George Bush — aside from his gig as president — was perhaps best known for putting his foot in his mouth. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice … you can’t get fooled again,” Bush once said, trying to recall the common adage. This blunder gave the Harvard-educated oil-fortune-heir a chance to bring out a populist flair and make him more agreeable to the white working class. No one expected that the next Republican president, Donald Trump, would twist this formula of endearing stupidity into a crude parody. The unapologetic nature of Trump’s stupidity made any comedy mocking him more difficult. The Daily Show and other late-night programs, who owed their rise to their pokes at George Bush, struggled to find footholds with segments on Trump. As his presidency comes to a close, we can now look back on how satire shaped Trump’s time in office and how his time in office shaped satire.
The most iconic representation of the Trump presidency on TV will undoubtedly be Alec Baldwin’s smudged spray tan and scrunched up face on SNL. Right off the bat, SNL’s Cold Opens about President Trump established themselves as one the most effective mockeries of his administration. They were so successful, in fact, that they at one point garnered a presidential complaint in the form of a tweet. Approaching the latter half of his presidency, however, the format grew tired and there was no longer any laughter after Baldwin would open his sarcastically pursed lips to say something ludicrous. Baldwin simply slipped in with the hundreds of other comedians and corny family members doing their Trump impressions.
As his presidency comes to a close, we can now look back on how satire shaped Trump’s time in office and how his time in office shaped satire.
A more durable method of comedic relief came from Daily Show correspondent Jordan Klepper. The formula Klepper used was to let Trump supporters do the talking, and later expose and mock their points of view, which were often shrouded in ignorance. Klepper’s sincerity when interviewing them — and potentially his whiteness and height — gave Trump supporters a false sense of security, leading them to let loose their Fox News-esque absurdities, only to be startled when they were asked follow-up questions. This form of comedy also generated a unique feeling of satisfaction; it felt good to watch Trump supporters be made fun of. And, after all of the Democratic Party’s infighting and blame games, it was relieving to just laugh at the people who actually support Trump. These are the people who claim the Democratic Party is leaving them behind; the man in the misogynistic t-shirt and the woman who thinks Obama is a terrorist. While the impulse to dismiss all Trump supporters is not exactly productive, the opportunity to ridicule them made Klepper’s comedy extraordinarily entertaining.
Sarah Cooper, who got her rise lip-syncing Trump speeches, also latched onto the inherent absurdity of the Make America Great Again (MAGA) world. Cooper’s comedy lacked any set of punchlines or setup; the joke was simply her wide eyes and expressive features. I personally never understood Cooper’s comedy. She lacked the acting chops of Baldwin or the finesse of Klepper. To me, she seemed like the rest of us: taken aback by Trump’s defying of norms, unable to comprehend his torrent of words, trying her best to spin it as funny.
Trump was the best and the worst thing that happened to comedy and comedy was the best and worst thing to happen to Trump. Trump gave comedians plenty of material, as his endless and unintentional blunders became more and more laughable as his presidency stretched on. Yet, most comedians became buried under this deluge of gaffes and struggled with original takes, creating the trademark whiny and unfunny talk show Trump spoof — for example, Seth Meyers. Trump’s comically crude style energized a base that propelled him to the presidency in 2016, but ultimately cost him the election in 2020, as it spoiled his support among suburban women. Whether Trump’s brand of comically vulgar populism is here to stay remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure; the Trump presidency and the comedy surrounding it were inseparable.