60 Minutes, SNL, and the Normalization of Donald Trump

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Donald Trump. Photo: CBS

“It is so big, it is so enormous, it is so amazing.”

That’s how President-elect Donald Trump described his Electoral College victory and ascension to the White House to 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl Sunday night. In a still sharply divided nation, the words were equally as likely to be heard with glee as sorrow.

The CBS newsmagazine interview had been recorded two days prior to its broadcast, on a Friday, two days after Trump’s opponent, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had called Trump to concede. We’d heard words like that throughout Trump’s campaign, and throughout his public life. They were salesman’s words, assuring prospective buyers that even though he didn’t have all the details of a plan worked out, he was on top of it, don’t you worry. How to describe the look on Stahl’s face as Trump used these words, his best words, his big-league words? At times the expression seemed skeptical. Other times it read as amusement, though maybe it was incredulity held in check by professionalism; in any case, it was indistinguishable from the way she would have addressed a famous athlete, attorney, or inventor of some new process for turning straw into gold or the reverse. He was just another president to her. She’d met so many, and here was another, so let’s hear what he has to say, eh? And let’s interview his wife and kids, too. We’d just gone through an election, after all. It happens every four years. It’s normal. The president sitting across from a CBS News correspondent and shooting the breeze: normal.   

Normal.

The word “normalization” has been thrown around a lot on social media this weekend, typically by people blindsided or horrified by Trump’s victory. Don’t normalize this, they said. Don’t normalize a man accused of multiple incidents of sexual misconduct; a man who promised to build a wall between Mexico and the United States and make Mexico pay for it; a man who bragged about physically dominating rivals and at times appeared to exhort his followers to commit violence against protesters and reporters. Don’t normalize a man whose more extreme followers have harassed and even assaulted women and people of color in the days following the election, and countered reports of harassment and violence by insisting they’re all fake, or that they’re payback for years of hurt feelings and unemployment. Don’t normalize the dark spirits that have been unleashed. Don’t.

But this is what the mainstream media does.

People magazine, which mere weeks ago published an article by a staffer who said Trump forced himself on her during an interview, put him on its cover, striding confidently toward the camera in a virtual replay of his slo-mo power walk in the opening credits of his NBC competition show The Apprentice. The magazine’s editor defended the choice to outraged readers, saying, "The story is not a celebration or an endorsement and we continue to stand by Natasha Stoynoff, whose account of being attacked by Trump in 2005 is recounted in this week's cover story." It was merely an escalation of an impulse that had been decried months earlier, when NBC’s The Tonight Show welcomed Trump; host Jimmy Fallon — Salacious Crumb to Trump’s Jabba the Hutt — mussed his weave as if he were an adorable grandfather. Nearly a year ago, that same network’s Saturday Night Live booked Trump as a host, essentially letting him affix his name to the show as if it were another hotel or bankrupt casino.

One night prior to Trump’s 60 Minutes segment, Saturday Night Live seemed to collapse into itself with shame even as it came to terms with having to welcome its new insect overlords. Host Dave Chappelle ended his opening monologue by recounting a BET-sponsored party he attended at the White House, which made him feel "proud" to be an American and "very happy" about the future. "So, in that spirit, I’m wishing Donald Trump luck," he said. "And I’m going to give him a chance. And we, the historically disenfranchised, demand that he give us one too." Was this bet-hedging or spin control? Maybe the latter. At CNN.com, Dean Obeidallah, a Muslim-American, posted a piece headlined "Chappelle is right: Trump needs to earn our support," putting greater weight on the comic's cutting remarks about the president-elect. "Now there is a way that Trump could possibly get many — not all — of those in communities who opposed him to keep an open mind. But it will take more than Trump making a short victory speech, in which he said he wants to be 'president for all Americans.' It will take action. And, to me, that is what Chappelle meant when he said we 'demand' that you give us a chance." 

But on November 5, Chappelle did an hour-long set at The Cutting Room devoted mainly to ripping Clinton. “Sexual assault? It wasn’t," he said, referring to the infamous tape of Trump bragging to then-Access Hollywood host Billy Bush about how when you're a star of a show as popular as The Apprentice, you can grab women "by the pussy." "‘And when you’re a star, they let you do it,’" Chappelle paraphrased. "That phrase implies consent. I just don’t like the way the media twisted that whole thing. Nobody questioned it.” 

Saturday Night Live was either oblivious to its own role in the election’s outcome or determined to make viewers forget. Kate McKinnon, the cast’s go-to Hillary Clinton impersonator, performed a solo piano version of “Hallelujah,” a signature song by the late, great Canadian musician Leonard Cohen, who died one day before the election; Tasteful, sorrowful, and unabashedly self-pitying, the number was the closest that the New York-based variety series has gotten to a hopeless lament. “I’m not giving up, and neither should you,” said McKinnon — or maybe it was Hillary the character, maybe both — in a climactic, House of Cards-style aside, looking straight into the camera.

On 60 Minutes, Trump said a lot of things that seemed like harbingers of the kind of “pivot” that media analysts and fans of human decency kept anticipating for roughly one full year, and that never arrived. But these tended to dissipate in a fog of ill-preparedness. Trump seemed to have no idea how the Supreme Court works, almost simultaneously promising that same-sex marriage wouldn’t be endangered by conservative Supreme Court appointees (or perhaps that he himself had no opinion on the matter?), and trying to reassure those worried about the possible overturn of Roe v. Wade that, were abortion were to lose its constitutional protection, women could just go to another state. (The interview was still being edited when Trump's campaign announced the appointment of former Breitbart news chief and Trump campaign CEO Stephen Bannon, a white nationalistfriendly journalist accused by his ex-wife of making anti-Semitic remarks, as the administration's chief strategist.)

Trump claimed that President Barack Obama — who surely never imagined that he’d hand the presidency to a man endorsed by the KKK — was scheduled to spend 15 minutes with Trump last week but ended up spending 90, focusing on the Middle East and Obamacare, mainly. (Shocker: Turns out the meeting was always supposed to last for one hour.) On 60 Minutes, Trump offered few details of the amazing, incredible, big-league conversation he’d had with the president, nor of any specific ideas for legislation or major cabinet nominations. At one point he looked straight into the camera and asked his followers to stop committing violence in his name, but only after repeated prompts by Stahl, and he declined to promise that he would tone down his more incendiary rhetoric after getting sworn in: “Sometimes you need a certain rhetoric to get people motivated.”

Alec Baldwin, a Clinton supporter and regular Saturday Night Live host, didn’t play Trump on this weekend’s Saturday Night Live, and suggested on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show that he might not play him again. “I’m trying to shed the Donald Trump cloak,” he said. Too late; perhaps, like Dr. Strange’s heavy cloak, the spirit of Trump chooses you, and after a while its weight feels normal.