August may have marked the nadir of the Trump-era culture wars: the month progressives nearly sulked en masse in sheet cake.
Asked to condemn the rally, President Trump equivocated, casting “blame on both sides,” and thrilling the march’s organizers. Trump’s chief strategist at the time, Stephen K. Bannon, reportedly boasted that the president had chosen “his people.”
White supremacist groups planned follow-up rallies across the country, and one of the movement’s ideological leaders, Richard Spencer, would soon lead a celebratory torch-wielding crowd back to Charlottesville.
Those who felt the president had legitimized white nationalism were despondent. And this despair found an avatar in the comedian Tina Fey, who appeared on “Saturday Night Live” a week after the rally, wearing a sweatshirt and clutching a sheet cake.
“I know a lot of us are feeling anxious,” Fey said. “We’re asking ourselves, ‘What can I do? I’m just one person. What can I do?’ ”
“Order a cake with the American flag on it, like this one,” she said, answering her own question as she picked up a fork. “And, um, just eat it.”
For the rest of the “Weekend Update” sketch, SNL’s Colin Jost stared at Fey as she crammed chunks of cake into her mouth, pausing between mouthfuls to lament white supremacy, Nazism, armed militias and Trump — venting all emotion into the cake.
“Sheet-caking is a grass-roots movement, Colin,” Fey said, her glasses dotted with frosting. “Most of the women I know have been doing it once a week since the election.”
Fey’s advice, briefly, became a sort of viral capitulation strategy.
Activists, however, condemned Fey and urged Americans to resist sheet-cake complacency.
Nine months later, history seems to have proved them right.
One of the movement’s largest organizations dissolved after an inter-family brawl in a trailer in March, and the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer has essentially been kicked off the Internet.
Now Fey is back on TV, with a post-mortem on her defunct sheet-cake movement, and she would like to express her regrets.
She appeared on the Netflix show “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction” this week and largely avoided talking politics with the host, David Letterman.
But midway through the episode, Letterman brought up the SNL sketch, of which he was a fan.
“I marveled at it, for the writing of it and the execution of it,” he said. “I thought, this is perfect.”
“Turns out, it was not, sir,” Fey replied.
A clip of the sketch played, including Fey’s final line, in which she sat covered in frosting and urged all prospective protesters: “Don’t show up. Let these morons scream into the empty air.”
This was followed by montage of articles that had blasted Fey’s apparent complacency, including Molly Roberts’s August essay in The Washington Post, which complained that the comedian “was telling Americans to keep to their homes rather than take to the streets and fight back.”
“Every time I’ve ever done some kind of those update things, I always kind of step in manure,” Fey told Letterman. “The implication was that I was telling people to give up and not be active, and not fight. That was not my intention, obviously.”
Long before Trump’s election, Fey had told an interviewer that she would not explain her jokes.
Now, on Letterman, she broke that rule.
The cake, she said, did not symbolize capitulation but a refusal to engage with white supremacists on their own terms.
“The idea was … if you feed these kinds of trolls — if you don’t, if you take the air out of it, they disappear faster,” she said. “And … I didn’t want any more people to get hurt.”
Without apologizing for the sketch, Fey said she wished she could amend it with a line she thought up days after it aired, as her fans debated whether to resist white nationalism or sit down and eat cake.
“If I could put one sentence back digitally, I’d say to people: Fight them in every way, except the way that they want,” Fey said.
Letterman said he still liked the sketch anyway, and they moved on to other topics.
Toward the end of the show, Fey started to complain about Trump again, then stopped herself. “Why am I talking about him?” she said.