Common wisdom holds that whoever is ridiculed most enthusiastically on Saturday Night Live can be damaged, that the show helps sway public opinion — or, at least, among whatever slice of the populace that still considers SNL our nation’s satirist-in-chief. Viewed in this way, Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump impersonation, which was unveiled on Saturday’s season opener, was impressive as a makeup job. And by that I mean both the way the makeup and the wig were applied to Baldwin, and how effectively it turned Trump into just another politician whose mannerisms were to be ridiculed.
Which, of course, he’s not. Like Jimmy Fallon hosting Trump only to rumple his hair as if he were a big, lovable St. Bernard, the employees hired by Lorne Michaels continued to normalize Trump as a mildly rude windbag. Nothing Baldwin-Trump said on Saturday night was as vulgar or as vicious as what Real-Trump said as recently as — well, as recently as Saturday. Just hours before SNL aired, speaking in swing-state Pennsylvania, Real Trump brought up the stuff he said he wouldn’t use in the debate SNL was satirizing: Bill Clinton’s history with women as a cudgel with which to beat Hillary Clinton. “I don’t think she’s even loyal to Bill, if you want to know the truth,” Real-Trump said. “Why should she be, right? Why should she be?” In other words, Trump is now suggesting that (a) Hillary is unfaithful to Bill and (b) why not, since both aren’t humans worth treating with even minimal dignity in a campaign for the presidency?
By contrast, the SNL sketch could only allude to things such as Real-Trump’s coded racism. Baldwin-Trump referred to the Lester Holt played by Michael Che as “Jazz Man” and “Coltrane.” Boy, if Real-Trump actually knows who John Coltrane is, and had cited him in a debate, I’d be tempted to be impressed. But of course, that’s not the way Real-Trump talks. Baldwin is a good actor, but in no way did he come close, in delivering SNL’s scripted insults, to conveying the bottomless malice behind Real-Trump’s interruptions and his Sean Hannity-themed dodges.
The debate sketch featured Kate McKinnon doing a sharply funny Hillary Clinton that was much in the tradition of Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, pinpointing and isolating Clinton’s physical and verbal tics: the flash-frozen smiles and smirks, her clumsily rehearsed spontaneity, her notorious shimmy of overexcited delight. McKinnon and the SNL writers had this side of the debate nailed. Hillary’s foolish display of confidence that, upon viewers witnessing her opponent’s outlandish behavior, they will come over to her side: Yes, this indeed is a delusion that merited the vigorous dismay the Emmy-winning McKinnon brought to her performance.
Saturday Night Live airs Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. on NBC.