Written December 2016 as the final project for Whitman College’s 300-level Film Theory class. A rumination on liveness and surveillance in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and its intersections with Saturday Night Live.
The biggest star of Saturday Night Live this season is not the hilariously candid Leslie Jones, the first-ever Latina cast member Melissa Villaseñor, or the acerbic Michael Che from the show’s “Weekend Update” segment. Instead, SNL’s season-long comedic darling is the polarizing, unfiltered, now President-elect of the United States of America, Donald Trump—or at least, Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of him.
The sketch comedy show has a history of satirizing presidential elections, and its 42nd season is no different. For better or for worse, Trump has always existed as an impressive media figure: first as an internationally-known business mogul, then a reality TV host, and now a politician. His involvement with SNL, both as a host and a parodied character, has increased the show’s viewership immensely over the course of the current season; its premiere this year was the series’ highest-rated since SNL veteran Tina Fey hosted in 2013 (Nolfi).
SNL occupies a unique space within the social media sphere in that it permits interactions between the host and the show’s characterization of the host, both within the confines of the show and beyond its boundaries. Its relationship with liveness and the flexible “truth” of events is part of its satirical charm, as demonstrated by the show’s popularity via social media. In her article “The Public Domain: Social Surveillance in Everyday Life,” Alice Marwick emphasizes the self-awareness necessary to enact the type of social surveillance that has become so pervasive in social media use today. Her notion that social surveillance is a symmetrical model that engages both users and their audience is a particularly pertinent lens through which to view the portrayal of Trump on this season of Saturday Night Live and his accompanying reactions to his parodied character.
SNL’s portrayal of Trump through several actors over the years has exaggerated the way that Trump presents himself on social networking sites like Twitter; thus, Trump might feel the need to refute any negative or untrue imagery that he himself does not create. Trump’s use of Twitter, for instance, aligns with Marwick’s notion that social media can be used as a type of positive marketing strategy: “People monitor their digital actions with an audience in mind, often tailoring social media content to particular individuals,” she states (379). Presidential candidates and citizens alike have the power to reach thousands of people with the creation of a single Tweet. One writer from Entrepreneur Media noted how “in 2016, candidates are using social media and other channels in new ways to market themselves” (Patel).
Trump is no stranger to the power of social media, and his constant use of Twitter to attack SNL’s portrayal of him demon- strates the fine balance he has created between championing his right to the First Amendment and insulting various high-powered people, businesses, and industries. Trump’s supporters, in particular, believe that his media-oriented success lies largely in that “he says what other people believe but are too afraid to say” (Patel). On 60 Minutes, Trump appeared to agree, stating that he uses Twitter as a way to “fight back” against any errors he sees in the media (Keith). CNN has dubbed him the first “social media” and “reality TV” president; before him, FDR was considered the first “radio” present, and JFK the first “television” president, based on the success of their campaigns through their specific media tendencies (Jones). When the White House began using Twitter as a political tool in May of 2009, for example, other politicians quickly followed suit (Ben-Ari 632).
Trump’s arguable overuse of Twitter has become infamous; his tweets range from racist phrases like “billions of dollars gets brought into Mexico through the border. We get the killers, drugs & crime, they get the money!” to more meaningless, unintelligent musings such as “I have never seen a thin person drinking Diet Coke” (Trump). While broadcasted thoughts like these do not appear to be very presidential, Trump has assured the public that he will continue to use Twitter during his presidency, saying, “I’m going to do very restrained, if I use it at all, I’m going to do very restrained. I find it tremendous. It’s a modern form of communication” (Keith). He also mentioned that Twitter is “a way for him to get out information faster than a press re- lease and ‘more honestly’ than through news outlets” (Chan). The major issue political scientist Rachel Ehrenberg sees with Twitter, however, is that “along with shared news and engaging dis- cussions come lies, propaganda and spin” (22).
