Like the old blues lyric says, I’m laughing just to keep from crying. In the age of Trump, comedy has become one of America’s most biting forms of social critique, and Alec Baldwin’s searing depiction of Donald Trump is one of the best. In The Atlantic, Chris Jones shadows Baldwin on the SNL set as the 58-year-old actor turns our dark reality into what might be his most-lasting role yet.
He hadn’t rehearsed much. He had watched Trump on TV with the sound off, hunting for tics and physical cues (Baldwin still does this, recently adding Trump’s habitual neck stretch to his repertoire), but mostly he’d just hoped lightning would strike. Now he stood in the shadows, terrified that he didn’t have it—he worried out loud that he didn’t have it—trying to remind himself that, if nothing else, he needed to look as though he were “trying to suck the wallpaper off the wall.” That “nasty scar” of a mouth was Baldwin’s only certainty: “a puckering butthole,” he calls it, dropping into his Trump voice to describe his vision of it. Then he heard Michael Che, playing debate moderator Lester Holt, summon him to the stage: “He’s the man to blame for the bottom half of all his kids’ faces. It’s Republican nominee Donald Trump.”
Baldwin walked out onto the stage and, as if by dark magic, there he was: not Trump, exactly, but some nightmarish goof on Trump, a distillation of everything gross about him, boiled clean of any remnant that could be mistaken for competence or redemption. Unlike Fey’s pitch-perfect echo of Palin, Baldwin’s Trump isn’t an impersonation. He saves his more accurate work for Tony Bennett, for Robert De Niro, for Al Pacino—for men he loves and admires. Those are mischiefs, born of appreciation. His Trump is mimicry, born of disgust. Even after so many successful appearances—even after his and Trump’s visages have become so closely associated that a newspaper in the Dominican Republic ran a photograph of his Trump instead of the real one—Baldwin can still seem as though he doesn’t have the stomach to inhabit Trump fully. “Push, push, push,” he says in his makeup chair, his lips once again threatening to burst from his distorted face. “It’s exhausting. I’m hoping I can come up with someone else I can imitate. Pence?” In the meantime, he will keep his Trump at a remove, almost like an abstract painting, not of Trump the man but of Trump’s withered soul.