Sarah Cooper has an outstanding résumé. Apart from her background as a standup comedian, she’s worked at Google, written for an animated series and published two humorous how-to books: 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings and How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings. But if you’ve heard her name recently, it’s because she now produces viral videos in which she lip-syncs the staggeringly dumb shit President Trump says on a daily basis.
Satirizing Trump — who has long existed as outright self-parody — was never easy. On Saturday Night Live, Alec Baldwin tried to get by with a squint and a pout, but the writers could never do more than rehash Trump’s abject incompetence from the week prior. What they added were cringe-y jokes about his love affair with Vladimir Putin. (Also, as a show that invited him to host two different episodes, once as an openly racist presidential candidate, SNL didn’t have much standing to take him down.) During the election, comedian and actor Anthony Atamanuik had developed a far superior impression, inhabiting Trump’s physical mannerisms and finding the right way of oscillating between several weird vocal registers.
In 2017-2018, Comedy Central aired a season and several specials of The President Show. The format was Atamanuik, as Trump, hosting a talk show set in a fake Oval Office, with Mike Pence (Peter Grosz) as his sidekick on the couch. As opposed to the SNL sketches, The President Show went deep on Trump’s inner psychodramas, and as a result, it felt absurdly predictive rather than reactive.
Sarah Cooper’s videos — the originals were made and shared on TikTok, though she now has millions of followers and subscribers across Twitter and YouTube as well — are a different innovation in ridiculing Trump. She’s not doing an impression, per se, but she is physically representing the inappropriate tone of his comments to the press. Rather than rewrite Trump in the style of a high school comedy troupe like SNL, she relies on his exact words, with all the haywire syntax and torturous pivots of phrasing.
Where The President Show took great pleasure in Trump’s corporeal presence (Atamanuik managed to make more than a few people think he was the actual president), Cooper is resolutely herself, a woman of color: no Trump makeup, hair or costume. Occasionally, she will play someone else in the room with him, registering a horrified disbelief. But the aura and iconography of Trump’s office are absent, lending the definite minimalism of entertainment produced in one’s home, under quarantine. This, as ZZ Packer wrote in the New York Times, allows us to hear Trump’s bluster, unfiltered by his power.
How funny you find this clarifying dissonance depends upon a few variables. Is it still amusing that Trump can barely string a sentence together? Does a black woman flipping the demands of impersonation give us subversive truth, as Packer suggests?
I’d answer “yes” on both counts, with the qualification that I find the novelty of Cooper’s act short-lived: the first clips you see are good for a laugh, then they plateau. At this point, their value to me is informational, not comedic: It is easier to stomach and process Trump’s appalling remarks without looking at his sweaty ham of a face. On the other hand, I’m not the target audience for Cooper’s performance. She’s a star to the same #Resistance liberals and older Democrats who thought Baldwin’s undercooked SNL run was hysterical. In other words, Boomers are the key demographic.
How people over the age of 60 began recommending an internet phenom to their millennial and zoomer children — who seem far more ambivalent on Cooper — begs for explanation. An obvious factor is political alignment: Cooper is in her early 40s, on the younger end of Gen X, and has affection for centrist politicians that younger progressives distrust, including Kamala Harris. The proud Biden-boosters and “Vote Blue No Matter Who” types can be at ease with her. Likewise, nothing in her routine is too edgy or niche to upset or confuse an older audience; they grasp the concept and cheerfully spread the content to friends and family.
Cooper has another advantage in being an independent digital creator, because while Boomers enjoy a late-night monologue bashing Trump, they can’t feel “cool” or “in the know” when watching this stuff. A TikTok star? Now that’s the next hot ticket. She’s not on TV, she’s online, which makes her automatically hip. Boomers see that, contrary to the average talk show host, she’s younger, a woman, not white — but she still gives Trump the business. So why don’t their kids like her?
Maybe millennials and zoomers, as a rule, are less enthusiastic when it comes to playing up Trump’s stupidity in a way that skirts the harm he inflicts. The white Boomers, meanwhile, are more likely to have some distance from the cruelties familiar to vulnerable groups during this administration; Trump’s buffoonish ignorance isn’t all that scary to them. Cooper’s material provides a sound argument for the emperor having no clothes, and her fans appear to relish this idea of humiliation.
Two new developments further expand our understanding of this need: The first is an Axios sit-down interview with Trump that, with simple follow-up questions and fluid editing like Cooper’s, proved he was flummoxed by the basic details of the coronavirus epidemic. It’s the exact kind of thing she’d lip-sync, and viewers called it a must-watch.
But what do we really learn from this segment? That Trump is an incompetent liar out of his depth, and totally without empathy? It’s a dialogue worth recording — it just doesn’t challenge perception.
At the same time, Cooper’s fans have developed a baseless theory that Trump’s promises to ban TikTok in the U.S. stem from his fury over her videos on the app. This ties back to their delight whenever the president rage-tweeted at Alec Baldwin. What’s funny to them in those SNL cold opens isn’t necessarily the scripted comedy but an anticipation of Trump’s “meltdown” response. This is their version of the conservative obsession with “triggering the libs,” where political humor is measured by how much it pisses off your opponent. The libs love imagining Trump in a tantrum after the Axios interview, and they’re much too eager to believe that in his vendetta against TikTok, he’s merely lashing out at a woman who “owned” him there.
That he’s never mentioned her to the media or on Twitter should lead us to ask whether he’s even aware she exists, though Cooper’s inclusion of #blockedbytrump in her bio is enough of an implication for some that he is consumed and embarrassed by her notoriety in spoofing him.
Vain and petty as Trump is, there’s no evidence of this. The conspiracy is another extension of older, moderate Democrats’ desire to lift up and lionize whomever they assume gets under his skin. Cooper has said, moreover, that her Twitter popularity far eclipses her profile on TikTok, and besides, she uploads videos across at least five channels, including Instagram and Facebook. Like them or not, and regardless of Trump’s opinion (if he has one), they will be readily available for the foreseeable future. It’s just that — for your parents, at least — the pleasure of seeing Cooper or anyone else simulate Trump’s idiocy is directly tied to the hope that he’ll see it and be very, very mad. That’s their little revenge, and they’re addicted to it.
Harmless in the short-term, no doubt; the worry is that over time, the schtick folds fascism, hate and violence into simple clownery. With Trump, that’s a mistake we’ve repeated since the start.