When Sarah Cooper lip-syncs Donald Trump’s news conferences, there’s no lectern or presidential seal. There’s no Mike Pence, face calibrated to Placid Gratitude as he gazes beatifically into the middle distance, and no Dr. Anthony Fauci, looking as though he’d give anything to be transported someplace better, like maybe Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” No, in Cooper’s version there’s just Cooper, posting videos online, usually from her own apartment, miming along to the president’s characteristic rasp — part pontificating doorman, part tepid Marlon Brando impersonation, grasping from one excuse to another, one enemy to another, one wrecking ball to another.
Cooper is a black Jamaican immigrant, an erstwhile Google designer, a writer and a comedian. She looks nothing like Trump and suffers no pains to make herself physically Trumpian. He’s white, she’s black; he’s orange, she’s tan; she’s easily half his Taftian size. What she portrays is not his persona but his affect: the glib overconfidence, the lip curl of dismissiveness, the slow nods of fake understanding. She uses jump cuts and darting eyes to capture the rate at which Trump leaps from one topic to another — midsentence, midthought, sometimes midsyllable. In “How to Very Positively,” her expressions chase her train of thought as we hear Trump, asked about his coronavirus test, stumbling over his own allergic reaction to admitting anything “negative”: “I tested very positively in a, in another sense, so, this morning, yeah — I tested positively toward negative, right? So, no, I tested, ah, perfectly this morning — meaning, I tested negative.”
Or there’s “How to the Black People,” featuring Trump’s response to the death of George Floyd: a rush to reassure the 8 percent of African-American voters who helped elect him that his base loves their race. “MAGA is ‘Make America Great Again,’” he says — and “by the way, they love African-American people.” The president is unable to resist using the vocal equivalent of jazz hands when saying the words “African-American,” and Cooper captures this minstrelizing perfectly, zigzagging her way through Trump’s phrasing as if it were a sax solo. Then it’s back to hollow reassurances: “They love black people. MAGA. Loves. The black people.”
Trump impersonators usually try to capture his goofiness (Alec Baldwin), his air-headed frivolity (Stephen Colbert) or his smarmy lasciviousness (Anthony Atamanuik). They fall into the trap of having to imitate the very qualities that make the president appealing to some people, exaggerating them until his base sees only the mockery, not what’s being mocked. But Cooper doesn’t seem interested in embodying or mimicking Trump. She’s all about exposing him, in the most literal sense — and exposing, along with him, all the props, bluster and stagecraft he has cultivated for years. What would it be like, her videos ask, if you could take away everything else — all the trappings of authority, the partisan resentments, the sorcery of the performance — and leave only what Trump is literally saying? This, more often than not, is what she foregrounds. When the president asks aloud whether “injection inside or almost a cleaning” with disinfectants might help treat Covid-19, she grabs a bottle of Mrs. Meyer’s and pretends to spritz her eyes. When he touts hydroxychloroquine by saying, “I want the people of this nation to feel good,” she slips pills from an inside jacket pocket like a 1970s drug pusher.
There is an “I don’t see color” crowd that might say Cooper’s ethnicity and gender aren’t part of why these videos have become hugely popular online. But most surely recognize that when Trump’s words come from a different mouth, we approach a sort of reckoning. A black woman — no matter her obvious intelligence, her hip affect or cool apartment — could never get away with talking like this. She channels the entitlement of someone accustomed to bluffing their way out of speeding tickets, blustering through corporate presentations, excuse-mongering a way out of kids’ birthdays and partners’ anniversaries — the guy at the end of the bar whose expert opinion always begins with ignoring the experts.
Trump was “able to become the most powerful man in the world on posture alone,” Cooper told Lawrence O’Donnell during a TV appearance last month. But her videos “take away the podium and the people behind him nodding and the suit and the ‘I’m so rich’ and just have the words there with my facial expression — so people can actually see how he literally has no clue what he’s talking about.”
Here we arrive at the part that’s less funny. If Trump won the presidency on posture alone, and has occupied it without magically becoming more “presidential,” then what are we left with but posturing? When the coronavirus appeared, the president repeatedly said it would simply go away. When its threat grew, he held a rally and dismissed criticism of his response as the Democrats’ “new hoax.” When it became a crisis, he held news conferences that managed to look like a coronavirus-task-force version of “America’s Got Talent.” (But of course this is not a show; it is people’s lives.) Then came the killing of George Floyd, which sparked protests nationwide and an overdue conversation on systemic racism. Yet the president proved incapable of replacing his strongman fantasies with any call for unity, reconciliation or reform. “Once the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he tweeted, borrowing an old segregationist rhyme. “You have to dominate the streets,” he warned governors, chastising them for being “weak” — even as he himself was briefly sequestered in the White House’s underground bunker.
Cooper plays a paranoid Trump in “How to Bunker,” hiding behind walls as Trump says, “I was there for a tiny — little short period of time, and it was much more for an inspection.” She fondles a shower curtain the way Trump often caresses the flag, but it’s when she peeks from behind it that you may be reminded of “The Wizard of Oz” — the moment when Dorothy’s dog, Toto, pulls back a curtain, revealing that there is no wizard, only a showman working the machinery behind the booming voice and orange flames.
This is what all of Cooper’s videos portray: a one-man show in which the man is mired in an image of his own making. Most leaders — even the showmen, cynics and opportunists — would have recognized the seismic events of the past months as an opportunity to remind citizens of their special place in history. A hustler must still put in the work of hustling, and even tyrants require a dash of vision and imagination. Trump seems unencumbered by either. Cooper’s version of him is so suffused in every variety of American privilege that he doesn’t have to show us anything.