Finally, Donald Trump is getting back to something he does really well: being a punchline.
Of course, this isn’t really something new to him — he had been a punchline for years before his run for president. Comedians would simply insert his name when they needed to conjure up a (more) self-absorbed male version of the Kardashians.
In fact, it is probably because he was widely seen as a bit of a joke (or, at the very least, lacking substance) that GOP voters were at first unenthusiastic about Trump. A Fox News poll taken just a couple of weeks before Trump formally announced his candidacy last June, for example, found Trump with an anemic 4% of support among Republicans. And worse, 59% of GOP voters said they would “never vote” for Trump.
But once Trump started spewing his racist and bigoted remarks, GOP voters seemed to warm to him. After his infamous presidential announcement on June 16, 2015, where he outrageously claimed Mexico was sending “rapists” and people “bringing drugs,” Trump’s support quickly climbed to 11% in New Hampshire, placing him second in the crowded GOP primary field.
Trump continued serving up a steady diet of demonizing immigrants, especially Latinos, and by mid-July he was the top choice for the Republican ticket. By late November, the RealClearPolitics average of polls had him leading the GOP field by about 10 points. And even after he announced his plan to ban Muslims entering the United States? His lead grew to over 20 points.
Even more alarming than his support among Republican primary voters was that by late last month, Trump was virtually neck and neck with Hilary Clinton in national polls. But then came the first presidential debate, on September 26. With more 80 million people watching, Trump began his return to punchline status with a performance so objectively horrible that it didn’t need comedians to exaggerate it for laughs. Trump’s distractingly loud sniffling, interruptions and overall unpreparedness was clear to all.
The late night show hosts feasted. From Seth Meyers to Stephen Colbert, Trump’s first debate performance was comedy gold. And come October 1, the transformation of Trump to comedic caricature really took hold. That’s the day “Saturday Night Live” unveiled Alec Baldwin as Trump, and it was clear from the first minute of that sketch that Baldwin’s impersonation could very well be the equivalent of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin in terms of undermining the candidate’s credibility.
After three “SNL” debate sketches, that’s exactly what is happening. Even worse for Trump, “SNL” just announced a special election eve show featuring more Baldwin as Trump. Vanity Fair summed up this special show perfectly with the headline: “Saturday Night Live Is Giving Alec Baldwin an Extra Chance to Mock Donald Trump.”
If you think Trump doesn’t get that “SNL” and other comedians could hurt — or even help completely destroy any remaining credibility — then you haven’t been paying attention. After “SNL”‘s parody of the second presidential debate, Trump was so outraged that he tweeted at 4:14 a.m. the following morning, calling for “SNL” to be canceled: “Watched ‘Saturday Night Live’ hit job on me. Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!”
But the reality is that even before this election, Trump was wary of comedians ridiculing him on a national stage. Trump has, for example, lashed out at Jon Stewart over the years for mocking him, and he also allegedly slammed Seth Meyers after the late-night comic crushed him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. Trump even sued comedian Bill Maher for $5 million over a joke Maher told on “The Tonight Show” in 2013 that comically undercut Trump’s racist birther campaign against President Obama.
Still, “SNL” can’t take all of the credit — Trump is helping turn himself into a laughingstock all on his own. On Tuesday, for example, the GOP nominee declared that he would “love” to fight Joe Biden, mocking the vice president as being a “tough guy” only when “he’s standing behind a microphone by himself.” (The comment was in response to Biden saying he wished he could “take [Trump] him behind the gym.”)
None of this is to suggest that there aren’t still a lot of holdouts among Republican voters — the polls suggest that some Americans have no problem supporting Trump despite his regularly spewing sexism, racism and bigotry. And I get that some voters just want a change — that they’re uncomfortable with their party’s standard-bearer, too. But I hope that when they find themselves in the polling booth, that they decide not to pull the lever for a punchline.
In the days between now and Election Day, we’ll see if America’s late night comedians and “SNL” can complete their work in transforming Trump back to being a punchline — and ensure the joke isn’t on all of us instead.