After a wave of interviews on ostensibly progressive talk shows, Donald Trump scored the crown jewel of late-night television appearances: a spot hosting Saturday Night Live. If you’re invested in the existence of politics as something other than a spectacle, then it’s likely you’ve been living your life in a thick daze for the past few months, simultaneously horrified at your childhood best friend’s mom’s Facebook statuses about how we need Donald Trump because he “speaks his mind” and skeptical that this is actually reality and not, in fact, a tear in the time-space continuum.
A few months ago, it might have been easy—acceptable, even—to laugh at the prospect of Donald Trump, a vocal racist, running for president of the United States. The notion of President Trump felt so nebulous and plainly unreal that it was safe to poke fun.
But Trump’s following has snowballed even as his qualifications have remained nonexistent (the first Republican debate marked him as an “owner of 13 golf courses”). Firmly planted in a platform of racism, sexism, and making America “great” through white supremacist rhetoric, Trump supporters have swarmed into a creepy, tangible population with genuine voting power.
That’s why it’s so scary to see Trump legitimized on television. Maybe some liberal talk show hosts are so stuck in the belief that Trump exists to entertain the viewer rather than lead the United States, but I have a hard time believing that the average host would ever stoop to the level of disrespecting a guest—to give Trump airtime only to make fun of him.
Assuming hosts aren’t making fun of Trump, they’re welcoming him to their sets and treating him with a level of dignity reserved for accomplished individuals who have noteworthy accomplishments and plans for the future. To put him on the same level as a legitimate candidate is jarring; to do so by handing him what amounts to free, commercialized airtime is even more so. It might result in a spike in viewership, but are those views really worth assisting an appalling human being in his quest for presidency?
It was Trump’s appearance on SNL this past weekend that solidified this nerve-wracking legitimacy that has begun to overtake Trump’s campaign: after a group of activists offered to pay $5,000 to anyone who called Trump a racist during his performance, SNL writers made the scripted decision to beat the activists to the “punchline,” having actor Larry David call Trump a racist before any audience member could get around to it.
This might seem clever on the part of SNL, but Trump’s racism is not on the same level as Hillary’s emails. The possibility that a man who allegedly sexually assaulted his wife, who has called Mexican people “rapists” and whose main policy plan is to “build a wall” is in the running for arguably the most powerful position in the Western world isn’t a joke. It’s not a punchline. It’s not a scandal that needs to blow over already, and the fact that SNL would treat it as such is an insidious way of dismissing real, structural inequality through mediocre, backwards comedy—punching down instead of punching up.
I’m not very funny, but if there’s one thing I know about comedy, it’s that humor is at its best when it’s productive—when it’s pushing back at something sinister, calling out powerful entities to create biting commentary on the state of society. Good comedy is not making marginalized people the punchline.
Good comedy is not Donald Trump in the Oval Office.