The Battle Over Trump Impressions

A royal rumble has been held over the past year or so for the Donald Trump Impression Championship belt, and though plenty of people have thrown their coiffed wig into the ring, anyone who has seen Anthony Atamanuik take the stage as the moldy Utz Cheese Ball currently serving as president knows who the top contender for the title is. Atamanuik was recently rewarded for his efforts by Comedy Central with The President Show, which will feature a fictional Trump hosting a talk show along with his trusty sidekick Mike Pence (Veep’s Peter Grosz), a platform that will add even more Trump content to an already crowded late-night marketplace.

The veteran New York-based comedian rose to prominence over the course of the last election cycle thanks to Trump vs. Bernie, a partially improvised fantasy debate featuring Atamanuik and James Adomian as the two eponymous and (purportedly) unelectable outsiders spouting caricatured takes on the diametrically opposed rhetoric each candidate used to build an equally fervent following on their respective side of the aisle.

I first saw the duo in action at New York City’s Highline Ballroom last February. The show took place in a simpler time in a room filled with innocence and naiveté, just a few weeks before the primaries that would rock the Republican establishment while ensuring Sanders would have no shot at spoiling the ascension of his already established opponent. It was Adomian’s track record of impressions that originally drew me to the show, but it was Atamanuik who eventually stole it. He was able to channel Trump’s nasal, gravelly intonation, vitriolic diatribes, and unabashed crassness in an impressively deft display of improvisation.

Atamanuik had the chance to bring his impression to one of the biggest stages in comedy when he tried out for Saturday Night Live last year, and there’s little doubt his Trump impression was one of the highlights of the audition. However, he was not asked to join the cast, leaving the door open for someone else to impersonate the man SNL would love you to forget they helped normalize in one of the worst episodes the show has ever produced— from both a comedic and moral standpoint.

That honor instead went to Alec Baldwin (who Atamanuik also impersonated during his audition), who has portrayed Trump throughout the show’s 42nd season. It can be assumed that part of the reason for his casting stems from SNL’s recent success with tapping big names to play political figures, including Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, Larry David’s Bernie Sanders, and, most recently, Melissa McCarthy’s internet-breaking Sean Spicer (it’s worth noting Adomian’s unparalleled Sanders was overshadowed by David’s crowd-pleasing but largely uninspired impression of the Vermont senator, causing him to fall victim to the same phenomenon that has plagued Atamanuik).

Baldwin is the fourth person to play Trump multiple times on SNL. His is the second-best impression behind that of Darrell Hammond, arguably the most impressive caricaturist to ever walk the halls of Studio 8H. In fairness, it’s not hard to top Taran Killam’s seemingly Frank Caliendo-inspired take, nor that of Phil Hartman, who phoned it in when tackling Trump back when he was an adulterous businessman instead of a potentially traitorous president. There is one SNL alum and former Trump enabler currently impersonating the president on late-night, but Fallon never portrayed him on the show.

In what is a bit of a chicken-or-egg scenario, Baldwin has garnered a great deal of praise for his performance this season as SNL has seemingly doubled down on political content, perhaps in pursuit of penance for kowtowing to Trump how they did. In an era where everyone and their “funny” coworker has a Trump impression, Baldwin certainly deserves some credit, but how much credit is up for debate. It will be curious to see if Atamanuik can garner as much praise with a writing staff, professional makeup artists, set designers, a wardrobe department, and a major network on his side. If Baldwin’s Trump is a multinational corporation, Atamanuik’s is the scrappy startup founded on the ability to think on your feet that just got a round of funding to finally compete with the big dogs.  

There would be no real reason to compare Baldwin and Atamanuik if Baldwin hadn’t decided to do it himself while appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live last month. After Atamanuik participated in a slightly self-aggrandizing campaign to sit in for Trump at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Baldwin— who spent the first half of the interview stressing just how little he had practiced his allegedly eleventh-hour caricature before its debut— seemed to take offense to the fact that anyone would have the nerve to imply his impression wasn’t the best.

After the interview, both Adomian and Atamanuik admonished Baldwin for his comments, which sparked a series of snarky responses from a man with a long history of bigoted assholery. When taking everything into consideration, it’s a bit odd that someone who’s spent the last six months satirizing Donald Trump seems to be displaying so many similarities to him when not in character.

Trump used his cult of personality to ride a wave of populism to his current position, while Baldwin’s contemporary celebrity and the ever-growing anti-Trump sentiment seem to have a symbiotic relationship. Despite Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, he still has a strange obsession with his former opponent, and Baldwin seems unable to ignore Atamanuik despite having been handed the de facto Trump impression crown. It would appear both Trump and Baldwin are not just focused on winning, but rather letting everyone know just how much they can win by.

Although it’s unlikely Atamanuik’s impression will ever overshadow Baldwin’s, one can only hope his new late-night outlet will finally give him the attention he’s deserved since he stepped on stage at UCB with a cheap wig, poorly applied makeup and a “Make America Great Again” hat. Baldwin has claimed he won’t play Trump forever, and if his ego lets him fulfill that promise, we can only hope there will be a new, rightful successor to the Trump throne on next year’s season of SNL.

Photo by Mindy Tucker.

Connor Toole is the co-author of “Millennials of New York” and spends too much time shouting things into the empty void of Twitter.

The Battle Over Trump Impressions