Alec Baldwin, James Baldwin, and Apocalyptic Exceptionalism

By Matt Seybold

Ratings for Saturday Night Live steadily declined for four consecutive seasons, starting in 2011, as Lorne Michaels struggled uncharacteristically to cultivate a new crop of stars. In the fall of 2015, the overhauled cast began to rally around Kate McKinnon, particularly her portrayal of Hillary Clinton. SNL’s current season is on pace to be its highest-rated since, perhaps not coincidentally, the election of Barack Obama. Among the most viral videos the revitalized show has generated is “Hillary Actually,” which aired during the final episode of 2016. Parodying a famous scene from the romantic comedy Love Actually, the sketch features McKinnon, as Clinton, using cue cards to coyly communicate with members of the Electoral College. McKinnon ventriloquizes efforts to persuade electors to abandon President-Elect Trump and, as one of the cards reads, “just vote for literally anyone else.” One could interpret the scene as mocking increasingly desperate and delusional public figures who couldn’t seem to come to terms with the reality of Trump’s impending presidency. But it isn’t satire exactly. The cue cards, though witty, actually make a cogent and compelling argument for faithless electors, complete with bullet points like “2. He’s already provoked the Chinese,” “6. He knew Russia was involved in hacking the election,” “11. His Vice President believes in conversion therapy,” “12. More than a dozen women have accused him of sexual assault,” and “15. He doesn’t know how the government works.”

Despite the nostalgic premise and the playfulness of McKinnon and Cecily Strong, the severity of this message cannot be mistaken. As Strong closes the door on Clinton, just as many in the audience no doubt wish to do, McKinnon rapidly unveils her final four cards, which read, “Enjoy your holiday, but keep in mind, if Donald Trump becomes president, he will kill us all.” With these five harrowing syllables SNL chose to complete its commentary on an election which had catapulted the show back to cultural relevance: He. Will. Kill. Us. All.

Was this simply satire of partisan hyperbole, McKinnon amplifying the histrionics of those who think losing an election is the end of the world? To confirm that there is no irony here, one need look no further than Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of Trump. Baldwin took over in the season premiere and has been prominently featured in all but three episodes. After a sketch which featured Baldwin, as Trump, interrupting and contradicting his transition team with self- defeating admissions like “my brain is bad,” the President-Elect lashed out at the actor and the show on Twitter. Since SNL cast-members have impersonated every sitting president since Gerald Ford, as well as several who pre-dated the show, this might seem like further evidence of Trump’s thin-skinned self-delusion. But, hesitant as I am to say it, I think, in this rare instance, Trump is right. There is something different about Baldwin’s impression.

Will Ferrell played George W. Bush as a befuddled and unselfconscious, but curiously likable, doofus. Darrell Hammond played Bill Clinton as an unflappable fat charmer, in command of every situation, but never his carnal urges. Dana Carvey played George H. W. Bush as a chipper nerd who understood everything except what people thought of him. In each of these impersonations, there is an undercurrent of affection and admiration, which is a common characteristic of parody. The same can be said of Fred Armisen’s Barack Obama, Tina Fey’s Palin, and McKinnon’s Hillary. Baldwin’s Trump is, on the other hand, a nasty, Nast-ian caricature, bordering on the grotesque, built not by mastering Trump’s mannerisms and inflections, or by emphasizing and empathizing with his intensely human flaws, but primarily by maintaining a squinty, duck-like resting face which is as painful to behold as it must be to make. The humor in Baldwin’s sketches does not originate from the antics of their central figure, but from his foils, who elicit laughs primarily by reacting to Trump’s un-ironic vulgarity with open exasperation, horror, and disdain. Many previous presidential impersonators found unmistakable joy in playing their characters, but Baldwin makes palpable his revulsion towards the character he inhabits. Portraying Trump is an act of endurance, even penitence, which every fiber of his being resists. He performs his part with the nihilistic resignation of a craftsman bound to a creation he earnestly believes will kill us all.

