A confession: I can barely watch the political cold opens to Saturday Night Live anymore. Some people don't like them because they think the show's critique of President Trump is toothless, but I find the political sketches mostly tedious and unfunny. Give me a thousand sketches about the rock band Weezer before I have to watch Alec Baldwin wear a wig and pinch his lips again. It would be nice, at long last, to move on.
That said, in a fight between Trump and SNL, it's much easier to root for SNL.
The president, once again, is griping about being made fun of by a comedy show. On Sunday, after SNL ran an It's a Wonderful Life parody about the Trump administration, the president woke up and began complaining on Twitter.
A REAL scandal is the one sided coverage, hour by hour, of networks like NBC & Democrat spin machines like Saturday Night Live. It is all nothing less than unfair news coverage and Dem commercials. Should be tested in courts, can’t be legal? Only defame & belittle! Collusion?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 16, 2018
Now, mostly this is ridiculous. For more than 40 years, the worlds of politics and pop culture have had a deal: Politics provides the president, and pop culture makes fun of that president. So SNL portrayed Gerald Ford as catastrophically clumsy, George W. Bush as an idiot manchild, and George H.W. Bush as barely verbal.
Trump, who apparently sees conspiracies everywhere, regards this process as unfair. One wishes he'd spend his Saturday nights watching nature documentaries, instead.
But Trump's criticism of the show is also kind of scary.
Politicians have been thin-skinned in the face of comedic criticism before. The elder Bush famously held a grudge against Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau after that comic depicted him having his "manhood placed in a blind trust." Bush, however, never did what Trump implicitly did on Sunday, which is threaten to use the resources of government to punish the maker of the satire.
In other words, because Trump has a deep psychological fear of being laughed at, he wants to make it illegal to hurt his feelings.
"Should be tested in courts, can't be legal?" Trump wrote. "Only defame & belittle! Collusion?"
It's unlikely much will come of Trump's musings. The president often threatens to sue his critics, and just as often nothing comes of it. More importantly, the United States Constitution has a First Amendment that guarantees freedom of expression — and which was pretty much created for the purpose of letting Americans criticize their leaders. And the courts have done plenty over the last century to shape First Amendment law: We know that to prove defamation, for example, a public figure like Trump would have to meet a high standard. The Supreme Court in 1988 wouldn't let Jerry Falwell sue Hustler magazine for portraying him as an incestous drunk in a parody; today's court may be more conservative, but it's not likely to let a legal challenge to a satirical show like SNL get very far, either.
So why sweat it?
Because it's wrong — and anti-Constitutional — for a president to threaten to use government to punish protected speech. Period. Even if the president's threats amount to nothing, individuals and companies fear the government's awesome power enough that they might decide poking fun at the president isn't worth the risk: When a president threatens censorship — and that's precisely what Trump is doing — the chances of self-censorship go up. The president is trying to bully a notable critic into silence: NBC and Saturday Night Live can probably take the pressure, but what about an individual or a publication that doesn't have access to the same powerful lawyers and deep pockets?
The First Amendment sometimes feels fragile because it's so often used to defend unpopular speech. Who really wants to be on the side of Larry Flynt or Fred Phelps? The administration went after Jim Acosta a few weeks ago not just because White House officials dislike the CNN correspondent, but because they knew Acosta's occasional grandstanding can make other journalists uncomfortable — the administration wanted to see if it could divide the press corps into journalists more and less deserving of First Amendment protections. That's why Trump targets SNL now: If you're not a fan, maybe you want to shrug and wait for a more noble cause to come along. By then, though, it might be too late. Better to push back now instead of waiting for real damage to be done.
So yes, the president's threat matters. It isn't the worst thing Trump tweeted this weekend: He also called his former lawyer a "rat" for cooperating with the government, and suggested he'd intervene in the case of a Green Beret accused of killing a prisoner suspected of terrorism. Taken together with the SNL threat, the tweets confirmed what we already know about Trump: He's lawless and petty, a narcissist with autocratic tendencies.
Which means, for now, Alec Baldwin's ridiculous Trump wig might as well be a banner for freedom. May it ever fly proud and high.