Donald Trump has some ideas about fighting the coronavirus. “We hit the body with a tremendous, whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light,” the president says, to the bafflement of nearby aides. “Supposing, I said, you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or … in some other way,” continues the president, gesturing toward her —
Her? I should explain. The words are 100 percent Donald J. Trump’s. The actions belong to the comedian Sarah Cooper, whose homemade lip-syncs of the president’s rambling pandemic-related statements have become the most effective impression of Mr. Trump yet.
Ms. Cooper posted that first video, titled “How to Medical,” to TikTok and Twitter in April. In a 49-second tour de force, Ms. Cooper illustrates his musings on light and disinfectant using a lamp and household cleaning products, playing the president’s puzzled aide in cutaways.
She captures her Trump entirely through pantomime. She crosses her arms and bounces on her heels, like a C.E.O. filibustering through a meeting while the staff suffers. Plenty of wags seized on Mr. Trump’s bleach prescription for easy jokes, but her performance gets at something deeper: the peacocky entitlement of the longtime boss who is used to having his every whim indulged, his every thought-doodle praised as a Michelangelo.
Long before he was elected, Donald Trump posed the challenge of being easy to imitate, and thus nearly impossible to satirize. Everyone has a Trump, and when everyone has a Trump, no one does.
A big problem comes when a writer tries to take the president’s belligerent spoken jazz (“I know words. I have the best words”) and force it into comedic 4/4 time. Even the most lacerating satire has to impose coherence on Mr. Trump, which — like news reports that try to find a narrative in his ramblings — ends up polishing the reality, losing the chaos essential to the genuine article.
Which maybe destined Donald Trump to be the TikTok president. The service was built around the concept of lip-sync videos, and to spoof this president, the perfect script is no script.
Before Ms. Cooper’s “How to Medical,” other TikTok users riffed on a Trump ramble about the power of “germs.” Kylie Scott posted “Drunk in the Club After Covid,” lip-syncing Mr. Trump’s words as a rambling inebriate, finding 80-proof logic in the teetotaler president’s musings.
“The germ has gotten so brilliant,” she mouths — cradling a drink, squinting her eyes and spiraling a finger toward her temple — “that the antibiotic can’t keep up with it.” (A TikTok search on “#drunktrump” yields a growing crop of examples.)
In 2008 Tina Fey hit on a version of this with her “Saturday Night Live” impression of Sarah Palin, some of whose best lines were verbatim or near-verbatim quotes. But even Ms. Fey put some English on Ms. Palin’s English, as with the line “I can see Russia from my house,” which some people later mistook for a real quote.
With Ms. Cooper, there’s the added frisson of having Mr. Trump — who boasted of sexual assault, ran on xenophobia and referred crudely to African and Caribbean countries — played by a black woman born in Jamaica. (Compare the “S.N.L.” sketch that used as a punchline the idea that Leslie Jones wanted to take over the role of the president.)
It’s more than just irony. There’s something liberating about Ms. Cooper taking on a subject she couldn’t be expected to mirror, much as Melissa McCarthy was freed to imagine a hyper-aggro version of the former press secretary Sean Spicer.
Instead, Ms. Cooper’s Trumpian drag is partly a caricature of performative masculinity. (Mr. Trump’s lifelong public persona has also been a caricature of performative masculinity.) There’s something provocative in a woman trying on a male politician’s unexamined confidence, his viewing of the other people in the room as temporarily useful props.
It’s part an impression of Mr. Trump, part an attempt to ask whether a woman could get away with what Mr. Trump does and what that might look like. (Ms. Cooper wrote a 2018 humor-advice book titled, “How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings.”)
Other Cooper videos are more minimal, like a 12-second clip of the president touting his economic record: “We are bringing our country back and a big focus is exactly that, with the, uh, minorities, specifically, if you look at, uh, the Asians.”
There’s no outfit or staging. Ms. Cooper does all the work with her eyes, which dart around frantically on each “uh,” before landing somewhere offscreen and pointing on “Asians.”
This is another theme of her Trump, the insistent confidence betrayed by microexpressions of terror. From Ms. Cooper’s lips, the president’s sentences become plywood bridges he’s trying to nail together, one shaky plank at a time, over a vertiginous Looney Tunes canyon.
Beyond capturing the moment, Ms. Cooper’s Trump says something about what makes a good political impression. Too often, people judge it by the Rich Little standard — how much you manage to look and sound like the subject.
Mimicry is a neat trick, but it’s not satire unless there’s an idea of the person, which can hit closer to the core than a pitch-perfect imitation. What Ms. Cooper and company are developing is comedy not as writing, but as a kind of live-action political cartooning.
And it has applications beyond Mr. Trump. The comedian Maria DeCotis performs Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s briefing digressions about family life in quarantine as a kind of stir-crazy sitcom, in which she plays the New York governor, each of his grown daughters and one daughter’s boyfriend.
All these pieces prove that creativity eventually finds ways to work its way out of apparent dead-ends: not just how to make comedy under quarantine but how to ridicule a self-satirizing political moment. Comedians are not the only people to look at our current reality and say, “I have no words.” As it turns out, you don’t need any.