The show doubled down on the apocalyptic anticipation in the first sketch following the midseason break, with Baldwin, as Trump, proclaiming “Listen, Sweetheart, I’m about to be president, we’re all gonna die.” The reason such prophecies aren’t really satire is that they aren’t really exaggerations. The phrase “he will kill us all” was tweeted over a hundred times between Election Day and the airing of meme-worthy SNL sketch. On November 9th, Ben Mathis-Lilley, an editor at Slate who had maintained a near daily “Trump Apocalypse Watch” since March, shut it down, calling the project “a subjective daily estimate, using a scale of one to four horsemen, of how likely it was that Donald Trump would be elected president, thus triggering an apocalypse in which we all die.” The same day President Obama reportedly felt the need to remind his staff of battle-tested bureaucrats, “This is not the apocalypse.” A day later, the cover of the New Statesman featured the President-Elect’s head obscured by a mushroom cloud, with the headline “The Trump Apocalypse.” One quasi-mainstream tabloid asked, “Could the new president be the ‘third anti-Christ’ who is set to trigger the end of the world?” and speculated that Trump is the “great shameless, audacious bawler” prophesized by Nostradamus, whose “false trumpet concealing madness” would precipitate the end of civilization. Trump’s unapologetically arrogant and antagonistic tweets have resuscitated antiquated phrases like fascist demagogue, nuclear holocaust, Manchurian candidate, and white supremacist, each associated with distinct visions of doomsday and dystopia. Bleak cautionary novels like George Orwell’s 1984 and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here have, since November, become unlikely bestsellers. Amidst all the eschatological angst of the past two months, SNL’s assertion that if Donald Trump becomes president, he will kill us all seems rather tame, tempered, and to the point.

Armageddon was, poetically, the title of conservative commentator Dick Morris’s playbook for the Trump campaign, which, paired with Trump’s own unabashedly apocalyptic campaign rhetoric, demonstrates that portents of impending doom have not visited “whiny loser Dems” exclusively. If the imminence of Armageddon is not really up for dispute, perhaps we should assess the nature of its arrival. What style of Armageddon is the shameless, audacious bawler a harbinger of? Will he bomb the Earth into a desolate, irradiated wasteland or simply, by accelerating climate change, flood the coasts and starve the plains? Is he Putin’s puppet, as Clinton claimed, a personification of paranoias so outdated we’ve since made film and television with Russian spies as protagonists; or, are Trump and Putin both merely pasteboard oligarchs doing the bidding of multinational corporations? Who is in whose pocket? Are all just simulacra props serving an anonymous cyber-tyrant?

Alternatively, might Trump pursue genocidal crusades that unite billions of Muslims behind the jihadists? Is the ‘Third anti-Christ’ an anti-Semite or an overzealous Zionist? An atheist? Televangelical Narcissist? Will he incite a second American Civil War, fought not along the Mason-Dixon, but by rural WASPs in red hats driving urban hipsters into the sea? Would Twitter suspending @realDonaldTrump be the 21st-Century equivalent of secession? Could Silicon Valley block inland access to Breitbart in retaliation for an Austin Avocado blockade? Or, is Trump just a megalomaniacal misogynist trying to maximize the utility of his tiny fists for the few fleeting years he can still make them? Does he want his daughter to be Empress of North America? (Nobody respects women more, right?) Perhaps Trump is merely a gargantuan greedhead who believes the goal of geopolitics is the same as Monopoly: build as many hotels as you can without going to jail. Could the world really collapse under the weight of one man’s increasingly precarious egomania?

The apocalyptic imagination which runs wild across social media, spilling into unexpected places, like Hugh Laurie’s Golden Globes speech, is, of course, at least as old as religion. But the secular iterations preferred by contemporary doomsayers are far younger. In his eschatological manifesto, The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin describes the cultural implications of the atomic bomb by saying, “It is the threat of universal extinction hanging over all the world today that changes, totally and forever, the nature of reality and brings into devastating question the true meaning of man’s history.” For half a century, throughout most of the lives of boomers like Trump and Clinton, nuclear proliferation provided the presumptive pretext to man-made Armageddon.

“We human beings now have the power to exterminate ourselves,” as Baldwin put it, “this seems to be the entire sum of our achievement.” With few notable exceptions, popular representations of apocalypse from 1945 to 1995 were centered around weapons of mass destruction, even if they weren’t explicitly nuclear, like the Death Star. It wasn’t until the last decade of the 20th century, as conventional Cold War narratives were seemingly invalidated by globalization, that projections of secular apocalypse diversified into the thriving cultural multiplicity of the present day. Contemporary audiences are intimately familiar with not only nuclear Armageddon, but also viral (The Walking Dead, Last Man on Earth), technological (The Matrix, Westworld, Terminator), ecological (Avatar, The Day After Tomorrow), evolutionary (Children of Men, Idiocracy), and extraterrestrial (Independence Day, Transformers). Most of the top-grossing franchises of the 21st century depict human civilizations on the precipice of annihilation. The apocalyptic is the defining narrative archetype of the last twenty years.

