When Saturday Night Live invited Donald Trump to host the program this fall, Latino Americans and Muslim Americans protested, and the network shrugged them off.
Now, with this weekend’s viral “Racists for Trump” parody ad and a reference to “Germany in the the 1930s” in its Trump-spoof cold open, the show seems to be acknowledging that perhaps its detractors had a point. Oh, hey, yeah, we invited an actual fascist to host our show. First he came for the Mexicans and we said nothing, then he came for the Muslims (etc.)… but now, maybe, months later, we should speak up:
SNL‘s comedic mea culpa is a sign of progress ‚ I suppose — and the fake ad is certainly funny and real in its message, laying bare the hatred that lies behind the folksy embrace of Trump. But we have to remember that, as with nearly every joke at Trump’s expense, the man himself got there first; at a rally just hours before SNL aired, he led the crowd in a Hilterian salute, under the guise of a “pledge” to vote. Don’t bother comparing me to Hitler, he seemed to suggest in this moment of realtime trolling, I’ll do it myself:
So SNL wasn’t even that bold, was it? Several pundits, including Jewish groups, have voiced their suspicions that the “raised hand” salute was a deliberate provocation, almost like a taunt from someone who has studied and admired famous demagogues, including the mannerisms and words of actual fascists. As Matt Taibbi wrote in his analysis of the candidate’s rise: “He steps to the lectern and does his Mussolini routine, which he’s perfected over the past months. It’s a nodding wave, a grin, a half-sneer, and a little U.S. Open-style applause back in the direction of the audience, his face the whole time a mask of pure self-satisfaction.”
If this has long been true, where were the Mussolini jokes? For months, comedians have lagged behind — rather than pushing forward — our mainstream conversations about the GOP frontrunner. Late-night hosts have invited him on to their shows for some light ribbing, with most jokes falling into the “his face is orange and he’s loud” category. All the while, Trump has managed to stay one step ahead, turning his speeches and debates into insult comedy routines wherein he impugns the manhood of his competitors and gets them to fire back in kind, dragging everyone down with him.
In February, the Times’ James Poniewozik wrote a piece explaining the difficulty Trump posed for traditional comedy:
Nonpartisan major-network comedy is used to mocking the foibles of candidates who accept certain standards of public presentation — Marco Rubio, say, going on auto-repeat in New Hampshire — but Mr. Trump doesn’t much care about those. The more opinionated cable shows, in the mold of Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” like to point out politicians’ dog whistles, but Mr. Trump uses an air horn. So, with Mr. Trump and his movement, a comic can often only point and wince.
Yet this hands-off, shrugging treatment by comedians is far from unique. In fact, it has paralleled the way the GOP “establishment” and the mainstream media have found themselves flummoxed by his presence, directing befuddled attention his way while making the wrong assumption that, somehow, he’d eventually disappear. Gawker even revealed some very cozy voicemails between Trump and his would-be antagonists in the press. Thus, his position at the nexus of the news media and the entertainment media, combined with his popular support, means that he’s winning in a way no one like him has done before in the US. As The New Yorker’s David Remnick wrote this week, “No American demagogue — not Huey Long, not Joseph McCarthy, not George Wallace — has ever achieved such proximity to national power.”
But in the past week or so, all bets seems to be off. John Oliver reneged on his disinterest in American electoral politics to go in hard, for 21 blissful minutes, on Drumpf/Trump; SNL made the Nazi ad; and Louis C.K. wrote a long and somewhat confused email this weekend equating Trump with Hitler: “That’s how Hitler got there. He was voted into power by a fatigued nation and when he got inside, he did all his Hitler things and no one could stop him.”
Interestingly enough, on Saturday night, after wins from Trump, Clinton, Sanders, and Cruz, the media’s cameras remained exclusively and resolutely focused on Trump’s press conference. It felt as though we were all being held hostage (like Chris Christie). The focus was so disturbing that one of CNN’s pundits felt the need to speak up against her own network: “There is a fine line between covering a candidate and amplifying a candidate,” said Sally Kohn, a progressive activist and pundit. “And I’m sorry, but, yes, Donald Trump may be the Republican frontrunner, I still think we’re giving him way too much attention in proportion to the other candidates who also had victories to celebrate tonight. I’m worried. When he institutes internment camps and suspends habeas [corpus], we’ll all look back and feel pretty bad.”
Airing on the same night as SNL‘s ads and a week after Oliver’s tirade, and during a week marked by the GOP desperately recruiting everyone it could to denounce Trump (a tactic that will only backfire), Kohn’s comments seemed to signify a moment of self-questioning across all realms of television. From news to comedy, there finally seems to be an imperative to push back on Trump’s dangerousness before the general election arrives.
Of course, it also may be that these epiphanies aren’t entirely unprecedented on the small screen, even on the late-night circuit. Maybe we just haven’t been listening to the right voices, or taking them seriously enough. After all, The Nightly Show‘s Larry Wilmore compared Trump to Mussolini back in September.