Donald Trump is having his infamous ideas about fighting coronavirus. "We hit the body with a tremendous, whether it's ultraviolet or just very powerful light," the US 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 towards her –
Her? I should explain. The words are 100 per cent Donald Trump's. The actions belong to the comedian Sarah Cooper, whose home-made 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.
Cooper's performance gets at the peacocky entitlement of the long-time boss who is used to having his every whim indulged, his every thought doodle praised as a Michelangelo
She captures her Trump entirely through pantomime. She crosses her arms and bounces on her heels, like a chief executive filibustering through a meeting while the staff suffer. Plenty of wags seized on Trump’s bleach prescription for easy jokes, but her performance gets at something deeper: the peacocky entitlement of the long-time 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 that first hit video, her karaoke Trump holding forth on the maths 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 teetotal president's musings.
'The germ has gotten so brilliant,' Kylie Scott mouths – cradling a drink, squinting her eyes and spiralling a finger toward her temple – 'that the antibiotic can't keep up with it'
“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 for the presidency on xenophobia and referred crudely to African and Caribbean countries – played by a black woman born in Jamaica.
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 Trump's 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.
Beyond capturing the moment, Cooper’s Trump says something about what makes a good political impression. Too often, people judge it by 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.
All their 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. – New York Times