Note: the following opinions are solely those of the author and do not in any way reflect the views of HitFix, Inc.
Comedy is an essential part of our political discourse, but I must admit: I'm finding it harder and harder to laugh at bits that poke gentle fun at hate-mongering, violence-stoking Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his army of supporters. My feelings on this were illuminated perfectly by Monday's great Samantha Bee sketch, in which the Full Frontal host grows increasingly frustrated and perturbed by the young, seemingly-educated Donald Trump supporters whose perspectives she tries and (subsequently fails) to greet with an open mind:
Yes, Bee's sketch counts as comedy. But what sets it apart from so many other Trump-centric bits is that, instead of rendering Trump the candidate as some sort of cartoonish figure, it lays bare the growing bafflement and terror of American citizens who simply cannot fathom his huge base of support among the Republican electorate. Thousands of viewers no doubt saw themselves in Bee's increasingly-pained attempts at understanding how so many people — even educated, seemingly intelligent people — could throw their support behind a man who has a proven track record of not only not giving a damn about poor and working-class Americans but of actively cheating them out of their hard-earned money.
I am horrified by what the Trump surge represents. I am horrified by the idea that a person who openly courts fear and bigotry at every turn — and who has, at best, a tenuous relationship with the truth — could actually end up winning the most powerful office on Earth. I am horrified by the irresponsible behavior of our media, who unwittingly goosed the Trump candidacy by giving him the lion's share of election coverage, all to lift their own precious ratings. I see my own horror reflected in Bee's desperate gaze as she finds herself confronted with the shoddy logic and blank-eyed stares of the group of young Trump supporters she invited onto her show. The bit is so successful because it plays on the real alarm so many of us feel about Trump's shockingly viable candidacy. It doesn't sugarcoat the danger he poses.
It's a shame, then, that sketches like Bee's are few and far between. As Trump grows closer and closer to becoming the Republican presidential nominee and, god forbid, the leader of the free world, it's become increasingly difficult for me to find the humor in, say, SNL's execrable decision to let him in on the joke (more on that later) or Jimmy Fallon's softball (but admittedly solid) impression. Take the below sketch from Fallon's late-night talk show, which presents Trump (with the help of the Fuller House cast) as a goofy, lovable softie who merely yearns for his father's approval:
It's not that Trump isn't a scared little boy deep down inside. But that characterization renders him harmless, when the truth is something far worse; he's arguably the most dangerous politician we've seen in ages. Let's not forget he won an additional four primaries on Tuesday and is well on his way to securing the nomination. This man is not going away — and he is far from cuddly.
Back to the SNL hosting gig. While it was certainly a controversial choice at the time — a MoveOn.org petition calling for the show to dump Trump as host garnered over 148,000 signatures — it's an even more glaring misstep in hindsight, now that his once-seemingly-unlikely candidacy has become all-but-unstoppable. Perhaps more than any other late-night TV series, SNL provided Trump with a plum opportunity to tuck his fangs back. He, a mainstream presidential candidate, was effectively given license to satirize his own image on television's most popular and influential late-night program for the duration of the show — and while the appearance received almost universally scathing reviews, it nevertheless aided in softening a man who prior to that had made racially-tinged insinuations about a sitting president, directed brazenly sexist and misogynistic comments at successful women on numerous occasions and painted Mexican immigrants as “rapists.” SNL's decision to give him that platform was and will remain a shameful chapter in the show's history.
To be clear: I am not suggesting that all mockery of Donald Trump come to an immediate end. When used smartly, comedy can be a vital force for change and illuminate uncomfortable truths (see Roth Cornet, Louis Virtel and Eric Eisenberg's excellent conversation on this above and below). But at this critical point in our history there is no longer any place for softball parodies like Fallon's, which present Trump as an endearing buffoon rather than the serious threat to our democracy that he is. Kid's-gloves impressions like these do nothing to foster the latter impression and, I would argue, go a long way in downplaying (particularly for politically-disengaged viewers) the genuine risk he poses. As we have learned time and time again, counting him out is no longer a realistic option. I will continue to thank God for smart, incisive takes like Bee's. As for most of the others, I don't know that we can afford to laugh at them anymore.