Trump has purportedly agreed with this statement, if his Tweet on December 5th, 2016 is any indication: “If the press would cover me accurately & honorably, I would have far less reason to ‘tweet.’ Sadly, I don’t know if that will ever happen!” In this way, a platform like Twitter, which does not have a “fact-checking apparatus” like other mass media outlets, becomes quickly overcrowded with misinformation and arguments across multiple party lines. Trump’s recurring impulse to correct his own image often through the slandering of third parties destroys any chance, then, of a real, “fact-based debate…in our democracy” (Ehrenberg 25).
The harsh judgment Trump passes on the media at large extends to SNL’s characterization of him, playing into Marwick’s argument that this type of digital “stalking” is “both a way to compensate for perceived weakness by obtaining social knowledge, and maintaining status hier- archies by reinforcing the importance of others” (380). The impact of SNL’s cultural commentary cannot be denied: the distribution of the show’s sketches on various social media platforms, especially Facebook and Twitter, allows for a single clip to go viral in just a few hours. The ongoing circulation of dozens of weekly sketches is a key component in how Trump interacts with the notion of social surveillance—namely that his continuous following of the show corresponds with the idea that one’s social media usage must be recognized and consumed in order to be validated.
Marwick defines social surveillance in this way as “the ongoing eavesdropping, investigation, gossip and inquiry that constitutes information gathering by people about their peers, made salient by the social digitization normalized by social media” (382). The pattern of Trump’s Twitter activity blatantly criticizing SNL’s portrayal of him over the course of its season indicates that his surveilling of a representation of himself is similarly ongoing. His Tweets have called SNL“one-sided,” “biased,” “unwatchable,” “not funny,” “boring,” and “sad”; he has even made references to the show’s cancellation, saying, “Frankly, the way the show is going now…who knows how long that show is going to be on? It’s a terrible show” (Chan). Trump’s negative assessment of SNL is likely due to his need to exact dominance in the media sphere.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “surveillance” references a watch over a person or organization that connotes a feeling of suspicion and is often for the purpose of control. Therefore, the act of surveillance implies a power dynamic, with the person doing the surveilling in a position of power. By watching an episode and then Tweeting that the “Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks,” Trump engages in a type of surveillance that places him in that most powerful position because he is the one assigning value—or rather, the lack thereof—to what is depicted onscreen. He surveils a representation of himself, judges it, and deems it bad to the point of “unwatchable,” the true power in this statement being that it is the real Donald Trump disliking the character which therefore makes Trump himself appear to be the “truest” Trump of them all.
The online dialogue between Trump and Baldwin as his characterization of Trump on SNL exemplifies the interactions between users that are necessary in social surveillance. In her article, Marwick explains how “in social media sites, users monitor each other by consuming user-generated content, and in doing so formulate a view of what is normal, accepted, or unac- cepted in the community, creating an internalized gaze that contextualizes appropriate behavior” (384). Trump and Baldwin’s monitoring of one another almost acts as a self-reflective surveillance due to the fact that they are occupying the same “identity” as Trump, so to speak; however, Baldwin’s ability to “exit” the Trump character and engage with the social media world as himself, through his Twitter account, interviews, and other media outlets, complicates Mar- wick’s idea. Both Trump and Baldwin have long-standing histories with SNL: Baldwin has host- ed the show 16 times since 1990, and Trump has hosted the show twice before (THR Staff). In 2015, NBC originally said it was “cutting ties” with Trump for publicity purposes due to several scandals that occurred along Trump’s campaign trail, only to have him host the show during his presidential campaign (Nededog).
In response to the controversy surrounding Trump’s in-person appearance on SNL, the show’s creator and producer Lorne Michaels said, “He is the nominee of the Republican party…I think that he’s one of the most controversial candidates that’s ever happened” (Abramovitch). SNL cast member and “Weekend Update” host Michael Che had a slightly more biased outlook on Trump’s appearance, saying, “People got mad at us for having Trump on the show, but it’s like, he’s supposed to be on a comedy show! I’m mad at you for voting for him! That’s where he makes sense, on a sketch-comedy show! Let’s laugh at the orange man!” (Sims). Nearly 9.3 million viewers watched the episode Trump hosted, the show’s biggest audience since 2013 (Patel).
