While preparing for this interview with Anthony Atamanuik, the man behind Comedy Central‘s faux Donald Trump on The President Show, my politics-averse girlfriend stumbled in on me watching the first month’s worth of episodes. The look of disgusted irritation she made didn’t surprise me, especially since I watch a lot of cable news for work. Yet when I explained President Show was a parody, and Atamanuik’s Trump wasn’t the real deal, her disgust remained. I told the Upright Citizens Brigade alum this during our conversation, and empathized with a 13 Reasons Why comparison: “I’m sure its critical acclaim is earned, but I wouldn’t want to watch it. I just don’t want to watch something about suicide.”
“I would just say what my grandmother said, ‘There’s a seat for every tuchus,'” he continues, “but that’s the short answer. And not to be critical of your girlfriend, but the reality we live in is that Donald Trump is President of the United States of America. Whether we like it or not, that’s the way it is, and the belief that we can go on ignoring him and whatever else we don’t like means we are doomed to repeat the exact same mistakes that got us into this mess in the first place. What got him elected was our aversion to paying attention to him.”
Atamanuik reiterates he isn’t criticizing my girlfriend, nor anyone else who refuses to watch news reports or comedy bits mentioning Trump. Though such avoidance cannot possibly be healthy, he argues, since a combination of it, entrenched assumptions, and faulty polling are what many experts credit Trump’s startling election victory to. As the self-described leftist comic puts it, we could have avoided this upset altogether. “Coastal and river elites having not only contempt,” he says, “but a lack of understanding for a large swath of the country, also put him in the White House.”
So what does The President Show host think the answer is, then? Should we be reading, listening to, or watching the bare minimum of Trump possible? Or should we consume every single second of coverage there is? Neither, instead of quantifying everything, Atamanuik believes viewers should consider the kind, or quality of media they plug into — be it Stephen Colbert’s biting comedy or Van Jones’ thoughtful commentary. People may even want to have sympathy for the Donald, an idea he suggests isn’t as supportive as most think.
“A narcissist can’t stand pity”
Long before the The President Show was greenlit, Atamanuik toured with Comedy Bang! Bang! stalwart James Adomian for the Trump vs Bernie debate. At the time, he explained “empathy” played a significant role in his impression: “[Trump] is a person in pain. He’s a person in great pain who, his whole life, has clearly never reckoned with himself.” That psychology played a role in his performance should come as no surprise, considering the hundreds of hours Atamanuik had already logged performing the character by then. But how and when did he decide to transform his empathy into sympathy? Besides, who the hell would want to feel sorry for Trump?
“Do you want to know what a narcissist hates it more than anything?” Atamanuik asks. “A narcissist can’t stand pity. Pity means that the establishing idea of their ego-consciousness is destroyed. Which is that they’re the best, they’re fine, they don’t need help. So the more we actually extend empathy toward distorted personalities like the one currently in the White House, the more it agitates them. Because pity and mockery don’t gel with his psychological narrative of himself, who he is, and where he’s going.”
To say the current president — whose name adorns buildings the world over, for now — is a narcissist is by no means a stretch. Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told Vanity Fair in 2015 Trump was “remarkably narcissistic.” Writing for The Atlantic almost a year later, Northwestern University psychology professor Dan McAdams agreed, arguing the evidence for Trump’s fragile ego is legion. Look no further than his recent Coast Guard Academy graduation remarks and Late Show feud, or his well-documented distaste for Alec Baldwin’s Saturday Night Live impression.
Hence why Atamanuik and The President Show have designed their satire to target Trump’s narcissism directly with a healthy dose of pity. Nowhere is this strategy better deployed than the premiere episode’s “The President’s Tour” segment, where the comedian turns an impromptu moment with a truck into improvised brilliance. Channeling the real Trump’s White House photo op with a big rig truck, Atamanuik grabs onto the subsequently viral moment and delivers a darkly comic monologue:
“Wouldn’t it be great if a big truck came? Like a big truck, a big 18-wheeler truck, and it rolled down, and then a guy showed up — and he was a macho guy! He says to me, ‘You drive the truck!’ Then I get to drive the truck, I get to go all the way down, and I drive it right into the river. Then I drown in the river. I feel the water seeping over me and then the air leaves my lungs. And in the moment where my body starts to react and wants air, I let go. And when I let go, the water fills my lungs and I’m finally at peace. Only then do I find the complete and absolute solitude that I wanted.”
Laughs erupt continuously from the studio audience throughout the clip. And when Atamanuik’s performance takes its morbid turn halfway through, the laughter continues — albeit less forcefully. It’s still funny, of course, but the impression’s about-face leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. I found myself feeling sorry for this Trump who, for a fleeting moment, no longer wants to be president. He craves privacy, and even welcomes death as a means of achieving it.
Seeing an even more childish version of the president excitedly talking about a truck is one thing. Watching his innocent enthusiasm transform into a macabre speech is something else entirely. It engenders sympathy for the character and, to some extent, the actual man he’s based on. Then again, one can also argue it caters to a kind of wish fulfillment not unlike what’s demonstrated by the “tidal wave of threats” the U.S. Secret Service now contends with. So what, then, is the ultimate goal of President Show bits like this? To prank people into believing Atamanuik’s impression is real, as thousands who jumped at an out-of-context clip of a young girl insulting him did? To help them feel better via comedic fantasy?
“The show’s drive is not just mocking Trump,” Atamanuik tells me. “Our desire, or at least my desire, is to look wholesale at the thing everyone else tends to shrink away from and avoid. Namely Trump himself, but also the fact that we have a completely broken system. Not that government is broken, as it probably works more effectively than anything else right now. (I mean, Trump is president and everything is still working.) What I’m saying is, we have a broken system in terms of our truthfulness with each other.” Of course, pointing out that something is broken isn’t enough, which is why Atamanuik considers his work “comedic activism.”
“You can make a point and be funny, as long as being funny is the most important thing. Comedy ceases to be comedy when it turns into a lecture,” he explains. “Obviously, I’ve been ranting periodically throughout this call because we’re talking about politics, which I can be very passionate about. But even these things I’ve said, if I said them in the writers’ room, they would say, ‘How do we stop Anthony from making a stump speech?’ The beauty of the process is, when you bake otherwise humorless things like this into comedy, it transforms into a great vessel for your message. It becomes a more convincing form of change.”
The “great vessel” of comedy notwithstanding, Atamanuik maintains he “doesn’t have the answer.” Nor does The President Show or other satirical programs currently angling for Trump and his divisive, damaging politics. “I don’t think only people on the left have the answer either,” he continues, “as there are incredibly important elements of conservative thinking that are unfortunately bundled with some really warped social thinking. Just as elements of liberalism are unfortunately bundled with an extreme dedication to a system that has clearly had failed. There are a lot of problems, so we still have a lot more show to do.”
The President Show airs Thursdays at 11:30 pm ET/PT on Comedy Central.