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Renée Graham

Trump is a better punchline than president, and he hates it

Alec Baldwin on “Saturday Night Live’’ as President Trump.
Alec Baldwin on “Saturday Night Live’’ as President Trump. Will Heath/NBC

President Trump has no sense of humor.

While this pales in comparison with his mounting moral, constitutional, and possibly criminal sins, his latest tantrum against “Saturday Night Live” finds him wading deeper into the wannabe dictator muck.

In the “SNL” spoof of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Trump (played by Alec Baldwin) is shown by Clarence the Angel (Kenan Thompson) how much better off the world would have been had he never become president. Save for a few chuckles, it was pretty mild stuff — unless you’re a man who craves absolute reverence.

“A REAL scandal is the one sided coverage, hour by hour, of networks like NBC & Democrat spin machines like Saturday Night Live,” Trump tweeted early Sunday. “It is all nothing less than unfair news coverage and Dem commercials. Should be tested in courts, can’t be legal? Only defame and belittle! Collusion?”

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What Trump’s word scrapple suggests isn’t just absurd. It’s also dangerous. If he could, Trump would use the courts to inoculate himself from insult or public ridicule. He would criminalize comedy itself.

Despite his litigious nature, Trump probably won’t haul “SNL” ’s creator, Lorne Michaels, its writers, or cast members into court because they mock him. Yet even presidential threats could have the same chilling effect of suppressing free speech and expression if comedians or comedy shows cave to self-censorship.

Even during his campaign, Trump railed against this nation’s libel laws. As president, he has called them “a sham and a disgrace,” and has said his administration will “take a very very strong look” at them. A collector of grudges, Trump wants to crush anything that challenges his delusion that he is competent, loved, and respected.

News flash, Mr. President: A majority of Americans already know better.

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Given his long association with the show, Trump should know that “SNL” has wound up every president since its 1975 debut. With pratfalls, Chevy Chase turned Gerald Ford into an ineffectual klutz. Dan Aykroyd played Richard Nixon as a hunched ghoul. Darrell Hammond nailed Bill Clinton’s lip-biting smarminess, while Will Ferrell made George W. Bush a smirking dolt.

Being the butt of jokes comes with being president, and these men at least pretended to be chuckling along. The first Bush and Clinton even shared stages and laughs with their impersonators. I wouldn’t count on seeing Trump and Baldwin, with matching red ties and blonde fright ’dos, together any time soon.

Instead Trump takes his cues from men like President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who bends laws to break lives and eliminate what displeases him. Last January, Russian authorities canceled showings of the British comedy “The Death of Stalin,” branding it as “ideological warfare” and “extremism.” (Stalin himself was notorious for purges, which lead to millions, including musicians, artists, and writers being murdered and sent to labor camps.)

Bassem Youssef, known as the “Egyptian Jon Stewart,” faced arrest and death threats for satirizing government officials on his wildly popular TV show in Egypt. He was finally forced to flee the country in 2014.

Authoritarians silence anyone deemed an enemy, then claim high approval ratings because citizens are too terrorized to stand or speak against them. Trump wants to grow up to be Putin.

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All of this is driven by more than Trump’s pathological insecurities. He believes that, as president, he deserves unquestioned devotion and loyalty. Dictators don’t wield power with benevolence and compassion; they do so with intimidation, control, and violence. Even if Trump recognized the difference, he wouldn’t care.

Unable to laugh at himself — or, you know, become a better leader and man — Trump would sooner punish those who make a living making fun of him. After less than two years in office, Trump is more a punchline than a president, and he hates it. What he may yet attempt in order to assuage his deepening, documented contempt for free speech will be no laughing matter.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.