In excerpts from Hillary Clinton’s upcoming book, What Happened, she recounts the second presidential debate of 2016. On the stage, Donald Trump and Clinton were both provided with chairs, but Trump strangely never sat down. So while Clinton was answering questions, Trump meandered through the background, performing the most memorable photo-bomb in American history. Trump’s behavior struck me as silly and immature at the time. But to Clinton, it was evidently far more sinister.
“It was incredibly uncomfortable,” she recalls. “He was literally breathing down my neck. My skin crawled.” Clinton tells us she then had two options. Option A: stay calm and pretend it wasn’t happening; or Option B: whip around and give him a tongue lashing. She, of course, chose Option A.
But now she wonders if she should have “turn[ed], look[ed] him in the eye, and sa[id] loudly and clearly, ‘back up you creep. Get away from me. I know you love to intimidate women, but you can’t intimidate me so back up.’”
Of her choice to act like a grown up, she muses, “Maybe I have over-learned the lesson of staying calm, biting my tongue, digging my fingernails into a clenched fist, smiling all the while, determined to present a composed face to the world.”
As I first read this excerpt, I realized two things: (1) Even rich, successful people belatedly rehearse awesome burns they didn’t think of in the moment, and (2) Hillary Clinton watches too much Saturday Night Live.
Clinton’s description of Donald Trump “literally” breathing down her neck and trying to physically intimidate her doesn’t square with the footage of the actual debate. But it perfectly matches SNL’s hilarious parody of the debate, in which the theme song from the movie Jaws plays as Alec Baldwin creeps up behind the actress playing Clinton. It’s funny, yeah, but only because it’s a twist on what really happened. Remember, the debate took place shortly after the Access Hollywood tapes came out. So, all the jokes leading up to it were about Trump behaving in a sexually aggressive and creepy manner.
What becomes clear when you re-watch the actual debate, however, is that most of the time Trump wasn’t very close to Clinton; he was standing by his own chair. She crossed over to his side of the stage to address question-askers in the audience, and Trump just dawdled near his chair in the background like a man waiting outside Sephora while his wife pops in to grab some mascara. The idea that he was breathing down her neck in an intimidating way was SNL’s invention, not reality.
That is the power of political satire: you can work with people’s prejudices to make fun of not only the real man, but also a caricature of the man created by earlier satire. A strawman created by a sketch comedian can end up becoming the primary impression the public has of a much more complex human being. Think of Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, Darrell Hammond’s Slick Willie, and Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer. Each of these accomplished real-life people was reduced to a single unflattering characteristic: Sarah Palin was a ditz, Bill Clinton was a horn-dog, and Sean Spicer was a rage monkey.
From its earliest days on the air, SNL has been creating potent alternate versions of political figures. In the early 1970s, the show convinced America that Gerald Ford—a former star linebacker for the University of Michigan—was a world-class klutz. One time, Ford had fallen while descending the steps of Air Force One. One time. Chevy Chase, playing Ford, then repeated the blunder week after week in every conceivable scenario.
SNL’s power to distort political reality was strong enough in the 1970s, when a TV viewer might watch a debate, then clips of the debate on the nightly news, then a parody of the debate on SNL. But for people who get all their news from Facebook, the SNL clip they watch at the office Monday morning becomes their official (and perhaps only) version of what happened. And, they reason, anyone who could support a creep like (Alec Baldwin’s) Trump must be either stupid or wicked.
Of course, comics should keep pointing and laughing at the high and mighty. I just hope Hillary Clinton (and the rest of us) will remember to distinguish ridicule from reality. After all, the thing that makes a caricature funny is also what makes it false. If we are ever going to treat each other with dignity, we must remember that even our political adversaries are more complex than a late-night comedy sketch.