The biggest star of Saturday Night Live this season is not the hilariously candid Leslie Jones, the first-ever Latina cast member Melissa Villaseñor, or the acerbic Michael Che from the show's "Weekend Update" segment. Instead, SNL's season-long comedic darling is the polarizing, unfiltered, now President-elect of the United States of America, Donald Trump—or at least, Alec Baldwin's portrayal of him.
The sketch comedy show has a history of satirizing presidential elections, and its 42nd season is no different. For better or for worse, Trump has always existed as an impressive media figure: first as an internationally-known business mogul, then a reality TV host, and now a politician. His involvement with SNL, both as a host and a parodied character, has increased the show's viewership immensely over the course of the current season; its premiere this year was the series' highest-rated since SNL veteran Tina Fey hosted in 2013 (Nolfi).
SNL occupies a unique space within the social media sphere in that it permits interactions between the host and the show's characterization of the host, both within the confines of the show and beyond its boundaries. Its relationship with liveness and the flexible "truth" of events is part of its satirical charm, as demonstrated by the show's popularity via social media. In her article "The Public Domain: Social Surveillance in Everyday Life," Alice Marwick emphasizes the self-awareness necessary to enact the type of social surveillance that has become so pervasive in social media use today. Her notion that social surveillance is a symmetrical model that engages both users and their audience is a particularly pertinent lens through which to view the portrayal of Trump on this season of Saturday Night Live and his accompanying reactions to his parodied character.
SNL's portrayal of Trump through several actors over the years has exaggerated the way that Trump presents himself on social networking sites like Twitter; thus, Trump might feel the need to refute any negative or untrue imagery that he himself does not create. Trump's use of Twitter, for instance, aligns with Marwick's notion that social media can be used as a type of positive marketing strategy: "People monitor their digital actions with an audience in mind, often tailoring social media content to particular individuals," she states (379). Presidential candidates and citizens alike have the power to reach thousands of people with the creation of a single Tweet. One writer from Entrepreneur Media noted how "in 2016, candidates are using social media and other channels in new ways to market themselves" (Patel).
Trump is no stranger to the power of social media, and his constant use of Twitter to attack SNL's portrayal of him demon- strates the fine balance he has created between championing his right to the First Amendment and insulting various high-powered people, businesses, and industries. Trump's supporters, in particular, believe that his media-oriented success lies largely in that "he says what other people believe but are too afraid to say" (Patel). On 60 Minutes, Trump appeared to agree, stating that he uses Twitter as a way to "fight back" against any errors he sees in the media (Keith). CNN has dubbed him the first "social media" and "reality TV" president; before him, FDR was considered the first "radio" present, and JFK the first "television" president, based on the success of their campaigns through their specific media tendencies (Jones). When the White House began using Twitter as a political tool in May of 2009, for example, other politicians quickly followed suit (Ben-Ari 632).
Trump's arguable overuse of Twitter has become infamous; his tweets range from racist phrases like "billions of dollars gets brought into Mexico through the border. We get the killers, drugs & crime, they get the money!" to more meaningless, unintelligent musings such as "I have never seen a thin person drinking Diet Coke" (Trump). While broadcasted thoughts like these do not appear to be very presidential, Trump has assured the public that he will continue to use Twitter during his presidency, saying, "I'm going to do very restrained, if I use it at all, I'm going to do very restrained. I find it tremendous. It's a modern form of communication" (Keith). He also mentioned that Twitter is "a way for him to get out information faster than a press re- lease and 'more honestly' than through news outlets" (Chan). The major issue political scientist Rachel Ehrenberg sees with Twitter, however, is that "along with shared news and engaging dis- cussions come lies, propaganda and spin" (22).
Trump has purportedly agreed with this statement, if his Tweet on December 5th, 2016 is any indication: "If the press would cover me accurately & honorably, I would have far less reason to 'tweet.' Sadly, I don't know if that will ever happen!" In this way, a platform like Twitter, which does not have a "fact-checking apparatus" like other mass media outlets, becomes quickly overcrowded with misinformation and arguments across multiple party lines. Trump's recurring impulse to correct his own image often through the slandering of third parties destroys any chance, then, of a real, "fact-based debate…in our democracy" (Ehrenberg 25).
The harsh judgment Trump passes on the media at large extends to SNL's characterization of him, playing into Marwick's argument that this type of digital "stalking" is "both a way to compensate for perceived weakness by obtaining social knowledge, and maintaining status hier- archies by reinforcing the importance of others" (380). The impact of SNL's cultural commentary cannot be denied: the distribution of the show's sketches on various social media platforms, especially Facebook and Twitter, allows for a single clip to go viral in just a few hours. The ongoing circulation of dozens of weekly sketches is a key component in how Trump interacts with the notion of social surveillance—namely that his continuous following of the show corresponds with the idea that one's social media usage must be recognized and consumed in order to be validated.
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