Alec Baldwin as Trump.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, David Letterman explained why he had Donald Trump on The Late Show so often. “I’ve known Donald Trump for a long time, and I always thought he was exactly what New York City needed to have: the big blowhard billionaire,” Letterman said, “’By God, I’m Donald Trump, and I date models, and I put up buildings, and everything is gold.’ Nobody took him seriously, and people loved him when he would come on the show. I would make fun of his hair, I would call him a slumlord, I would make fun of his ties. And he could just take a punch like nothing. He was the perfect guest.” Ridiculous and delighted to be called so: over the course of his career as a public showman, this was the Trump way.
It was easy to mistake this inviolability for a thick skin. Then Trump ran for president. As Hillary Clinton noted in her convention speech, Trump is a man “you can bait with a tweet,” a truth he has demonstrated many times over. This weekend, he proved it once again, sounding off on Saturday Night Live, and in particular this past Saturday’s opening sketch, a riff on the second debate. “Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me. Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!” Trump wrote.
Trump hosted SNL just last year, at which point he had no problems with the show, even though he was regularly spoofed by Taran Killam and before that by Darrell Hammond. Those spoofs were relatively toothless. What makes Trump ridiculous and grotesque is also what Trump loves about himself, and this has made him difficult to properly satirize. If you see a bear with a comb-over hurling feces, you would think to insult it by pointing out it’s a bear with a comb-over hurling feces. But what if that’s how the bear makes its living? What if feces-throwing is what the bear has always longed to do? What if the bear thinks it’s the best feces-thrower that ever existed? What if the bear thinks regular bears are just sad? Calling Trump a rich, selfish, ungenerous, ridiculous, lecherous buffoon—all the obvious stuff— didn’t bother him because that’s who he wanted to be, America’s very own malignant Daddy Warbucks.
What is notable about Alec Baldwin’s impression of Donald Trump, and why it presumably got under Donald Trump’s skin, is simply that it is not about Donald Trump being rich, self-obsessed, self-actualized, married to a younger woman, and unflappable. Instead, it is about all of his mistakes. Baldwin, pouting like a botched collagen patient, gives a one-word answer to the question “Would you be a good role model?”: “No.” He trails off mid-sentence. He tells people to vote on November 35th. He is presented as a hypocrite about sexual assault. He’s racist and says Hillary “committed so many crimes, she’s basically a black.” He hovers behind Hillary “like a shark.” Meanwhile, the sketch presumes that Trump has tanked his chances and that Hillary is going to win: she is introduced as President Clinton. What you don’t see, in this sketch, is Trump talking about his money, his hot wife, his rallies, his knowledge of the tax code.
Baldwin’s impersonation of Trump isn’t even all that sharp; it’s just sharp enough. Compare it to Kate McKinnon’s crystalline Hillary impersonation, which never strays from the damning observation that Hillary Clinton is incapable of spontaneity or likeability. Hillary herself may have embraced this impression, but it still has bite. Baldwin has no corresponding unifying theory of the Donald. (Though here’s the obvious suggestion: he’s the man who never, ever wants anyone to stop looking at him. No wonder he was lurking behind Hillary all debate.) But there is now enough absurd and frightening material about Donald Trump that satirists can ignore the pre-existing, Trump-approved bounty of ridiculousness and focus on what gets under his skin.