Republican Presidential candidate and billionaire celebrity Donald Trump hosted Saturday Night Live on November 7th. The tradition of US Presidential candidates appearing on SNL goes all the way back to Democratic-nominee Ralph Nader, who presented the show in 1977 in the lead up to the general election, which pitted him against President-elect Jimmy Carter. Whilst numerous candidates have appeared on the show in cameo roles–most recently Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton–only three had ever hosted it prior to Trump. Notably and perhaps of concern for Trump, is the fact that all three ultimately failed in their bids to become President.
Trump’s success so far in the race for the Republican nomination has surprised many, particularly those of the GOP establishment, who have been marginalised by voters eager to see the radical change promised by the likes of Trump, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. But even in this wave of anti-establishment sentiment, Trump’s campaign stands out. He has completely re-written the campaign rulebook with his brash ‘take no prisoners’ style, and forced the entire Republican field into a radical shift to the right by threatening to deport Syrian refugees and promising to force Mexico into paying for a new wall along its border with the US. His comments deriding Mexican immigrants, asylum-seekers, women and Muslims have been applauded by the increasingly hard-right GOP base, as have his attacks on fellow candidates, turning the Republican primary into a contest over who can be more radical.
Many have criticised the ‘celebritization’ of US Presidential elections, arguing that voters should be making decisions based on policy rather that personality. Although this has definitely become more prolific–particularly in the 21st century–it never really had a material impact on the result. In 2012, the Republican primary consisted of four career politicians, which ultimately elected the relatively bland personality of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Typically, celebrity-type candidates have been viewed by the electorate as a sideshow to the task of electing the President. But not this year. Whilst less emphatic candidates like Jeb Bush have faded into obscurity in the crowded Republican field, Trump is leading in national polling, has a professional campaign supporting him and, at present, looks to be the most likely to fight the eventual Democratic nominee in the general election. Like it or not, at least for the Republican primary, the Presidential race has become a popularity contest.
As intended, Trump was quick to laud his performance on SNL and was careful to point out that it captured the show’s highest viewership since 2012. The episode is unlikely to go down as one of the show’s funniest, with many despairing at the predictable ways in which Trump was used throughout the various skits. It was engineered to be a ratings-generator, and in the end it achieved that goal.
The more pressing concern is how it will affect Trump’s standing in the primaries. In one sense it seems to portray him as a celebrity and entertainer-which he ultimately is-as opposed to the ‘politician Trump’ that the voting public has come to know over the past few months. Whilst in elections gone-by this might have been damaging, the anti-establishment sentiment among Republican primary voters means that this is likely to bolster Trump’s numbers.
Whether or not this could prove detrimental in a general election remains to be seen, but at least for the moment, appealing to voters’ dissatisfaction with the Washington machine appears to be winning support. At the same time, the appearance is also a victory for Trump over the consequences that he faced over comments he made early on in his campaign. NBC had originally decided to deprive Trump of air-time in response to his comments about Mexican immigrants, but has since departed from that stance. For Trump, this reinforces his persona of a strong negotiator who will always get what he wants, whilst simultaneously downplaying the seriousness of those comments, in which he called illegal immigrants ‘rapists’ and ‘murderers’. More than anything however, the appearance has stimulated enormous publicity. Trump’s campaigners understand that it has been his popularity and status that have been the main driving forces behind his success, and with SNL they have milked it for all its worth.