Politico posted a piece on Thursday that asked a silly question and based itself on a silly premise. The headline: “Will 'Saturday Night Live' take down Trump?” The subhead: “'Maybe it’s going to take comedians to do the job that cable news has relinquished for so much of the campaign." The piece - pegged to the news that Alec Baldwin is going to take over the impression of #Donald Trump on #SNL, is based on a faulty premise and comes to an even faultier conclusion.
The piece, perhaps not surprisingly, quotes Dean Obeidallah, the comedian, Daily Beast writer and former SNL staffer, who says that SNL and other late-night comics “have a moral obligation” to go after Trump. Obeidallah also argued recently that Jon Stewart needs to come out of retirement on "The Daily Show" in order to defeat Trump.
Both of these arguments terribly misunderstand how left-leaning political comedy works: Stewart, for instance, was very good at helping liberals feel better during the Bush years. He was not nearly as good as preventing Bush from being elected or re-elected. I would also question the notion that the news media as a whole has “failed” in its coverage of Trump - numerous reporters have done outstanding work in investigating the Republican nominee, often bringing major stories to light.
But that’s even less the case with "Saturday Night Live": It’s not "The Daily Show" or Samantha Bee or even John Oliver. SNL is not an explicitly liberal show in any way and never really has been. And while it has a long traditional of making fun of politicians, it’s never bitten all that hard and has focused more on personal attributes than ideology. Gerald Ford fell down a lot. George H.W. Bush was mocked mostly for his hand gestures and manner of speaking, Bill Clinton as a horndog, and George W. Bush as a malapropism-plagued buffoon.
The SNL caricatures, while they penetrated the consciousness, never ended any of those men's’ presidencies. And while Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression has been credited/blamed with helping to mold Palin’s image as an incurious airhead back in 2008, chances are Palin would have created that impression on her own even without Fey.
Trump is a special case
But then there’s Trump. I’m really trying to think of what SNL could possibly do with Donald Trump that would affect the election in any way, and I’m coming up empty. One of the ways Trump is different from every other candidate is that all of the awfulness and all of the loathsomeness, is already baked into the cake- and it’s hard to satirize something that’s already so ridiculous in the first place.
A particularly vicious Trump impression, by a noted liberal actor like Alec Baldwin, would probably make liberal viewers of SNL very happy. But it wouldn’t do anything to sway swing voters. I’d like for SNL’s first priority in this election to be funny, not to try to move the presidential electorate. Because if they attempt the latter, they’ll likely achieve neither.