Well over half of the claims Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump is making on the campaign trail are mostly false, false or “pants on fire” whoppers, according to the nonpartisan watchdog group politifact.org.
Still, Trump is right about one thing, at least: As he told the Saturday Night Live audience back in 2004 when he first served as guest host, “I’m a ratings machine.”
That’s the likely reason NBC has invited Trump to return as guest host on SNL Nov. 7, despite cutting ties with him in June. After the real estate mogul announced his candidacy in a speech branding Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, the network decried his “derogatory” remarks, fired him from The Celebrity Apprentice, and canceled broadcasts of his Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants. Less than four months later, the “respect and dignity for all people” that NBCUniversal sanctimoniously asserted at the time as “cornerstones of our values” seem to have been trumped by the candidate’s brazen braggadocio, which has proven to draw eyeballs to TV screens like flies to fresh manure. After all, Trump’s recent appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert gave both programs a ratings jolt.
NBC shows no signs of backing down, despite protests from the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, the California Latino Legislative Caucus, Brave New Films, and an online dump-Trump petition, that, at press time, has garnered more than 362,000 signatures. One way or another, all of them make what should be the indisputable point — as a trending Twitter hashtag puts it — that #RacismIsntFunny. Trump supporters quickly flooded the hashtag with disgusting racist jokes.
In its more than four decades on the air (with only two Latino and zero Latina cast members over those years), SNL has established itself as a campaign stop as important as the Iowa caucuses. Candidates visit the show — as Hillary Clinton did recently — to reach swaths of the public who seldom, if ever, tune into CSPAN, and to present themselves as easy-going, regular folks, able to poke a little fun at themselves. Hosting the program, though, gives a guest a bigger platform, and the show’s implicit imprimatur.
Maybe that’s the only role that Trump could fill, given his bully’s intolerance of even the mildest mocking. But unless SNL satirically manages to reveal the dangerous absurdity of Trump’s policy proposals — round up and deport 12 million residents of the U.S. and impose what even fellow Republican Gov. John Kasich called “fantasy tax games” — the episode will simply give another megaphone to his demagoguery. (Despite his charges that the media are out to get him, Trump has enjoyed so much free air time that he has yet to spend any of his $5.5 million campaign expenditures — not, by the way, entirely his own money, as he falsely claimed during Wednesday night’s Republican debate — on advertising.) Giving Trump the hosting spot could also open SNL to charges that it is violating FCC equal-time rules.
Every four years, critics contend that we have crossed the line that should be separating the solemn business of electing the leader of the free world from the frivolous amusements of showbiz. It’s an age-old argument. Presidential preoccupation with public image goes as far back as, well, George Washington, and Hollywood has helped political candidates craft their personas since the 1930s. John F. Kennedy eagerly produced himself as a celebrity. Richard M. Nixon flitted through an appearance on Laugh-In. Ronald Reagan’s campaign specifically employed TV-setting tactics, and Bill Clinton hardly considered it beneath his dignity to blare a saxophone on The Aresenio Hall Show. Over the decades, the border between national duty and diversion has shifted, granting more and more territory to spectacle.
Trump — and the current cultural climate, in which he is hardly the only Republican candidate to have lost touch with reality — may have brought us to a new low. At a time when voting is treated with the gravity of clicking on a Facebook “like” button, and much of the purported political coverage of the campaign prefers smackdown-style theatrics to real consideration of the issues, SNL’s invitation to Trump reveals how politicians aren’t just exploiting the entertainment industry for its reach. The entertainment industry can exploit their blustering buffoonery for laughs.
In his monologue for that 2004 SNL gig, Trump crowed, “I am about to become the highest-paid television personality in America. And as everyone in this room knows, ‘highest-paid’ means ‘best.’” It’s a telling statement about Trump’s ideas for policy — which blame poor people themselves for their predicament — and, sadly, a telling statement about NBC’s acquiescence to a new subnormal.
Alisa Solomon directs the Arts & Culture concentration in the M.A. program at the Columbia School of Journalism.