Trump, Saturday Night Live and why autocrats can't take a joke

Trump, Saturday Night Live and why autocrats can't take a joke
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Saturday Night Live just aired a rerun of the hilarious “It’s a Wonderful Trump” skit based on the 1946 Frank Capra movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life.” In a reversal of the Capra movie, though, it depicts how much better off people around President TrumpDonald John Trump2020 Democrats spar over socialism ahead of first debate Senate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House 'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again MORE, and the country, would be if Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again Don't expect Trump-sized ratings for Democratic debates Ocasio-Cortez on Biden: 'I think that he's not a pragmatic choice' MORE had won the 2016 election. 

Trump flew off the twitter handle, tweet-blasted the show, and suggested that the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Elections Commission “look into this,” which sounds like a presidential invitation to investigate satire in America. Some commentators expressed alarm that the First Amendment is at risk.


Well, the First Amendment is doing just fine, SNL is doing its job, and it’s the president who is wilting. 

Trump’s seemingly autocrat impulses — such as demonizing the press as an “enemy of the people,” demanding personal fealty from the Department of Justice, and a craving for big military parades — so far, have largely been constrained by the American constitutional system. His attacks on SNL demonstrate that fear of mockery and ridicule is another characteristic that Trump shares with autocrats and dictators around the world.

Autocrats and dictators fear sarcasm because it destroys the mystique that is essential to maintaining their power. In 2014, Syrian artists created a YouTube lampoon of dictator Bashar al-Assad, “Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator.” When the artists traveled to a town near Aleppo to perform live at an arts festival, Assad’s forces bombed the town.

In 2014, North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un launched a cyberattack on Sony Pictures when it was about to release a Seth Rogen movie, “The Interview,” in which the actor playing Kim revealed the Supreme Leader’s naked, flabby backside. 

The popular Russian television puppet satire, “Kukly,” is no longer on the air because it caricatured the machismo-minded President Vladimir Putin as an impotent king on his wedding night. 

SNL threatens Trump’s self-proclaimed image as a tough guy. And that image lately has taken some blows, which makes SNL even more of a menace. House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSenate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House Pelosi: Congress will receive election security briefing in July Trump says he spoke to Pelosi, McConnell on border package MORE (D-Calif.) stared Trump down during the government shutdown. Kim Jong Un left him empty-handed in their Hanoi meeting. Nicolás Maduro is still president of Venezuela despite Trump’s efforts to dislodge him. Trump gave an order to withdraw all American troops from Syria, but some, perhaps as many as a thousand, soldiers will remain. And 12 Republican senators broke with him over the emergency declaration resolution. 

Think of Trump as a cross between Jack Woltz and Boss Tweed. Woltz was the Hollywood mogul in “The Godfather” who was presented with a humiliating request from the Don. Woltz furiously told Tom Hagen, the Don’s consigliere, “A man in my position can't afford to be made to look ridiculous! Now you get the hell outta here!” (big mistake: Woltz granted the request after finding a freshly severed horse’s head under his bedcovers). Since Trump depends on image, and not substance, he can’t tolerate ridicule. 


William H. Tweed, known as Boss Tweed, was a powerful 19th century New York City political boss. Cartoonist Thomas Nast caricatured Tweed as a corpulent, corrupt politician who looted the city. Many of Tweed’s immigrant constituents couldn’t read English but they could understand a cartoon. 

Tweed hated “them damn pictures” as much as Trump seems to hate SNL. Tweed tried to bribe Nast and threatened to use his control over city agencies to financially damage Nast’s publisher, Harper’s Magazine. Nast and Harper’s didn’t relent. The cartoons led to electoral losses for Tweed’s political ring, and soon Tweed was in jail.

Today, the closest thing we have to Thomas Nast is SNL. So, let’s celebrate freedom of the press in America, and the self-undoing of a would-be autocrat, by continuing to watch SNL parody Donald Trump. 

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.