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Trump eyes 'retribution' against comedy shows that hurt his feelings

Every president learns to live with satire and mockery. Donald Trump's authoritarian instincts, however, take him in a far less healthy direction.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump points at supporters after speaking at rally at the Verizon Wireless Center in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 8, 2016. (Photo by Justin Lane/EPA)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump points at supporters after speaking at rally at the Verizon Wireless Center in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 8, 2016.

When Donald Trump speaks to audiences, he's accustomed to warm receptions from adoring followers. When the president looks out at an audience and sees forlorn faces, he takes it very personally.

After his State of the Union address last year, for example, Trump traveled to Ohio, ostensibly to talk about Republican tax cuts. He spent a fair amount of time, however, complaining about Democratic lawmakers failing to applaud his speech to his satisfaction. "Can we call that treason?" he asked the crowd at his rally. "Why not? I mean, they certainly didn't seem to love our country very much."

This year, after congressional Dems again failed to cheer to him, the president was again preoccupied with the perceived slight: Trump released a video on Friday night showing Democrats responding to his latest State of the Union address with looks of dissatisfaction. (The Republican ended up releasing it twice, since members of REM balked at his use of their song.)

Common sense suggests a confident and mature president wouldn't go out of his way to appear this petty, but Trump has an odd habit of looking small while trying to make himself appear big. Indeed, he made matters quite a bit worse two days later, complaining bitterly about NBC's "Saturday Night Live" for having the audacity to mock him.

"Nothing funny about tired Saturday Night Live on Fake News NBC! Question is, how do the Networks get away with these total Republican hit jobs without retribution? Likewise for many other shows? Very unfair and should be looked into. This is the real Collusion!"

If this sounds at all familiar, it's because Trump has published similar tweets before. During his presidential transition period, he lashed out at "SNL," condemning it as "biased," and suggesting he and his team should be given "equal time." Last year, the Republican did it again, blasting the comedy show as a "spin machine," and suggesting that the broadcasts may not be "legal."

It wasn't until yesterday, however, that Trump raised the specter of responding to the satirical show with "retribution."

I rather doubt anything will come of this, at least in practical terms, but I also think it'd be a mistake to dismiss these presidential antics as meaningless.

Trump is, at a minimum, offering a fresh peek into his authoritarian instincts. Confronted with a comedy show's mockery, the president has made no attempt to hide his emotional reactions: the Republican has questioned the legality of the broadcasts and told the public he'd like to see reprisals against those who dare to laugh at him.

If we saw this in a country abroad, we'd naturally wonder about the state of the nation's commitment to liberty.

But taking a step further, Trump's responses to "SNL" serve as reminders that he still doesn't yet understand the nature of the American presidency.

Soon after he left office, Lyndon Johnson was asked about the mockery he received from the Smothers Brothers, who hosted a popular comedy show on CBS at the time. "It is part of the price of leadership of this great and free nation to be the target of clever satirists," LBJ said, adding, "May we never grow so somber or self-important that we fail to appreciate the humor in our lives."

We saw other presidents adopt similar postures under similar circumstances. JFK joked about Vaughn Meader's impression of him. Gerald Ford was mocked mercilessly on "SNL," but he was a good sport about it. George H.W. Bush actually became friends with Dana Carvey after seeing the comedic actor's unflattering impression of him.

They each seemed to understand a simple truth: being president of the United States not only makes someone one of the highest-profile individuals on the planet, it also makes someone the target of jokes. It's simply a part of the job.

Donald Trump reacts viscerally and unhealthily to ridicule, but as his presidency begins its third year, it's also striking just how little he knows about the job he sought without taking the time to learn what it entails.