Gavin Bond/Comedy Central

In Michael D’Antonio’s 2015 biography on Donald Trump, Never Enough, Trump is quoted as saying “I don’t engage in self-analysis, because I might not like what I see.” It’s a rare and accurate moment of inner reflection for the current president of the United States. Unfortunately, he refuses to explore the observation any further, shrugging it off so he can move on to a topic he deems more interesting.

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On The President Show, Anthony Atamanuik draws out this type of self-aware moment for a Trump impression that goes far beyond parroting and into sad, strange, and somewhat complex satire. He’s done numerous interviews this week about how he’s not just trying to capture Donald Trump’s mannerisms, but the emptiness of his soul, and it’s these brief periods of cognizance—the times where the synapses in the character’s brain crackle with a little more fire—that allow him to hit such a lofty creative benchmark.

The most prominent instance arrives mid-episode, where the fictional(?) Trump deviates from his late-night talk-show framework for a man-on-the-street segment. Upon getting excited by a truck, he imagines the vehicle getting into an accident and becoming a submerged in water. His squealing laughter gradually melts into a monotone voice as he describes the sensation of drowning, an experience that might be horrific at first, but would finally free him from his—as Trump’s own ghostwriter once put it—“living black hole” of a personality.

Through the filter of Atamanuik’s performance, this is the Trump version of the Precogs’ visions in Minority Report; the Trump version of Tom Cullen’s hypnosis-induced prophecies in The Stand; the Trump version of Cousin Eddie pissing his pants and forgetting who he is in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Or, to reverse it, it’s Trump for once gaining insight into the base qualities of his true self and, to paraphrase the real Donald, not liking what he sees. He’s a man who’s suddenly troubled by his own lack of complexity, if only for half a minute or so.

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And that’s something new. Although Alec Baldwin may get some of the more oafish characteristics of Trump right, he doesn’t exactly plumb the depths of the commander in chief’s psychology. Granted, there isn’t a lot to plumb on that front, but that’s the point. That’s the beauty of those mental interludes. What happens when the most powerful man in the world realizes he’s an organism who only wants to eat, bully, and fuck? Sometimes, it’s a reaction akin to void-gazing, Lovecraftian horror. Other times, Atamanuik’s Trump is quieter about his disappointment in himself, like when he’s locked in his car, hunched over and grumbling as he gorges on fried chicken and Burger King. A singular-minded being wasting away in its cave.

Even if Atamanuik didn’t take a more psychological approach, the guy was already nailing the most surface-level of Trumpisms back when Saturday Night Live was shamelessly giving free ad space to the real deal. Anyone who’s only looking for a good Trump impression can find it here. Atamanuik’s take even boasts some precise physical ticks not seen in the portrayals from Baldwin and others: the straight-legged shamble; the jutting out of the lower jaw after making a boneheaded proclamation; the winded rasp that turns high-pitched—almost geeky—whenever Trump is tickled by something or makes a crass joke.

Placing Atamanuik’s Trump in the wild (including a visit to Trump Tower) provides more opportunities for his id to rear its ugly head, if only because he’s not in his natural element. Times Square means more riff-raff, which means more confusion, more of Trump stumbling down curbs and lusting after fast food; more of him growing frustrated as he wanders around aimlessly looking for his wife.

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But in The President Show’s more formalized talk-show setting (a soundstage done up to look like the Oval Office), Atamanuik slips into a slightly different role of confident yet awkward showman. He’s talked before about how Trump is almost like a D-grade member of the Rat Pack, and that’s the persona on full display here—outdated humor and swagger that can never quite keep Trump’s general unsavoriness at bay.

Perhaps it’s this more static locale that makes the talk-show element just a touch less gripping than the series’ rawer segments. Here, Trump is better behaved (if only slightly so), coming off like a ruder, cruder, stupider version of Stephen Colbert’s faux conservative persona on The Colbert Report when interviewing a measured guest like Keith Olbermann. While it’s amusing to see Olbermann explicitly point out Trump’s hypocrisy, then marvel at his freakish moments of clarity, it never reaches the bizarre heights of the man-on-the-street stretch of the show. Peter Grosz also gets underused as Mike Pence, the co-host and straight man to Atamanuik’s carnival barker.

Still, figuring out the exact structure and supporting players’ roles are typical hurdles for any brand-new show. The more important takeaway is that, in an entertainment landscape—hell, make that an entire planet—forever bogged down by Trump headlines and impersonations, Atamanuik has actually found a way to stand out. Sure, he’s got the gross tan, toupee, petulance, whininess, and other grotesqueries down to a tee. But he’s also given us a brief and troubling glimpse into Trump’s psyche. Now he just has to keep The President Show funny—or at least compelling—enough for viewers to want to stay in such a dangerous place.

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Stray observations

  • My first exposure to Atamanuik’s Trump was his roadshow debate with James Adomian as Bernie Sanders. When the real Trump won the election, this was the one parody I never got sick of.
  • Speaking of which, I’m guessing Adomian will pop by as Bernie at some point, yeah?
  • A lot of people have steered clear of any kind of Trump humor because they’re a) tired of it or b) too depressed by his presidency to laugh at it. What say all of you?
  • Is this the first instance of someone rearranging “America First” to say “Me First”? Someone has to have done it before, but it still felt like a gut-punch.
  • “This is the worst thing the Germans have ever done.”
  • “That was straight mayonnaise.”
  • “I will use this office to enrich myself and my weirdo family.”

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