During the campaign, Trump effectively advertised himself as the only solution to an inestimable range of multivalent problems facing tens of millions of rabid members of “the Movement.” Since being elected, this purposefully ambiguous all-things-to-all-people slipperiness has coalesced with contemporary America’s overactive apocalyptic imagination. Particularly in the purgatorial stretch between the election and the inauguration, our very reality seemed guarded by the hydra-headed chimera of Trumps past — playboy, predator, mogul, misanthrope, jester, dealmaker, philanthropist, fraud, socialite, messiah, oaf — and President Trumps future. Given that the cultural capacity for eschatology has never been greater, faced with such an ominous specter of uncertainty, Americans naturally gravitate toward apocalyptic exceptionalism. In other words, it is simply easier, given the readily available templates, to imagine an epochal race to the End, led by a mad hatter, than it is to resign ourselves to the overwhelming likelihood that our political future will continue to be unrelentingly banal. (Mathematician Fergus Simpson calculates the odds “we’re all gonna die” in in 2017 at about 1/500, roughly the same as Middle Tennessee State winning the NCAA Tournament.)

Because the West has been, particularly for the affluent consumers of its popular culture, relatively secure and mundane, we have coveted romances of more precarious existence. Now, faced with the genuinely unexpected and unpredictable, retreat into the familiar, but misleading, ideological clarity of apocalyptic romanticism is tempting. Superimposing the arc of the apocalyptic epic upon current events, one is liable to mistake Donald Trump for some kind of titanic world-eater. He has, to a degree, embraced the super-villain role, characterizing himself as the head of a vast, mysterious network. During the campaign, he was frequently mocked for such delusions of grandeur, and for misunderstanding the limitations of the office of he sought. President Obama repeatedly reminded the public that nobody is adequately prepared for the demands of the office, and that the executive branch is buttressed on all sides by compensatory powers. Even the most Machiavellian cynic acknowledges that other men crave power too, and don’t yield easily to bluster alone. In the aftershock of his victory, many have retroactively accepted Trump’s vainglorious account of himself as a coroneted mastermind who holds the keys to every Constitutional safeguard. They take for granted that the barely half-friendly Congress will rubber-stamp his 140-character policies and the notoriously glacial federal bureaucracy will melt before his shameless audacity.

To ascribe to Trump an omnipotence properly reserved for god, nature, and the collective incompetence of humanity is to indulge his ludicrous hubris. You don’t tell an adolescent sociopath that his wildest fantasies can come true, and you certainly don’t actively fill his head with wild fantasies. The Trump Apocalypse will only be brought about by the nihilistic complicity of a populace that accepts as imminent and inevitable such hyperbolic stakes and, by doing so, persuades their bewildered, eminently suggestible President to assume the role they’ve written for him.

Even “post-truth,” we are underestimating the degree to which the nation’s most sensational cultural proclivities can be reflected in its political process. Try to remind yourself that the proper tenor for a Trump administration is not tragedy, but farce. Don’t queue up Game of Thrones, but Curb Your Enthusiasm. Don’t reach for Orwell’s 1984, but instead Gore Vidal’s 1876, or Mark Twain’s 1601. Rejecting the grand narrative for the situational comedy is not an alternative to the vigilance and activism Robert Reich, Bernie Sanders, and many others are calling for. To the contrary, it reinforces that Trump, Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, and the network of public servants and private citizens they depend upon to enact and enforce their agendas are all, like the rest of us, restrained by a hodgepodge of neuroses, phobias, appetites, vanities, and peccadillos. These are not supermen, no matter how many times they’ve read Atlas Shrugged. They don’t always like what they see in the mirror. They waste valuable time refreshing their feeds and puttering with their phones. They get hangovers and indigestion. They stew over stupid fights they picked with their wives, and can’t let go of passive-aggressive things their mothers said. They are intermittently motivated to make bad choices based on petty grudges, crushes, rivalries, and jealousies. In short, like the rest of us, they face a dozen tiny acts of resistance every hour from colleagues, family, and, most of all, their own psyches. They are always but a few timely impositions away from saying fuck it, the secular prayer to the god of shit we can’t control. The debacles over the Office of Congressional Ethics, “repeal and delay,” and “alternative facts” prove that it doesn’t take the Avengers to make politicians say this prayer, nor Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen. It takes painfully little sometimes to elicit the prayer. A vigilant, vocal majority should be sufficient.

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