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Trevor Noah on Donald Trump and why the U.S. is more divided than ever

Photo: Brad Barket
Photo: Brad Barket

When Trevor Noah started hosting The Daily Show last September, he was just some young, hilarious correspondent from South Africa given the tall order of replacing Jon Stewart. Not quite a year later, Noah is drawing millennial viewers to The Daily Show and delivering night after night of sharp political thought and satire.

With The Daily Show’s entire staff headed to Cleveland and Philadelphia for the Republican National Convention and Democratic National Convention, respectively, Noah is set to take his hosting abilities to an even bigger stage. While other shows have teams reporting live, The Daily Show is the only one that will actually be fully broadcasting from the conventions, making Noah and company the best sources for all your boots-on-the-ground “what the fuck is going on” needs—assuming that what you need isn’t straight news coverage. With the RNC kicking off next week in Cleveland, The A.V. Club talked to Noah about what he’s learned from the U.S. political process, and whether America is really going to hell in a handbasket.

The A.V. Club: What’s most interesting to you about covering the conventions? Why is it important to you that The Daily Show is going?

Trevor Noah: What’s most interesting to me is just going to be seeing the chaos up close, especially on the Republican side. We’ve heard a lot about the Never Trump movement, and we’ve heard a lot about the establishment quickly planning a clandestine takeover, so it’ll be interesting to be there live and see if anything happens as it happens. It’ll also be fun to see people—I mean, Ted Cruz said that he’s going to be speaking, so it’ll be interesting to see how these people perform up close in a really scrutinized environment. So I’m excited for that.

I think the most intriguing part of it for me is taking The Daily Show there, because we get to experience all of the material firsthand. Generally, our show is resigned to reporting on the news, whereas here we get to be there when the news is being made, which I think will be an exciting change for us.

AVC: How much access is the RNC giving you?

TN: Well, we do have our press passes, so we’ll see how far they let us go within that access. But we are allowed to be there, and we’ll see what happens. The worst that could happen is we get kicked out, but that could also be the best thing that happens. We’ll see.

I’m not going there to try and stir anything. We just want to cover the conventions. And a lot of the Republican guys are actually quite nice, so hopefully we don’t have any issues.

AVC: How will The Daily Show’s approach this year differ from what the show has done in the past and from what other shows are doing?

TN: The big difference between what the other shows are doing and what we’re doing is the fact that we’re actually going to be there. I know that some people might be covering it on the night or might send a camera, but we’re actually going to be there. So we’re going to be doing a lot of Cleveland- and Philadelphia-specific stuff and convention-intensive stuff. Our shows are going to be dedicated to the conventions. It’s not going to be a piece of our show.

Then I guess what’s going to make it different is that this is my first time going to the convention. This is also the show’s first time as the Daily Show With Trevor Noah. We have new correspondents, we have myself, so it’s going to be a new experience. Plus a lot of our viewers have never experienced a convention whilst also watching it. So we have to take that into account while still skewering the convention for the all-time Daily Show viewers. You also want to create an exciting experience for the new viewers who have never seen anything like it.

AVC: You said you were doing Cleveland- and Philadelphia-specific coverage. Do you mean reported stories from the cities themselves that might not be about the actual convention?

TN: Yes. We have correspondents going out and reporting stories, so if there’s something crazy or interesting happening in either of the cities, we’ll be there ourselves.

The big difference from how the show did it before is that now there’ll be a lot of social media taking place. So we’ll be making shows within shows. We’ll have our Snapchat show, which is going to be launching for the first time. It’s going to be a three-part special, and that’s going to be us covering the convention on Snapchat. And then we’re going to have a whole bunch of different live activities as well, like The Daily Show convention sideshow, which is going to be in Cleveland for instance, and there’s going to be almost a live carnival of events that people can come and see. So those are just a few things that are going to make it different beyond just what’s on the show on TV.

AVC: Are you expecting any surprises at the conventions? They’re usually so locked down in advance.

TN: I don’t think that the RNC has everything locked up right now. From what I’m reading and what I’m seeing, it’s still up in the air. There are a few people confirmed here and there, but it doesn’t seem like everything is cohesive right now. So the RNC is really Nobody knows what’s going to happen. I wouldn’t be shocked if we come out the other side and Donald Trump is not the nominee. I know that’s crazy, but crazy has been the theme of this campaign.

