November 16, 2016

JONES | SNL and the Normalization of Donald Trump

Print More

I hardly ever watch Saturday Night Live, or even single skits from it. From what I’ve seen, its sense of humor isn’t really my style: too broad and too topical without offering real criticism. Nonetheless, I watched the post-election episode, and thought that the show was exhibiting a new side. Kate McKinnon’s opening performance of “Hallelujah,” in character as Hillary Clinton, paid simultaneous tribute to the deaths of Leonard Cohen and Clinton’s presidential prospects (and the hopes of millions). This double-sided swan song was surprisingly powerful, especially when McKinnon ended by turning to the camera and saying sincerely, “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”

Following just after, Dave Chappelle’s opening monologue was a reminder of his talent, a rumination on Trump and America’s progress that was by turns cutting, glum and hopeful. Speaking about the shock many voters felt after Trump’s victory, Chappelle said, “I know the whites… You guys aren’t as full of surprises as you used to be.” He ended by recounting his feeling of hope at a BET-hosted event at the White House, saying, “In that spirit, I’m wishing Donald Trump luck, and I’m going to give him a chance. And we, the historically disenfranchised, demand that he give us one too.”

I wasn’t sure how to feel about this last part. Sure, we don’t really know what a Trump presidency will be, since it’s clear that he only holds positions based on pragmatism. He’s already qualifying his intentions regarding the Affordable Care Act. He has backtracked on his campaign promises to “drain the swamp” of Washington by choosing Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican National Committee, as his chief of staff, as well as many lobbyists for positions — although Mike Pence, the head of his transition team, then removed all of the lobbyists, which only underlines how little Trump cares about policies or consistency. But even if we don’t know what the presidency will bring, do we owe this man a chance? Do we owe someone a chance who began his campaign by alleging that the president was born in Kenya, and began his transition into the presidency by appointing Steve Bannon, the head of the bigoted conspiracy-theory cesspool Breitbart News, as his chief strategist?

I found Chappelle’s monologue so poignant that, briefly, I felt that he was right. And I felt that SNL had seized an opportunity both to both do justice to the terror of this moment, and to begin the process of learning how to be one country again. Chappelle’s final quote balances respect for the office of the president with a demand for justice: this, I thought, was the attitude we need.

Then I read Ira Madison III’s column on MTV News, “Even Dave Chappelle Can’t Absolve SNL’s Sins,” and I remembered the episode from last November when Trump hosted. If you want to get really nauseated, watch Trump’s opening monologue. He talks for a while about what a nice person he is: it’s unclear if this is supposed to be him making fun of himself or not. Two preening Trump imitators join him onstage. Then Larry David yells “Trump’s a racist!” from the audience, because “I heard if I yelled that they’d give me five thousand dollars.” “As a businessman, I can fully respect that,” Trump replies. “That’s okay.” Trump’s fear-mongering, bigoted campaign is made into a punchline; if we’re going to be ungenerous, it even implies that people who call Trump racist are doing it for their personal benefit.

By having him host on the show, SNL treated Trump just like a normal celebrity, not like the terrifying incarnation of white America’s fearful, angry and fact-disdaining id that he is. They should know better. SNL deserves blame for normalizing Trump, just like Jimmy Fallon deserves blame for treating him like a difficult but lovable child and tousling his hair on his show. These entertainers had opportunities to rise to the moment and make a statement about what was undeniably the most explicitly bigoted candidate to grace the halls of entertainment shows. They failed, and like Madison’s column says, having Chappelle on after the fact doesn’t excuse SNL for treating Trump like a normal celebrity during his campaign. If Trump doesn’t deserve a new chance, then SNL, which helped Americans believe that Trump was anything like a normal candidate, doesn’t deserve one either.

Jack Jones is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. His column Despite All the Amputations runs alternate Thursdays this semester.