History’s First Draft: TV's Response to Trump

Stephan Cho - February 8, 2017

As with much of the current television landscape, ‘Survival of the Fittest,’ the season 6 premiere of Scandal, couldn’t shake the presence of the man who seems to have dominated every corner of the American cultural conversation.

Originally slated to air on January 19, ‘Survival of the Fittest’ was pushed out of its regular slot in exchange for a 20/20 special covering President-elect Donald Trump on the eve of his inauguration. Although Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes was quick to dismiss parallels. between this season of her hit political drama (filmed prior to the election) and real-life events, there are clear connections to be drawn between ‘Survival of the Fittest’ and the night of Trump’s surprise victory last November.

‘Survival of the Fittest’ captures some of the shock that at least 65.8 million people experienced that night. In the episode, Mellie Grant, the show’s former First Lady running as the first female president, experiences a surprising loss against a political outsider thanks to key electoral votes in swing states. The situation might be all too familiar for Hillary Clinton supporters who witnessed her stunning loss. There are clear, devastating parallels to November 8th here: the sudden drop in projections across cable news and prediction models, the blunt imagery of the glass ceiling never shattered at New York’s Javits Center., the calls for a recount in an election seemingly decided by the narrowest of margins. When Mellie demands a recount, Olivia Pope, the show’s whiz political consultant, offers some sobering truth about the optics of such a move. “[The press] is gonna label you a sore loser. And because you’re a woman, half of them are gonna call you a bitch, and half of them are gonna report that you cried,” she tells Mellie. It’s easy to imagine similar conversations happening inside the Clinton campaign before Clinton’s concession call to Trump early the next morning. Or perhaps, by that point, Clinton had already internalized enough of this sort of knowledge throughout her long political career to know that she would have to concede.

Despite these parallels, however, the dynamics of Scandal’s election do not track so neatly with our political reality. For one, Mellie Grant’s Democratic opponent, Frankie Vargas is (or spoiler alert: was) Latino, and his vice-presidential pick is openly gay. And while Vargas was considered an outsider presidential nominee on the show, his political credentials include experience as governor of Pennsylvania. Scandal’s world is one in which the Trumpian candidate--Hollis Doyle, a billionaire running an outsider political campaign on an anti-immigration, anti-Muslim platform with a strong populist following--was exposed as a fraud and knocked out of the Republican primaries, in an episode last season not-so-subtly titled ‘Trump Card’.

Shows such as Scandal and Homeland (which had the misfortune of centering on a female President-elect’s transition of power in its sixth season) have already become relics of a period before the election of President Trump. Now television showrunners, like so many millions of Americans, must inevitably contend with the implications of Trump’s presidency. The results are already starting to appear on our screens.

Late night television, particularly cable, has become the platform for some of the strongest immediate criticisms of the impending Trump administration for liberal audiences. Cable programs like Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. and *Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. (returning on February 12th after a hiatus throughout most of President Trump’s transition) have turned to rage and righteous fury in their coverage of Trump, and even less straightforwardly political programs like Desus & Mero have sharpened their political commentary in the early weeks of the Trump presidency.. These shows reflect, almost in real time, the opinions and contradictions and battles of the left as it works to process the daily impact of President Trump’s actions in office. It is worth noting that there is no explicitly conservative model for these shows. To some extent, these comedy shows contribute as much as MSNBC or Fox News to the growing partisan divide reflected on TV and in the real world.

While late night network television has been less openly and unanimously critical of Trump (see Jimmy Fallon’s infamous hair-tousle with then Republican candidate Donald Trump. on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon), several notable dissenters have emerged from the fold. Late Night with Seth Meyers has foregrounded the ‘A Closer Look’. segment on the show, a source of surprisingly thoughtful and engaged political commentary. The show has also taken a more adversarial approach in covering Trump, including an interview with Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway. in which Meyers pushed back against Conway’s response to the release of an unverified dossier by BuzzFeed News earlier that evening. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert has also taken aim at Trump., with a particular focus on his more outlandish behavior and his seemingly tenuous relationship with facts. In some respects, Trump resembles the jingoistic, proudly anti-intellectual persona that Colbert spent nearly a decade developing on his earlier Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report. Colbert even resurrected the character for a segment on Donald Trump’s nomination to the Republican ballot last July..

Shows like Scandal. and Blackish. have already started the work of contextualizing Trump within the longer arc of American social conflict and progress, Following the country’s first black president, the election of Donald Trump can be seen as an affront to the progress made under the Obama administration. These shows serve as a reminder that America has always had a complicated legacy for people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, among other groups that might be impacted by the Trump administration. However, both shows also attest to the steady progress that America has made in addressing the many mistakes in its institutional history: slavery, Jim Crow laws, housing discrimination, blocks to voting and marriage rights. It is still unclear how much impact the Trump era will have for such groups, but the creators of these shows remain hopeful.

