Why lip-sync impressions like Sarah Cooper's turned out to be the best way to satirise this president.
Donald Trump has some ideas about fighting the coronavirus. "We hit the body with a tremendous, whether it's ultraviolet or just very powerful light," the president says, to the bafflement of nearby aides. "Supposing, I said, you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or … in some other way," continues the president, gesturing toward her —
Her? I should explain. The words are 100 per cent Donald Trump's. The actions belong to comedian Sarah Cooper, whose homemade lip-syncs of the president's rambling pandemic-related statements have become the most effective impression of Trump yet.
Cooper posted that first video, titled How to Medical, to TikTok and Twitter in April. In a 49-second tour de force, Cooper illustrates his musings on light and disinfectant using a lamp and household cleaning products, playing the president's puzzled aide in cutaways.
She captures her Trump entirely through pantomime. She crosses her arms and bounces on her heels, like a CEO filibustering through a meeting while the staff suffers. Plenty of wags seized on Trump's bleach prescription for easy jokes, but her performance gets at something deeper: the peacocky entitlement of the longtime boss who is used to having his every whim indulged, his every thought doodle praised as a Michelangelo.
Cooper has been on a tear since, her karaoke Trump holding forth on the math of disease testing and wrestling with what it means to test "positively" for a virus. Channelling the president's announcement that he was taking the drug hydroxychloroquine (against prevailing medical advice) as a Covid preventive, she's a manic Willy Wonka, handing out a blister pack of pills to herself as a girl in pigtails.
Long before he was elected, Donald Trump posed the challenge of being easy to imitate and thus nearly impossible to satirise. Everyone has a Trump, and when everyone has a Trump, no one does.
A big problem comes when a writer tries to take the president's belligerent spoken jazz ("I know words. I have the best words") and force it into comedic 4/4 time. Even the most lacerating satire has to impose coherence on Trump, which — like news reports that try to find a narrative in his ramblings — ends up polishing the reality, losing the chaos essential to the genuine article.
Which maybe destined Donald Trump to be the TikTok president. The service was built around the concept of lip-sync videos, and to spoof this president, the perfect script is no script.
Before Cooper's How to Medical, other TikTok users riffed on a Trump ramble about the power of "germs." Kylie Scott posted "Drunk in the Club After Covid," lip-syncing Trump's words as a rambling inebriate, finding 80-proof logic in the teetotaller president's musings.
"The germ has gotten so brilliant," she mouths — cradling a drink, squinting her eyes and spiralling a finger toward her temple — "that the antibiotic can't keep up with it." (A TikTok search on "#drunktrump" yields a growing crop of examples.)
In 2008 Tina Fey hit on a version of this with her Saturday Night Live impression of Sarah Palin, some of whose best lines were verbatim or near-verbatim quotes. But even Fey put some English on Palin's English, as with the line "I can see Russia from my house," which some people later mistook for a real quote.
With Cooper, there's the added frisson of having Trump — who boasted of sexual assault, ran on xenophobia and referred crudely to African and Caribbean countries — played by a black woman born in Jamaica. (Compare the SNL sketch that used as a punchline the idea that Leslie Jones wanted to take over the role of the president.)
It's more than just irony. There's something liberating about Cooper taking on a subject she couldn't be expected to mirror, much as Melissa McCarthy was freed to imagine a hyper-aggro version of former press secretary Sean Spicer.
Instead, Cooper's Trumpian drag is partly a caricature of performative masculinity. (Trump's lifelong public persona has also been a caricature of performative masculinity.) There's something provocative in a woman trying on a male politician's unexamined confidence, his viewing of the other people in the room as temporarily useful props.
It's part an impression of Trump, part an attempt to ask whether a woman could get away with what Trump does and what that might look like. (Cooper wrote a 2018 humour-advice book titled How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men's Feelings.)
Other Cooper videos are more minimal, like a 12-second clip of the president touting his economic record: "We are bringing our country back, and a big focus is exactly that, with the, uh, minorities, specifically, if you look at, uh, the Asians."
There's no outfit or staging. Cooper does all the work with her eyes, which dart around frantically on each "uh," before landing somewhere off-screen and pointing on "Asians."
This is another theme of her Trump, the insistent confidence betrayed by microexpressions of terror. From Cooper's lips, the president's sentences become plywood bridges he's trying to nail together, one shaky plank at a time, over a vertiginous Looney Tunes canyon.
Beyond capturing the moment, Cooper's Trump says something about what makes a good political impression. Too often, people judge it by the Rich Little standard — how much you manage to look and sound like the subject.
Mimicry is a neat trick, but it's not satire unless there's an idea of the person, which can hit closer to the core than a pitch-perfect imitation. What Cooper and company are developing is comedy not as writing but as a kind of live-action political cartooning.
And it has applications beyond Trump. Comedian Maria DeCotis performs Gov. Andrew Cuomo's briefing digressions about family life in quarantine as a kind of stir-crazy sitcom, in which she plays the New York governor, each of his grown daughters and one daughter's boyfriend.
All these pieces prove that creativity eventually finds ways to work its way out of apparent dead-ends: not just how to make comedy under quarantine but how to ridicule a self-satirising political moment. Comedians are not the only people to look at our current reality and say, "I have no words." As it turns out, you don't need any.
Written by: James Poniewozik
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