The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda recently denounced Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s forthcoming appearance on Saturday Night Live. Referring to his “bigoted comments” about undocumented workers, the group called next month’s hosting gig a “slap in the face.” While they’re correct to target Donald Trump’s anti-Latino views, the NHLA wrong in one important respect: Racism will not be given a “thumbs up” when Trump hosts an episode of Saturday Night Live next month.
Their concern is reminiscent of a popular sentiment on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, where people who retweet a racist article or comment are often criticized for promoting said views, even though they could simply be referencing it to make an opposing point. Many users might boost sentiments they disagree with to spread awareness of their existence; it draws an implicit arrow as if to say: “Hey, look at this thing. What do you think about it?”
Racism will not be given a “thumbs up” when Trump hosts an episode of Saturday Night Live next month.
In that sense, Saturday Night Live is acknowledging an unavoidable reality: Whether we like it or not, that Donald Trump could very well be the Republican presidential candidate next year. The important question is what SNL will do with Trump once he’s on their program.
This doesn’t mean that I support Saturday Night Live’s decision. I would agree with NHLA when they argue that SNL is essentially trying to “enable Trump’s hateful speech for nothing (more) than a ratings ploy.” After all, this is the same network that banned Trump from the Miss USA pageant and dropped him as the host of The Apprentice when it was trendy to do so. But this was back when the hashtag campaign to #DumpTrump was a national topic on Twitter, and Trump looked like a long shot for the nomination. Now that his polling numbers have risen, the network has changed its tune.
Making matters worse, SNL has never hired a Latina cast member and has only recruited two Latinos in its 41 years on the air—Horatio Sans and Fred Armisen. This makes it all the more insulting that the program has asked its host to be a man whose presidential campaign took off because he argued that Mexican immigrants are criminals, drug-smugglers, and rapists.
That said, the fact that Trump’s views are toxic doesn’t mean that, as the NHLA claims, those ideas are being effectively “sanitized” by virtue of appearing on SNL. The TV show won’t legitimize Trump—he already has legitimacy by sheer virtue of his frontrunner status. His presence on the program in its own right does little more than reflect his prominence in the current news cycle—like asking Miley Cyrus to host after her controversial VMAs hosting gig.
Instead of “sanitizing” Trump, the writers of Saturday Night Live have a golden opportunity. Rather than buying into Donald Trump’s “straight-talker” persona and making him appear likable, the show could also use his hosting gig to take him down a peg—by addressing his record on race.
The TV show won’t legitimize Trump—he already has legitimacy by sheer virtue of his frontrunner status.
But when it comes to actually holding famous figures accountable, the show has a mixed track record at best. For instance, let’s look at two other prominent politicians and presidential aspirants who have hosted episodes of SNL. In 1984, SNL invited the Rev. Jesse Jackson to host the show, even though his presidential campaign had hit a major bump earlier that year when he was caught using anti-Semitic slurs in front of a reporter. And when former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani hosted an episode in 1997, his administration had been plagued with controversy involving the extensive use of racial profiling by members of the NYPD.
On neither occasion was their SNL appearance widely perceived as an implicit endorsement of their candidacy. But at the same time, neither the Jackson nor Giuliani programs took these men to task for their moral failings. Giuliani’s appearance consisted mainly of an opportunity to show off his zany side (including a sketch in which he appeared in drag), while Jackson’s segments were less memorable than his monologue calling for increased diversity among the Saturday Night Live cast.
The missed chance to confront these two men was a real problem, since America might have benefited from seeing some of the nation’s most influential comic minds openly challenging powerful men.
If nothing else, Donald Trump gave the SNL writers a gift if they choose to lampoon him. In addition to his famous hairstyle, Trump’s announcement speech was both racist and objectively wrong: Immigrant workers are much less likely to be involved in criminal activity than native U.S. citizens. Yet because his un-PC language was viewed as “refreshing” in our current political climate, he has continued to gain traction from it.
This is reminiscent of the brilliant Trump parody that appeared in a recent episode of South Park—in which a Canadian right-wing candidate clearly modeled on Trump is elected “president of Canada” (which technically has a prime minister) to everyone’s subsequent chagrin. The monologue of one Canadian immigrant character in the show captures the joke perfectly:
There were several candidates during the Canadian elections. One of them was this brash a–hole who just spoke his mind. He didn’t really offer any solutions. He just said outrageous things. We thought it was funny. Nobody really thought he’d ever be president. It was a joke. But we just let the joke go on for too long. He kept gaining momentum, and by the time we were all ready to say, “Okay, let’s get serious now. Who should really be president?” He was already being sworn into office. We weren’t paying attention!
The fact that Donald Trump will soon be hosting an episode of Saturday Night Live seems trivial in comparison to a more terrifying prospect: that he could win next November because we’d prefer to simply ignore him.
On neither occasion was their SNL appearance widely perceived as an implicit endorsement of their candidacy.
What separates Trump’s SNL appearance from the “RT ? endorsement” mantra is that signal boosting Trump isn’t just a matter of “[showing] people the different views that are out there,” as Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton has argued. Giving him a platform provides the program with a historic opportunity to take a stand against political bigotry—in the same way that Tina Fey’s much-lauded impression helped deflate Sarah Palin’s rising balloon back in 2008.
Palin might seem like a humorous historical footnote now—but let me remind you: Before accepting the Vice Presidential spot the McCain ticket and becoming a frequent SNL target, she was widely billed as the most popular governor in the country. Her addition was considered a boost for John McCain’s campaign, and Saturday Night Live helped change the conversation.
At a time when what was once a joke is quickly becoming a reality, a little humor may be just what America needs to bring Trump—and his supporters—back down to earth.
Matt Rozsa is a Ph. D. student in American history at Lehigh University who specializes in national politics. As a political columnist, his editorials have been published on Salon, Mic, and MSNBC.
Illustration by Jason Reed