How’s your Trump? I bet you can do a passable “big, beautiful wall” or manage a halfway decent “you’re fired.” But can you do mid-’80s Trump talking about his real estate projects? Ryan Katsu Rivera can, as regular listeners of Gavin McInnes’ “
Get Off My Lawn” podcast can attest.
Young Trump reveals a more subdued, businesslike Donald. The bravado is there, naturally, but it has yet to coalesce into the larger-than-life persona he honed on reality TV and the campaign trail.
Trump’s more important Swiftian quality is his unerring knack for connecting with his audience.
Rivera’s performance is clearly the work of a connoisseur. It’s a deep cut that only true fans will appreciate. (He also does an excellent Jordan Peterson and Tony Soprano.) The Japarican Rich Little applies the same attention and care as the
Man of a Thousand Voices to his portrayal of the probable Republican nominee. Not for Rivera is the cartoonish, superficial obviousness of mainstream renditions. Instead, he tends to find the candidate’s impregnable self-regard in the quiet, self-reflective moments.
Alec Baldwin’s Trump is the Trump everybody knows. Baldwin as Trump is at once ubiquitous and utterly unmemorable. This is no surprise, as it’s essentially a caricature of a caricature.
Baldwin draws from the same lazy, regime-approved sketch of Trump that has guided purported “satire” about 45 since he began his first campaign. See also cartoonist Barry Blitt’s recent
New Yorker cover of Trump as a goose-stepping combination of Mussolini and Hitler.
It didn’t have to be this way. Long before Baldwin ever donned the wig, “Saturday Night Live” regularly featured Darrell Hammond’s transcendent Trump impression. At the time, Trump was merely an obnoxious reality show host and tabloid fixture. After the 2016 election, “SNL” boss Lorne Michaels invited his former cast member to return and reprise the role, much as Tina Fey occasionally swooped in to play Sarah Palin back in 2008.
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But then Lorne read the room — and the apocalyptic hysteria that was in the air. The new “threat to our democracy” Trump required a different set of skills from those involved in portraying the harmless “Celebrity Apprentice” host. Enter Alec Baldwin.
Why is Baldwin’s Trump so tediously unfunny? One reason is that it’s driven by ideology. We know exactly how Baldwin feels about Trump; the degree to which you agree with him is the foundation of its appeal.
On the other hand, Hammond’s personal views don’t matter; he creates his Trump through empathy. That’s empathy, not sympathy, despite our culture’s tendency to conflate the two, thus pre-emptively shutting down any honest attempt to understand or contextualize the controversial.
Hammond is no one-trick pony; his Trump is but one of his many best-in-class impersonations, ranging from Bill Clinton and Al Gore to Johnny Cash and Phil Donahue. Watch these — or any of the other 107 celebrities he portrayed over fourteen seasons — and it’s clear that Hammond is a master technician. It’s also clear that none of them would work without his vast capacity to imagine what it’s like to be in somebody else’s shoes.
Where did he get this capacity? His
2011 memoir offers a clue. In the book, Hammond links his lifelong struggles with mental illness, addiction, and self-harm with the horrific abuse his mother inflicted on him as a very young child. A crucial part of his recovery was the ability to forgive his long-dead tormentor, which seems to have come to him in a dream. Hammond saw his mother “as a little girl standing in the snow, shivering and helpless, a pure human being before someone did to her what she had done to me. I had this inescapable sensation that someone had hurt her and continued to hurt her for a long time. More importantly, she had once been innocent.”
Can Donald Trump and his supporters ever expect such understanding from those they have supposedly harmed? Let’s not hold our breath: Forgiving grievous injury is one thing; admitting that it was entirely self-inflicted requires far more extensive soul-searching.
Still, signs from Davos seem to indicate a general thawing toward the MAGA movement. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon urged us to look at Trump through the eyes of his adoring deplorables. “I don’t think they’re voting for Trump because of his family values. He’s kind of right about NATO. Kind of right about immigration. He grew the economy quite well.”
Of course, Trump’s appeal doesn’t begin and end with policy. Tax reform is not how you get the most passionate fan base this side of Taylor Swift’s. Like Swift, Trump is a consummate entertainer; when it comes to the performative side of the presidency — the rallies, the photo ops, the tweets — there’s no one better.
Trump’s more important Swiftian quality is his unerring knack for connecting with his audience. Taylor may sing about breaking up with Jake Gyllenhaal and beefing with Kanye West, but the Swifties see these rarified struggles as no different from their own. Likewise Trump, who rarely debases himself with the working-class cosplay most other politicians affect, improbably exudes everyman conviviality, even from behind his ubiquitous red power tie.
Haters will say it’s fake, that Trump only cares about himself, and that his voters are poorly informed dupes at best. But all politics, which is to say all human interaction, requires some degree of artifice. Trump reflects his public back to themselves with rare depth and accuracy. It may be an act, but pulling it off requires paying enough attention to get all the details right. For many forgotten Americans, that’s more than enough to make Trump the real deal.