The popularity of Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of Trump, which premiered on October 1st, 2016 and is expected to last the entirety of the season, is due to its comedic effect as Che mentioned. Since the premiere of Baldwin’s Trump, Business Insider reported how “SNL now seems unafraid to use Trump’s own ideas and words to paint him as a sneering racist, rather than a harmless blowhard” (Sims). Lorne Michaels commented on the fairly negative depiction of Trump by simply stating that at SNL “we’ve always tried to be non-partisan” (Abramovitch). Indeed, the show has made a point to critique both major parties in the presidential election, making references to Trump’s seemingly insane executive orders like his plan to build a Mexican wall as well as jokes about liberals who, stunned by Trump’s election, create a living community inside “a self-contained and heavily censored bubble” (Nededog). Trump called for “equal time” on SNL for the conservative viewpoint. Baldwin responded publicly, Tweeting at Trump, “Equal time? Election is over. There is no more equal time. Now u try 2 b Pres + ppl respond. That’s pretty much it.” Baldwin’s disbelief that Trump was focusing on a parody of himself on a television show rather than on his upcoming presidency vilified Trump’s actions, contributing to Marwick’s idea that continual online interactions “contextualize appropriate behavior” (384). From Baldwin’s perspective, Trump was acting outside of his role as President-elect by not successfully adhering to his presidential duties; therefore, it appeared appropriate for Baldwin to bring attention to it.
In another interaction between the two, Trump insulted Baldwin’s portrayal of him, at which Baldwin Tweeted, “…@realDonaldTrump Release your tax returns and I’ll stop. Ha.” Here, each involved party surveils the other: Trump devalues Baldwin’s character, and Baldwin addresses Trump’s financial history. As Marwick states, “Social surveillance is reciprocal. People create content with the expectation that other people will view it, whether that means editing their own self-presentation to appeal to an audience, or doing something controversial to gain attention” (390). The publicized nature of these tweets between Trump and Baldwin affects the perspectives of their respective audiences and SNL’s viewership as well. Though Baldwin and Trump’s dialogue occurs outside of the show, it is still a continuation of the same type of social surveillance SNL enables—but rather than Baldwin’s Trump seated across from the real Trump in a comedic sketch on a Saturday night, the Twittersphere’s context necessitates their opinions about one another to be stated in 140 characters or less.
Marwick’s explanation of the “dual nature” of social media—that it contains information which is consumed and produced equally—sheds light on the troubling and combative nature of Trump in response to a reflection of American culture like Saturday Night Live (380). Trump’s negative reactions to Baldwin’s character portrayal, and his negative relationship with media in general, lies less in his being offended and more in his apparent need to control the public’s perception of him through a form of social surveillance. Perhaps, by surveilling a representation of himself in Alec Baldwin—the exaggerated bushy eyebrows, the orange face, the meaningless superlatives—Trump is for the first time viewing himself just as much of the American public views him. The fact that Trump does not like what he sees may be a stronger political commentary than Saturday Night Live could ever hope to make.
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Trump, Donald (@realDonaltTrump). “I watched parts of @nbcsnl Saturday Night Live last night. It is a totally one-sided, biased show – nothing funny at all. Equal time for us?” November 20, 2016. 5:26am. Tweet.
Trump, Donald (@realDonaldTrump). “Just tried watching Saturday Night Live – unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse. Sad” December 3, 2016. 9:13pm. Tweet.
Trump, Donald (@realDonaldTrump). “Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me.Time to re- tire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!” October 16, 2016. 4:16am. Tweet.
Trump, Donald (@realDonaldTrump). “I have never seen a thin person drinking Diet coke.” Oc- tober 14, 2012. 11:43am. Tweet.
Trump, Donald (@realDonaldTrump). “….likewise, billions of dollars gets brought into Mexico through the border. We get the killers, drugs & crime, they get the money.” July 13, 2015. 3:53am. Tweet.
Trump, Donald (@realDonaldTrump). “If the press would cover me accurately & honorably, I would have far less reason to ‘tweet.’ Sadly, I don’t know if that will ever happen!” December 5 2016. 8:00am. Tweet.