How Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert blazed a trail for Trump

Comedians Stephen Colbert (L) and Jon Stewart close the Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear on the National Mall on October 30, 2010 in Washington, DC. Stewart and Colbert held the rally, which tens of thousands of people attended. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Over the past few months, the drawing of historical analogy has become a small cottage industry, the analogies becoming darker as a Trump presidency went from being an unthinkable outcome to an unthinkable reality: Trump as Andrew Jackson, Trump as Nixon, Trump as Reagan, Trump as Hitler, Mussolini, Peron, Chavez and, the latest entry, Trump as ancient Roman tyrant.

Thanks to all this analogizing, two master narratives are vying for dominance in the press. One has Trump as a dictator who will crack down on the press and jail or deport large segments of the population. The other has him as a greedy opportunist who will use the presidency to enrich himself and his family.

The media has to choose one. American freedom has always been synonymous with American business; at this moment in history, they are virtually identical. No repressive regime, whether the product of a coup or a slow strangulation of liberties, was spawned by businessmen. The military juntas in Latin America were brought down by sinking economies. Lack of a free market destroyed Soviet communism, and the advent of a capitalist economy softened communism in China. You cannot deregulate the marketplace if there is no one to buy and sell inside it.

To inflate Trump into an evil political genius is to repeat the mistake the media made 12 years ago, the moment of The Apprentice’s debut, when the press transformed a bankrupt flim flammer into a brilliant titan of American business. Market forces demanded the media exploit the popularity of Trump’s show. And market forces blinded the media to the nature of Donald J. Trump.

The cruel irony is that the free market that created Trump is now, even as the media resists him, perpetuating his influence and making him stronger. He is, let’s be honest, one of the most riveting stories for journalism since 9/11. He may be scaring the wits out of journalists on the political level, but he is worming his way into their hearts in the arena of culture.

Even as the press warns about the effects a performer as president will have on the fate of the country, it welcomes his performances. It’s not just the meeting with Kanye West that inspired that distinctively Trump-era feeling of simultaneous fascination and disgust. It has also been the painstaking coverage of Alec Baldwin’s hilarious satire of Trump, followed by a brief burst of fevered speculation asking: Will Baldwin vs. Trump be the new Stewart vs. O’Reilly? In other words, will Trump make for lucrative content?

Enjoying, needing even, replenishing, redemptive satire is one thing. Making it part of the cycle of serious political news is another. In the reporting on SNL’s every send-up of Trump, and Trump’s every tweet in response, you could feel the elephant in the media room in the form of a forlorn question: Where, oh where, have Stewart and Colbert gone? They were once almost indistinguishable from the media’s serious political coverage.

Related: Eight steps reporters should take before Trump assumes office

Yet it was Stewart and Colbert who helped create the atmosphere of “fake news” (formerly known as gossip, rumor, dis-, or misinformation) that helped elect Trump, and that currently has the media up in arms.

Even as Colbert was inveighing with inventive brilliance against the blurring of fact and fantasy that he immortally dubbed “truthiness,” he and Stewart were exploiting and creating an atmosphere of truthiness themselves. Foundering media organizations, hungry for the youthful demographic that hung on Stewart’s and Colbert’s every word, reported with a mixture of dismay, admiration, and envy that more young people were getting their news from the two comedians’ late-night shows than from their own actual news organizations. Back then, because Colbert and Stewart were the liberal media’s very own tribunes, that alarming development was hilarious and acceptable. The media reported on and quoted the two comedians as if they were a pair of senators.

 

Colbert’s bizarre appearance, as part of his general shtick, as a legitimate witness in the House of Representatives before a judiciary subcommittee on farming and immigration was a precursor to another reality-TV buffoon’s election to the White House.

 

This had two fatal effects. One was that, in Colbert’s and Stewart’s blur of taunting, mockery, distorting montage, and mixture of straight-faced irony and actual commentary, “truthiness” became not just these shows’ bugbear, but their dominant value. In retrospect, Colbert’s bizarre appearance, as part of his general shtick, as a legitimate witness in the House of Representatives before a judiciary subcommittee on farming and immigration was a precursor to another reality-TV buffoon’s election to the White House.

The other effect was that the echo chamber the media now decries was pioneered by Stewart and Colbert. Their liberal politics, half posturing, half genuine, was excluding and asphyxiating. Their more general contempt for every aspect of the democratic political process was the liberal version of the cynicism and the nihilism that helped project Trump into the Oval Office.

Yes, in the darkest days of the Bush years, they were sources of therapy, catharsis, and occasional illumination. But they were mining the same vein of contempt for reality as their counterparts on the other side. Just as the far right learned some tactical lessons from the 1960s’ countercultural left, the crew at Breitbart et al. learned some lessons from the two erstwhile prophets of Comedy Central. Breitbart creation Milos Yiannopoulos’s “Dangerous Faggot” is the dark, twisted underside of Colbert’s creation of the type of bullying, autocratic persona that would be perfectly at home at Breitbart.

Related: Trump doesn’t miss a beat as Twitter’s Media Critic in Chief

As Trevor Noah put it in a recent Times op-ed: “When I took over The Daily Show from Jon Stewart in 2015, I was surprised to learn that my job as a late-night comedy host was not merely to entertain but to eviscerate—to attack, crush, demolish and destroy the opponents of liberal, progressive America. Very quickly, people from some quarters—mostly those same liberal progressives—criticized me for not maintaining the minimum acceptable levels of daily evisceration that were established by my predecessor.”

All through the reverential epoch of Stewart and Colbert, one glaring reality was never acknowledged by the media. That was the fact that the two comedians were not doing their satire for the good of the republic, but for the perfectly natural and understandable purpose of making money for their employer and for themselves.

When market forces are “our” market forces, they suddenly vanish as motivation. By obsessively and fawningly covering Trump’s The Apprentice, the media was hoping to attract a segment of his audience. The idea that the show’s motto, “You’re fired,” stood in opposition to every humane social and political value liberals claim to believe in never seemed to occur to the journalists gushing over the show, whose spinoff, Celebrity Apprentice, is now hosted by a former actor turned governor, even as the host of The Apprentice is about to sworn in as president. Only in America.

But, then, during the final episode of The Colbert Report, in which the comedian had on many of the guests who had appeared on his show, there was none other than Henry Kissinger, the very man behind the overthrow of Allende, dancing, laughing, smiling, and clapping his hands right there, among the mostly liberal crowd of the erstwhile guests, the Wise and the Good, many of them journalists who now warn against the reality TV star president becoming another Perón or Pinochet.

There is an old Groucho Marx joke that keeps coming to mind. Someone asks Groucho, “Are you a man or a mouse?” Groucho replies, “Put a piece of cheese on the floor and you’ll find out.” Trump’s undeniable allure as a cultural commodity—and perhaps, in the near future, as a glamorous social power—even as he horrifies and repels as a political reality, is the cheese. I hope the media learns to resist his commercial and what might eventually be his social cachet in the way it reports on him and that the press leaves the cheese where it is.

Or, to put it differently, culture is the back door through which bad politics enters in modern times. That is why Thomas Mann—to satisfy the media’s hunger for analogies to a past authoritarian regime—made the performer in a cheap magic show represent the dictator in his parable of fascism, “Mario and the Magician.” It’s time for the media to sacrifice some readership and profit and either exercise constant vigilance over that door, or close it altogether.

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Lee Siegel is the author of five books and the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. His forthcoming book, The Draw: A Memoir, will be published in April.