It started with a parody of “Hotline Bling”. Almost exactly a year before the 2016 US election, Donald Trump hosted Saturday Night Live for the second time and for the first time as a political candidate. He danced to Drake and played satirical versions of himself. In a shock for the American left, just six weeks before he was elected president, Trump appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Fallon affectionately messing with the candidate’s hair while he shot the audience a goonish smile.
The liberal media spent the subsequent months and years pondering what role they might have played in making Trump appear less threatening. “I don’t necessarily put so much weight into Trump hosting SNL helping him become president,” cast member Taran Killam reflected a year after the episode, “but there’s definitely something where it normalises him and it makes it OK for him to be part of the conversation.” Images of Fallon’s Trump hair ruffle became an emblem of this liberal complacency; a symbol of the arrogant presumption that Trump would never win and, therefore, that any egregious views he held didn’t matter. Retroactively, these shows looked culpable.
These progressive pockets of the popular media tried to wash their hands of any responsibility for Trump’s win. The greatest example was SNL itself. The episode immediately following the 2016 election infamously opened with cast member Kate McKinnon – who regularly played Hillary Clinton on the show – dressed in a pantsuit playing the piano under a spotlight, singing a heartfelt “Hallelujah”. The show was mourning a result it may very well have helped achieve.
The saga led to a kind of cognitive dissonance among the liberal media. Today, it is dominated by an apathy that suggests most flashy media appearances and stories rarely have an electoral impact (eg TikTok teens tanking a 2020 Trump rally or the alleged Trump “piss tape” that was supposed to end his presidency).
So when Saturday Night Live announced on 24 April that the tech billionaire Elon Musk would be its host on 8 May, a similar whirlwind of controversy gathered around the show. The same question was asked: will this matter? Musk’s appearance would make him the first non-athlete or entertainer to host SNL since 2015 – since (you guessed it) Donald Trump. The announcement led to a backlash, including from some of the show’s current cast members, with critics largely opposed to giving a powerful tycoon the opportunity to use one of the US’s most popular shows as a platform for brand-building.
Much like Trump’s own turn, Musk’s episode was, on the face of it, unremarkable. None of the sketches was particularly funny or particularly cringey, or triggered a major fallout the following day. But in common with Trump’s episode, which was the show’s most watched for three years, Musk delivered a major viewership spike and is set to finish as this season’s third most popular host (behind the comedians Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle).
It’s understandable why many people might shrug at Musk’s appearance and wonder what the problem is. Sure, he may not have the cleanest record of any living celebrity, but what could be so bad about him hosting? There are also reasonable distinctions to make between the tech tycoon and Trump; principally, Musk isn’t campaigning to become a world leader.
But there are similarities between Trump and Musk too. Both occupy the same strange space in liberal popular culture of being considered both a villain and a joke; someone whose views are frowned upon but whose cartoonish persona makes them addictive to watch (as well as media catnip). Before 2016, Trump was a gilded businessman and a reality star, but one who also started the Obama “birther” movement and said Mexicans were rapists. Musk, today, is a billionaire inventor who makes fast cars and rocketships, but who also called a rescue hero a “pedo”. Some of his former Tesla factory employees have alleged the workplace is hostile and racist.
Like Trump before him, Musk may appear in the liberal media psyche as, at worst, a bad person getting off lightly. And while an appearance on SNL may not make or break his image, it could – as with Trump – encourage people to see him as merely a harmless joke. Trump’s racist views were common knowledge when he hosted SNL in 2015, but throughout his presidential campaign the media portrayed him as little more than the orange Apprentice host. The negative impacts Musk has had – from conspiracy theories to gruelling workplace conditions to environmentally devastating cryptocurrencies – are reduced to a footnote because he’s popular and sometimes his tweets are funny. He is no longer a nefarious narcissist exploiting unethical businesses, but a goofy dad who just loves gadgets and outer space.
Ultimately, it’s easier for the liberal media to argue that such high-profile appearances don’t matter than it is to unpick the nuanced ways in which they do. One hour on a popular TV show may not immediately increase one man’s influence, but it can be a pillar holding up a wider campaign that seeks to project a more palatable image. And though the threat of a whitewashed Elon Musk is less imminent than the threat of a whitewashed Trump, there are no limits to what someone with that much money and influence can do with less media scrutiny.
[see also: Is Tesla a car company, or a casino?]