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The Conversation

The Politics of Late-Night Comedy

Caitlin Flanagan’s May article, “How Late-Night Comedy Alienated Conservatives, Made Liberals Smug, and Fueled the Rise of Trump,” provoked responses from, among others, Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, and Trevor Noah, the host of The Daily Show.

“Trump and Bee,” Flanagan argues, “are on different sides politically, but culturally they are drinking from the same cup, one filled with the poisonous nectar of reality TV and its baseless values … Trump and Bee share a penchant for verbal cruelty and a willingness to mock the defenseless.”

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It is far more consequential, of course, when Trump does the mocking. But Flanagan is correct that the attitude of late-night television gets mixed up in the public mind with the mainstream media and appears to many as a monolith of cruel, establishment bias.

On the whole, people can better tolerate being shouted at than being sneered at. And the sneer of the knowledge class was clearly a motivating factor for many Trump voters. They felt condescension from the commanding heights of the culture and set out to storm its highest point. The pose of late-night television—duplicated by many on the left—is a continuing provocation. It is the general, obnoxious attitude in which it is somehow permissible for the Democratic National Committee to hawk a T-shirt on its website saying, “Democrats give a sh*t about people.”

This leads to a second, divisive and counterproductive tendency among anti-Trump forces. For many on the left, the energy of opposition to the president is useful only to drive an existing agenda—and to drive the Democratic Party leftward …

Consider where trends might take us. At the presidential level, there is currently no center-right party in the United States. With the ascendancy of its Elizabeth Warren–Bernie Sanders wing, there would be no center-left party in the country. The ideological and cultural sorting of the two parties would be complete, and nearly every issue would become a culture-war battle …

A substantive, centrist response to Trump has a chance of releasing his hold on the GOP and the country. A sneering, dismissive, dehumanizing, conspiratorial, hard-left-leaning response to Trump is his fondest hope.

There are many things that contributed to Donald Trump. With regards to the sneering comedy, does that alienate some people? Yes. We’re all different in our styles of comedy. I’m very different to Sam Bee, who’s very different to John Oliver, who’s very different to Stephen Colbert. Yes, we’re all operating in the same space. But just like players on a sports team, we’re all slightly different. You know? I mean, that was part of the thing with me when I started, is people said, “Oh, he’s not sneering enough.” “He’s not angry enough.” And I was like, “Okay, well that’s not what I’m trying to do.” And over time, I guess I’ve grown with an audience now that accepts how I do my comedy. But I don’t know if that contributes directly. Yeah, there will always be people who feel like they’re being, you know—they feel condescended [to]. But I would argue that politicians have more of that power than comedians do. When a politician’s out there on the stump, they have the ability to connect. That’s what Obama did really well. You know? It’s the difference between saying “We’re gonna shut down coal” and saying “We’re going to make sure your jobs are intact.” I feel like those are the things—I doubt that somebody’s at the voting booth going, “Yeah, this will show you, Trevor Noah. Ha ha! Take that! Electoral votes—that’ll show you!”

Trevor Noah
Excerpt from a Pod Save America interview in which he was asked about his response to this article

A brilliant, stinging, truthful piece. Note the part on the humiliated child. The Atlantic https://t.co/uzatjnHpFw

— Peggy Noonan (@Peggynoonannyc) April 19, 2017

Caitlin Flanagan makes three unsubstantiated and, frankly, wrong assertions about the political climate in the U.S. I’ll discuss the last one first. If you accept the idea that late-night comedians fueled the rise of Trump, then you have to accept that Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck, and hundreds of other conservative “entertainers” fueled the rise of Barack Obama. Of course, that would be ridiculous because they were popular long before Obama came on the scene. They enjoyed heightened popularity after Obama was elected because, like the late-night comedians Flanagan cites, they provided an outlet for voter anger and frustration. Their veiled and unveiled racist rhetoric (Limbaugh’s “Barack the Magic Negro” and Kelly’s sneering at the mere idea that black lives matter) was manna for conservatives who were incensed that a black man who is a liberal was in the White House. When then-candidate Obama was asked to react to Limbaugh’s parody, he didn’t fall into the trap. He coolly explained that he didn’t feel the need to react to such stupidity, because he knew that anyone who would likely vote for him didn’t listen to Limbaugh, a person Obama characterized as an entertainer. Late-night comedians will readily admit that they are entertainers, unlike Hannity and the rest, who call themselves journalists providing substantive political analyses.

What actually fueled the rise of Trump was the increasingly vitriolic and disrespectful comments made about President Obama and liberals. John McCain called Obama “delusional”; other conservatives on Fox News or talk radio or elsewhere said Obama was “out of touch with reality” and “unhinged.” Conservatives’ rhetoric got bolder and louder as each one tried to out-insult the other. Trump, the insulter in chief, benefited from this competition. Flanagan admits that “Trump has it coming”; however, she’s not ready to acknowledge that Trump is conservative hosts’ baby. Which is why the idea that late-night comedy has alienated conservatives is ridiculous; they don’t watch late-night comedians excoriate Trump any more than I watch Fox News hosts spew their silly garbage.

And on the alienation thing: Why is it that the country is divided only when conservatives get angry? I remember conservatives’ outrage over affirmative action. They said it was “polarizing,” as if racial discrimination is not. Conservatives, apparently, can dish it but can’t take it.

Smug? No. But even a worm will turn.

Advice and Consent

A reader offers a trivia lesson about May’s Very Short Book Excerpt, “How to Kill a Lake.”

It’s a minor item, but in your recent book excerpt from Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, the author states, “If Lake Michigan were drained, it would now be possible to walk almost the entire 100 miles between Wisconsin and Michigan on a bed of … quagga mussels.” While we do like to spin Paul Bunyan stories about “our” Great Lakes here in Michigan, I’m afraid I must report that the longest interstate width, Milwaukee to Grand Haven, is roughly 85 miles. Intrepid souls can cross 118 miles from Michigan to Michigan, or it’s approximately 62 miles from Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to Big Sable Point, Michigan, for less ambitious walkers. Either way, bring robust walking shoes; that’s still a lot of sharp mussel shells.

(On TheAtlantic.com, readers answered June’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)

5. The last man on the moon, the astronaut Eugene Cernan, left his daughter’s initials behind for eternity.

— Ed Gawdzik

4. Thelma and Louise joyously driving at top speed over a cliff—credits roll.

— Margaret Whitt

3. Socrates crushed his persecutors’ arguments, took his poison, and left a legacy that has lasted through the ages.

— Gary Kohl

2. It has to be Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and dying on the same day, exactly 50 years after the date on the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1826.

— E. Diane DaCosta

1. George Washington leaving the presidency. He provided the example of serving only two terms, a precedent that was followed by every president until 1940, and later was written into the Constitution. In his farewell address, he warned the country against becoming involved in the internal affairs of foreign countries, advice that is as valid today as it was in 1796.

— Jerry Weaver

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