On the DNC side, it seems like everything’s falling into place and everything’s going according to plan. Barring anything dramatic on Hillary’s side, it should be a pretty standard convention. Bernie is speaking, so maybe he’ll push Hillary a bit more, but it’ll be interesting to see on either side.

AVC: How can you prep for something like these conventions? If Donald Trump might not even be the nominee—or if he is, and then he just drops a VP and cabinet members, how can you start thinking about all that in advance?

TN: Yeah, on Trump’s side, what do you do? On Hillary’s side we’ve gone through a bunch of the VP possibilities like Elizabeth Warren, [Tom] Perez, Xavier Becerra, and so on, but when it comes to the RNC side, nobody knows anything. And I think anyone who says they know what’s going on is lying. No one knows what’s going on with that side. No one knows what Trump is doing or planning. The last time he talked about the convention, he said he was going to do something no one has ever seen before. He said he was going to make an entertainment spectacular. We don’t know what that means. All we can do is plan as much as we can plan, but for the most part we’re there live and experiencing the thing. What we get to do is share that experience with our viewers. We get to have it happen to us while we’re there, which is what makes it really exciting.

AVC: How many people are you sending?

TN: The whole show is going there. Every single person from the entire show. We are doing The Daily Show from Cleveland and from Philadelphia. We’re not sending people. The show is going there. Other people are sending somebody, but we’re sleeping there every single day. I will be there, every single correspondent will be there, our writers, our producerseverybody is going to be there.

AVC: Have you developed any sort of perspective on this election cycle or are you still in too deep?

TN: I don’t know. Sometimes being too deep into it makes you lose some perspective. It makes you feel like the whole thing is normal when in fact it’s not. It’s really not a normal campaign cycle you guys have here. I’ve seldom seen an election fraught with so many lies from candidates on either side.

I actually think this whole Brexit thing in the U.K. was a welcome example of being straightforward. With the candidates pulling out quickly, there’s no stringing the people along. The whole fight with Theresa May and her counterpart, or you look what happened with Boris [Johnson] and his counterpart. It’s so refreshing to just see candidates go, “Hey, I’m out. I don’t think I can do this.” Or Nigel Farage just going, “I don’t want to do this, I’m going home.” It’s just refreshing. It doesn’t seem to be as labored.

The American cycle is just so extreme and drawn out. And because of that, it leads you into the dark spaces where you go, “Nothing’s actually happening here other than the country being torn apart.” I don’t understand how people think you can spend this much time tearing people apart and then not expect that to still be in effect after the election is done. And that’s what people are doing. You’re spending almost two years on the road telling people from your side that the other side is wrong, and then you think that when the election ends you’re just going to go back to normal? No, you’re just sowing the seeds of divisiveness, and it’s unsustainable over time. And you see the effects of it over time. It’s just going to keep getting worse.

AVC: You might not notice it a year from now, but you’ll notice it eight years from now, or 20 years from now.

TN: Exactly.

AVC: With everything that’s going on—Donald Trump, ISIS, the two recent filmed shootings of black men, the sniper in Dallas—do you think things are getting worse, or do you think we’re just more aware of what’s going on because of social media and the 24-hour news cycle? Are things crazier now than they were, say, 20 years ago? A hundred years ago?

TN: I don’t think things are getting more insane. I do know that the country is more divided than it’s ever been. Tensions in America are at their peak.

With regard to the shootings and so on, I think that’s just the ubiquitous nature of cell phone cameras. That’s all that happened. Now everyone has eyes, and now everyone has evidence. That’s really changed how we tell the news and what we get from it.

But it’s an interesting place to begin where the country is completely divided into choosing sides, when the only side everyone should be choosing is the side of America, and then politicians essentially should be arguing about the best way to serve America. Whereas right now—like, for instance, let’s say Republicans and Democrats—they argue that the other side does not even want America to succeed, which is a strange thing. That’s not something you see very often in politics. Normally both sides are trying to get the same things done, but they just disagree on how to do it. Whereas here there’s a very distinct, “No, that side does not want to make this country what it needs to be. That side is totally against that.” And that’s part of a larger problem that people are starting to experience. So it’s more divisiveness, yes, but definitely also more social media that’s getting people connected to what’s happening.

