We have finally found the true successor to Jon Stewart, and it is…Donald Trump?
Yes, pretty much.
Consider the parallels. His approach to politics is all about mocking the supposed personal shortcomings of his targets. His main talent as a speaker and TV personality seems to be pulling faces and mugging for the camera.
Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
The real giveaway is Trump’s employment of a classic Jon Stewart trope: Clown Nose On, Clown Nose Off.
This approach dates back to Stewart’s famous, or infamous, appearance on “Crossfire” in 2004, when “The Daily Show” was still fairly new and “Crossfire” was very, very old. In a fit of insufferable self-righteousness, Stewart denounced the hosts for “hurting America,” I guess because of the way they promoted bitter partisan bickering as a form of entertainment. Because Stewart is all about Democrats being nice to Republicans, don’t you know.
Yes, there was something to this. I did my first TV appearances about this time, and the big revelation to me was that it’s no accident that people always shout each other down on today’s cable news shows. It’s a style that is deliberately induced by the producers because they think it makes the show more exciting than if everybody just waited their turn to engage in some kind of Dullsville substantive discussion.
But in retrospect, I think we can tell which show “hurt America” more. One was just another fairly forgettable cable TV shoutfest. The other had a transformative effect, convincing a whole generation of Millennials to get their news and political opinions from one-sided fake news shows run by blatantly partisan comedians. Of which there are now about a dozen, all imitating Jon Stewart. If the sin of “Crossfire” was its attempt to turn political debate into entertainment, it had nothing on “The Daily Show,” which replaced political debate with entertainment.
But when challenged on this, and indeed when challenged on anything he said, Jon Stewart had a ready-made defense: that he just runs “a comedy show.” This became known as the Clown Nose On, Clown Nose Off defense. When you’re caught doing something bad—a lie, a distortion, an exaggeration, selective editing, offensive comments—you put the clown nose on. Don’t take it so seriously, everybody, this is just a comedy show! But when your eager audience of gullible Millennials tunes in to receive their instructions about what to think, you take the clown nose off and encourage them to take you seriously.
Donald Trump, who likes a good turnkey property, found this approach ready-made and moved right in, bringing along a very different and much older audience.
Hence the repeated cycle that we saw again last week. Trump say something blatantly false and offensive—in this case, that President Obama is “the founder” of ISIS. He repeats it, doubles down on it, insists on it. Then when everybody calls him on that, he insists with equal fervor that it was all just a joke, and what’s wrong with you, anyway, can’t you recognize sarcasm? And all of this comes with an extra nudge and wink, because his core supporters will believe he still really meant what he said and is only disavowing it to jerk around the media.
To be fair, this method is not unique to Jon Stewart. If you recognize it from elsewhere, that’s because it’s a common trope of the Internet troll. Consider, for example, Milo Yiannopoulos’s insistence that “alt-right” creeps who post anti-Semitic memes are just a bunch of crazy kids having a laugh—sort of Hitlerjugend meets Katzenjammer Kids. Which implies that Donald Trump is the first Internet troll candidate, campaigning for the lulz of getting everyone sputtering with outrage at the latest outburst that he maybe does and maybe doesn’t actually mean.
But Trump is just a symptom, just the inheritor of the political world wrought by Jon Stewart and his ilk. They replaced reasoned discussion with ridicule, leaving themselves helpless before a man who is impervious to ridicule because he is impervious to shame. You can’t make his candidacy look like a joke, because he already beat you to it.
Thus have we turned political discussion into a comedic performance in which you are never required to stand behind or to take seriously your own position. I’m afraid that the results, as was often the case with Stewart’s original show, are not going to be very funny.