Yesterday I linked Ross Douthat’s column on what he describes as Samantha Bee-ism – the problem of a universal and exclusionary liberal tone among late night comics like Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, John Oliver, and Bee herself. Douthat was absolutely over the target in his piece, which led to a serious of escalating self-beclownings among the defenders of the idea that this brand of politicized humor is a good thing – Bee reportedly criticized the column in a conference call, and I’m sure Douthat will be the subject of an Oliver rant soon enough, where he literally destroys people by yelling into a black glass eye for 30 minutes to the seal-like cheers of an audience of people who think exactly as he does.
But it’s impossible for any fair-minded evaluator to deny Douthat’s main point: replacing culture with politics, even late night culture, makes for bad versions of both. Late night comedy has gotten so off the rails of putting comedy first that when one of their fellow liberally minded hosts, Jimmy Fallon, has a softball interview (the only kinds he does) with Donald Trump, it’s viewed as a traitorous act, “normalizing” bigotry by just playing nice with it. And their irritation makes sense: It bothers these late-nighters very much not just that Trump has a shot, but that the brand of humor they and their predecessors used to skewer past nominees just isn’t landing this time around.
Part of this is likely due to a tone that has become increasingly shrill and less convincing. Fallon and James Corden, unlike the others, come across in their natural state as happy and pleasant as opposed to snarky and pretentious. But snark and pretention are the rule of the moment, and if you don’t have it when it comes to the candidate the Republican Party has put forward, a candidate who is effectively in a coin-flip election with a chance at the presidency, you are not welcome in the celebrity club.
‘The Tonight Show’ gets a bigger audience because most people aren’t looking for the self-righteous mirth of slamming those stupid Republicans right before bed. Most would rather just have a chuckle. But as the backlash against Fallon shows, that apolitical style of comedy is not only becoming rare, it is being openly attacked as insufficiently politically militant.
‘This is the phenomenon to which Douthat is rightly attributing much of Trump’s appeal. His signature issue, more than immigration, more than crime, more than trade, is political correctness. Are some of his supporters downright racists? Sure, but many, many more connect with him when he says the speech police are keeping us from having frank conversations about real issues and problems. It is an effective argument for Trump because it is largely true. Yet saying so drives the progressives of the cultural elite absolutely bonkers with outrage…
‘I understand that many right-thinking Samantha Bee fans are disappointed that not every American has jumped on their “muticulti, choose your own pronoun, get out of my safe space before I’m triggered” bandwagon. It’s hard knowing many people out there don’t share one’s fundamental beliefs. When we are told our religious beliefs, politics, and worldviews aren’t acceptable in decent discourse, it pisses us off.’
And the celebrity club this time is very much set on what makes for decent discourse. When Hillary Clinton asks why she isn’t beating Trump by 50 points, she might as well be reflecting the litany of the television personalities supporting her at The Emmys. But if you want a perfect example of why this approach doesn’t work, just look at Joss Whedon’s “celeb-powered voting initiative” which features multiple personalities from his films and TV shows, mostly within the Marvel Universe, pushing the idea that you must vote for Democrats this time around to “save the day”.
It is the most effective pro-Trump ad I’ve seen yet. The video seems at first glance a parody of pretentious celebrity videos – but no, it’s just a pretentious celebrity video. When Martin Sheen pops up about halfway through to inform you that we must no longer pretend both sides are equal is when center-right eyes roll out of your head. You were pretending before? Very well then.
If you’d like a contrasting view, one that shares the sentiment of Whedon’s effort but not its pretention or its cluelessness, then look to this Irishman. In conversation with Charlie Rose, Bono expresses his disappointment with the rise of the Trump phenomenon without judging his voters as racist or denigrating the country as so many celebrities do. “America is like the best idea the world ever came up with. But Donald Trump is potentially the worst idea that ever happened to America. Potentially. Could destroy it… America is not just a country. Ireland is a nice country. Great Britain, great country. It’s not an idea. America is an idea. And that idea is bound up in justice and equality for all.”
Charlie Rose asks: “Why do you think this race is about even, running against a woman who has been Secretary of State, a United States senator, First Lady of the United States? And the race is about even.” And Bono replied: “I would not diminish Trump’s supporters, or underestimate their angst. Because I feel that, in a way, they have correctly assessed that the center parties haven’t yet become clear.” Rose: “What you’re saying their angst is real and genuine, a sense that ‘I worry about my country and where it is.’”
It’s interesting to think of Bono as a case study in how things change. Sixteen years ago he was working closely with Jesse Helms, one of the most right-wing members of the Senate, on a host of issues. Helms today is held by many leftists to be a racist and a bigot, as someone who held unacceptable anti-gay and anti-minority views. And yet the U2 frontman worked with him to do good. At the same time that Martin Sheen was protesting George W. Bush by putting duct tape over his mouth, Bono was working with the Bush administration on a massive relief plan. He had no qualms about walking the border between culture and politics because that is how something is achieved beyond just making yourself feel good.
Today, the left is entirely in favor of replacing culture with politics. That gives us worse culture, and worse politics. We need more border-walkers who can navigate the world between this tribal divide, or we risk a culture where the tribes become increasingly permanent, and increasingly incapable of talking one to another.