AVC: Maybe some of that divisiveness could be solved if we had more than just two major political parties. Even some of the old guard Republicans are saying, “These guys are too much for me.”

TN: That’s the price you pay for not having multiple parties. Like I always say to people, in this election season particularly, if you had multiple parties I can tell you Donald Trump would have had his, Bernie Sanders would have had his own, Hillary would’ve been with the Democrats, and then the Republicans would’ve run maybe Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. But because you force people into these two sides that don’t fully represent them, you’re going to end up in a situation where the populist few manage to somehow control the votes and the narrative of the majority. That’s what’s happening now.

AVC: How much perspective do you think you’re bringing to this election by not being originally from the U.S.? Some of us might just say, “Well, this is how it’s always been.”

TN: It brings a lot in terms of me thinking it’s not normal. I always tell people in the writing room, I tell them in every situation, “I’m not at the place where I think it’s normal, and I hope I never get to that place, because a lot of the things that are happening are not normal.”

The biggest perspective I bring is coming from a country that has extreme racial tensions, just like America. We have a very strained situation in our relation to the British, but we handle it in different ways, obviously. But there are many parts of America that I understand because of the country that I am from.

Also, I’m coming from a place where I have seen a different way to handle it, or a slightly different way to go through what is happening, that gives me some perspective. So I think it always helps. It always helps to have someone who has traveled the world or seen a different way to do something. That helps give you perspective.

AVC: Do you think The Daily Show has the potential to bring about social change?

TN: I think any show has the potential to bring about social change. I do not think any one show in isolation can do it. I think it is a groundswell that needs to continue to be bolstered from all ends. So when you’re talking about an issue, for instance, if you look at all the issues we’ve been experiencing over the past few weeks or months—trans rights in America, LGBT rights, the proliferation of guns, the police shootings—all of these things, they need a certain level of groundswell. One show can’t do it, but when you multiply everyone on Twitter, everyone on TV, just everyone, that begins to bring it to life. That begins to make it bigger than just what it could be without that. And so I don’t think any one show has that power or ability, which is good because that could go either way, but we have a fantastic platform to be part of something bigger than just ourselves, which I take all the time and I use. And that’s not just because it’s The Daily Show, it’s because it’s a platform, and that’s what my platform has always been in comedy and in life. Like on Twitter, you can’t do anything by yourself, but you post something and it might be retweeted and retweeted, and next thing you know it’s trending, and it all came from one person. And so that’s how I look at the show. We have to start it somewhere, so let’s get started.

AVC: You could say that Fox News might think similarly. And they’re pushing things in a different, more conservative direction.

TN: I agree completely. We always look at gerrymandering and what it has done to voting in America, but what I realized the other day is that the news has somehow become gerrymandered and is continuing to be gerrymandered in America.

It’s very rare to find a place where news itself has a political bent. Normally, let’s say in the U.K. for instance, newspapers might explicitly support one party or the other, but television is just straight-up facts that are not influenced by any party from either side. In South Africa we try to maintain the same thing. Unfortunately, the government sometimes intervenes, but for the most part, the facts are the facts.

In America, to have news that has explicitly taken a position is a very strange place to be in, and it’s a very dangerous place to be in. And that’s happening on Facebook, as you saw, and that’s happening online. People are just being given their news and not the news, which is really, really scary.

AVC: You can choose what you want and don’t want to see.

TN: The scariest thing is it chooses for you at some point. There are many people out there who don’t even think of themselves as being averse to facts, but the truth is, they are not getting it.

Some guy tweeted me one of those memes that Donald Trump tweeted—about who commits crime and what percentage of black people commit crimes, and I was like, “These are false.” But the guy wasn’t being an asshole to me. He was just saying “Look, here’s the facts.” And I was like, “But these are false facts. This is not fact.” But the problem is that in his world, that has been circulated and he believes it. So how do you get that person to see the facts?

It’s also about being honest. I think it’s sometimes about realizing that a lot of that honesty can come from pointing out where your beliefs are flawed or where you’ve made mistakes. By doing that I feel like you get to a place where people are more likely to trust you. They go, “Okay, cool, you are open to us, then maybe we can be open to you.”