After last week’s sincere satire, where Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” viewers (ok, maybe mostly me) were left wondering how Saturday Night Live would handle Donald Trump’s first ten days as President-elect. Much of the country is left afraid, and justifiably so, of how marginalized groups will be either granted or denied civil rights. Many Americans are peacefully protesting, and some are not-so-peacefully protesting. In just fifteen days, America has shown how un-united it really is.
So the question is: can we make this funny?
SNL’s cold open on November 19 again features Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump. Like previous cold opens, Baldwin is a bit too Trump-y to be seen as satire — he’s more of an impression than a caricature — which is perhaps why Trump himself is angry. Again.
Baldwin’s Trump is nervous, unprepared for the task he didn’t seem to think he would get a chance to take on. Here, SNL presents that simulacrum that I wrote about last week. Baldwin-as-Trump becomes real Trump, because real Trump is his own caricature.
Once again, McKinnon adds levity to the sketch, but this time not as Clinton, but as Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager.
Conway took over Trump’s campaign when previous campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was fired, ostensibly for not making Trump look better than he was. Where Lewandowski failed, Conway succeeded — perhaps a bit too well. Her role, and her constant commentary on mainstream media (in this case CNN) was satirized in an October episode of SNL in a short called “A Day Off with Kellyanne Conway.”
The short features Conway waking up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to spend a day with her family, likely what she doesn’t get to do much as someone who is constantly cleaning up the mess of the man whose campaign she manages. Her responses to the CNN anchor’s questions get more and more ridiculous, as does her attire–grocery shopping, roller skates, and finally a towel. And only a towel. McKinnon-as-Conway finally responds to the anchor’s last question with “What do you want me to say? Yes….He’s crazy. He’s the worst person I’ve ever known. What do you want?” The anchor (and perhaps the rest of liberal America) just says, “Yes, that’s what I want.”
McKinnon’s portrayal of Conway does not go so far as simulacrum as McKinnon’s Clinton has; nonetheless, this sketch, and more saliently McKinnon’s as Conway, illuminates Conway’s seeming (but now somewhat obvious) reluctance in what she’s saying. After real Conway having to correct a Trump Staffer that they are going to have a “Thank You, America” tour, not a “Victory Tour,” it’s easy to imagine Conway going home and rolling her eyes, wondering what she’s done. And that’s what McKinnon showed this past Saturday.
The Conway character seems sick and much less put together than the real-life Conway, indicative of how she feels about her current station in life. When Baldwin-as-Trump thanks her for her help, saying that none of this would have happened without her, she responds, “I think about that every day,” looking nauseated. The character, like real-life Conway, attempts to find the good in situations, only to reveal that it’s only good when you omit some information, like a positive Tweet about Trumps presidency coming from former KKK grand wizard David Duke.
The real Conway is perhaps less “real” than the fake one, donning on a mask of insincerity because it’s her job to do so.
As a woman, it is incredibly difficult for me to believe that Conway actually thinks as positively about Trump as she conveys to the media. McKinnon’s representation of Conway shows what we’ve all suspected–she’s really not so pleased with herself. She’s as confused and uncomfortable as the rest of us. It’s important to note that though Trump is vocally unhappy with SNL and Baldwin’s weekly representation of him, Conway laughs it off, and finds it funny. Trump perhaps cannot handle Baldwin-as-Trump because it’s a bit too true. But McKinnon-as-Conway makes us feel better–she’s not ok with all of his actions and she’s not gung-ho about his campaigning, or now his impending presidency.
Had previous weeks of Trump and Clinton cold opens not prepared us to associate the representation with the real, it’s possible that McKinnon’s Conway could be seen as just another political caricature. With the naturalization in which we as an audience have participated for weeks, McKinnon’s Conway makes us feel better about the real Conway. But it’s important to remember in this case that McKinnon is not Conway; the real Conway has not expressed distaste or distrust in Trump or his campaign, and only offers seemingly disingenuous defenses of his often childish actions (i.e. his Tweets about Vice-President elect Mike Pence’s Hamilton incident). The real Conway is perhaps less “real” than the fake one, donning on a mask of insincerity because it’s her job to do so. But when does the mask merge with the real? And can someone like Conway ever express her truth outside of her job to defend Trump? When, if ever, can we see the private Kellyanne Conway rather than Campaign Manager Conway, and does she even know where the line is drawn anymore?
Of course, this immersion of the mask is not exclusive to Conway; she is just one example of many. But as an educator, I’m especially concerned about when we became an America so hesitant to be authentic. Educators are not allowed to be political; journalists must be so “unbiased” that their bias takes over. It’s a scary place we’ve entered, and it’s a good thing that SNL is still trying to make us laugh, even if the implications, at least to someone like me who tends to over-intellectualize everything, is sincerely sinister.