H]is head set in place, like a man in a pillory, he barely moved or altered his expression as wave after wave of laughter struck him. There was not a trace of feigning good humor about him, not an ounce of… that thick-skinned cheerfulness that almost all American public people learn, however painfully, to cultivate. No head bobbing or hand-clapping or chin-shaking or sheepish grinning — he sat perfectly still, chin tight, in locked, unmovable rage.

While all of us were laughing, Trump was perhaps beginning to plot his vengeance, counting on us to underestimate him. As a result, the joke of a presidential campaign (whose end we all assumed would come long ago) continues to roll on.

Perhaps wrapped up in the satire of it all, the entertainment industry was a little slow in realizing it. When SNL announced that Trump would host on November 7, 2015 — his first time in 11 years — it sparked cries of boycott. But you could almost understand the network and Lorne Michaels’ thinking: C’mon, he’s not really going to be the Republican nominee. Let’s have some fun with the guy and enjoy the ratings. And so SNL let Trump parade himself in front of America; and to many peoples’ dismay, they didn’t even set him up for embarrassment. After all, he’s just an adorable dope. What was the harm?

But on this weekend’s season premiere of Saturday Night Live’s 42nd season — the program’s first new episode since May — it was clear that the show now looks at Trump the same way many Americans do: not quite a joke. No wonder that SNL’s much-hyped appearance of Alec Baldwin as Trump wasn’t all that funny. We’re all way too traumatized.

An SNL staple, Baldwin is quite adept at impressions, imitating everyone from Tony Bennett to Tracy Morgan, and his trick is the clear joy he gets out of playing the personality he’s spoofing. While his targets are often depicted as being foolish and conceited, you can tell that he loves these guys.

This weekend there was no such love in his Trump portrayal.

It would be inaccurate to say that the performance wasn’t funny. We all watched last week’s debate: The way he leaned into Trump’s bizarre pronunciation of China, the “broken microphone,” the sniffling — it was all dead-on. Despite it all, Baldwin’s gag was a hard pill to swallow. Partly because of Baldwin’s look. Where Hammond puffed out his lips and wore a comically ridiculous toupee, Baldwin was buried in latex, reaching an uncanny-valley version of the Republican nominee. Gone was the daffy, egotistical charm that Hammond brought to the character — the guy we saw skewered this weekend was a monster.

You may have enjoyed the bit (or the way Baldwin’s Trump referred to Lester Holt as “Jazzman” and “Coltrane”), but there was no relief in our laughter. The danger Trump represents was too real.

SNL has been lampooning presidents and politicians from the beginning, but it wasn’t until 2008 that the show really felt like appointment television in the midst of an election, with Tina Fey returning to the program to skewer Sarah Palin. It felt like humor with a higher purpose, lending the jokes a sharper sting. Early on in this election cycle, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm–inspired Bernie Sanders has been the most viral presidential bit, but SNL hasn’t felt very urgent or angry in its humor — depicting Trump an oafish clown that would eventually disappear. The show’s Saturday cold open wasn’t funny or angry so much as it oozed shock and horror — and perhaps a bit of guilt for underestimating and abetting.

Surprisingly, Trump has not yet tweeted his reaction to Baldwin’s performance, but he ought to take the portrayal as the highest compliment, indicative of what he’s already achieved. He ran for president in part to get revenge on the mocking Washington elites at that 2011 dinner. Saturday night, SNL spoofed him yet again — but there was no glee in these attacks. Like a lot of Americans, Baldwin and the show’s writers no longer consider him an idle threat. Trump is still a buffoon and a cretin, but nobody’s really laughing.

Tim Grierson is one-half of The New Republic’s film column Grierson and Leitch. He is also a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and Vulture as well as the author of six books, including a biography of Public Enemy.