It remains to be seen, however, how television will deal with the friction and increasingly glaring cultural divides that have come to define the Trump era. According to The Hollywood Reporter., early trends in the upcoming television pilot season seem to suggest a move toward programming aimed at Trump’s America: shows themed around red states and political outsiders winning unlikely campaigns. But it seems unlikely that these trends will do much to address the sense of liberal élite media bias that many Trump supporters railed against; or that this will help Americans deal with the implications of President Trump’s many inflammatory remarks targeted at African-Americans, Muslim-Americans, Mexicans, women, journalists, climate scientists, among other groups for whom his inescapable and aggressive presence poses a threat.

Given their claims to nonpartisanship in their political satire, South Park and Saturday Night Live seem best suited to confront the Trump administration in the current political climate. These shows, however, have proven strangely ineffective at taking advantage of this challenge and opportunity.

While South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have built their careers on satirizing the dysfunctions of the media and of the American political system that arguably fueled Trump’s rise, they have chosen to shy away from politics in the Trump era. “Last season… what was actually happening was way funnier than anything we could come up with. So we decided to kind of back off, and we’ll let [the politicians] do their comedy and we’ll do ours,” Stone said in an interview with ABC News.. It’s a curious choice for Parker and Stone, who have used the show throughout its run to satirize American politics from an outside libertarian perspective. While Parker is a registered member of the Libertarian Party and Stone has identified himself publicly as a libertarian, the South Park creators have been difficult to define on a political conservative-liberal spectrum. The show’s politics even led to the development of the term “South Park Republican”.: a young, amorphously-defined movement of South Park viewers on online communities, with center-right political views but dissatisfied with both poles of the American political spectrum.

Given this perspective, South Park could have the unique benefit of criticizing the Trump administration from a position that doesn’t seem as oppositional as more explicitly liberal shows. South Park, given its connection to online communities such as Reddit and 4chan, could also bring insight into the rise of the ‘alt-right’ movement: the loose, Internet-driven coalition of far-right ideologues that mobilized around the election of Donald Trump. However, Parker and Stone have decided to allow the Trump administration and its supporters to speak for themselves.

Saturday Night Live faces both the unique challenge of its proximity to the new president, and the unique opportunity of having direct access to him. The show came under fire following Trump’s hosting gig in November 2015, at a point in his campaign in which the once unlikely presidential candidate seemed increasingly poised to secure the Republican presidential ticket the following summer. Despite the high-profile additions of Alec Baldwin as Trump and a much-praised cameo from Melissa McCarthy as Press Secretary Sean Spicer. last week, the show has never fully addressed the matter of Trump’s hosting gig. However, Trump continues to watch, and he has taken to Twitter on multiple occasions to comment on what he says is unfair treatment from the show..

With such direct access to a president who broadcasts his thoughts so openly on social media, Saturday Night Live has the power to confront President Trump in a way that no other comedy show can. But the show, and particularly the Weekend Update segment, has not yet risen up to this challenge. One particularly controversial joke attributed Trump’s victory to the introduction of more gender identity options on Tinder, in a segment that many trans and gender non-binary social media users called out as being problematic and fundamentally false..

Saturday Night Live’s reaction to Trump has mostly reaffirmed the dominant narratives around Trump: that his election was a response to excessive political correctness on the left; that his erratic behavior and social media presence are part of elaborate machinations designed to distract from his policies; that women in his orbit like Kellyanne Conway and his daughter Ivanka Trump are reluctant casualties rather than active participants in his political ascent. For the purposes of political satire, Saturday Night Live has not done much beyond the surface level to resist or confront Trump in a meaningful way. The show’s response to Trump, as a result, is incomplete and compromised.

President Trump is unavoidable, but he remains difficult to address and confront in the moment, and his longer legacy on the television landscape remains undefined. We have still not seen the many biopics and dramatic reenactments that will inevitably emerge from this administration. One can almost already imagine Sarah Paulson as Kellyanne Conway on the Ryan Murphy miniseries based on this era ten years from now, reenacting Conway’s statement on “alternative facts” with full awareness of what impact she’ll have on the shape of American culture. For now, at least, there is a nation divided, staring at the image of one man and his long shadow on the television screen.

Stephan Cho

Stephan Cho is a senior and the editor-in-chief of The Moviegoer. His interests include pop culture criticism, creative writing, and music production.