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What did we expect Jimmy Fallon to do with Donald Trump, anyway?

Jimmy Fallon rubs Donald Trump's head to completion on The Tonight Show. (Photo: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Jimmy Fallon rubs Donald Trump's head to completion on The Tonight Show. (Photo: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Sean: Last night, presidential abandon-all-hopeful Donald Trump sat for an interview with Jimmy Fallon. And unsurprisingly, it was just the latest in what’s been an endless procession of softballs not so much lobbed at the candidate as presented to him for an autograph. Fallon conducted another mock “job interview” on Trump’s qualifications for office as penetrating as any undertaken by a would-be Subway sandwich artist. Trump dodged questions about his relationship with Vladimir Putin, while Fallon complimented the gracious, presidential way Trump handled Hillary Clinton’s recent health problems by refusing to tweet out any of those Weekend At Bernie’s memes, basically. And at one point—in an image that has today somehow become the media equivalent of Chamberlain shaking hands with Hitler—Fallon reached over to playfully muss Trump’s hair, giggling as gleefully as Jimmy Fallon when he does literally anything. Frost/Nixon it was not.

And yet, I have to ask: What do we want from Jimmy Fallon, anyway? This is a man who’s built his entire talk-show career on being blandly inoffensive. He’s precluded so much as the potential for coming off as challenging by all but replacing the act of asking questions, for God’s sake. Did we really expect Fallon to challenge Trump here to anything more than a lip-sync battle? Granted, this was just another example of the underlying problem with the way the media has treated Trump throughout this campaign, as we also witnessed when Matt Lauer similarly failed to push back on any of Trump’s claims and somehow gave him a lighter grilling than he would, say, his fellow orange-ite Paula Deen. But there, Lauer at least had the superficial mandate of being a “moderator.” Jimmy Fallon is imbued with all the authority of a dinner party host wrangling a game of Charades. So why this outrage at him doing his inherently dumb job?

Look, I get it: Trump is a megalomaniacal, racist, crypto-fascist, looming nightmare, and every new dawn brings another exhausting list of slanders, hypocrisies, and outright lies that merit stinging rebuke and a persistent state of outcry and alarm. Inviting him on national television just so Jimmy Fallon can ruffle his hair like an adorably foulmouthed toddler—just like having him on the (similarly Lorne Michaels-produced) Saturday Night Live—does the public disservice of humanizing him, sidestepping his toxic politics completely, and treating his dangerous rhetoric like rollicking entertainment. (Here, Fallon even thanked him for all the hilarious material Trump’s provided—as close as he got to an actual criticism.) But isn’t this kid-gloves treatment less Fallon’s problem specifically, and more of an underlying problem with the way we treat all our politicians like celebrities?

These days, presidential candidates—even sitting presidents—are expected to pop up on SNL and laugh along with whoever’s doing an impression of them, or sit across from Fallon, Kimmel, et al. to chat blithely about their hobbies to prove they’re actual humans. Unlike you, I’m no political historian, but it seems we’ve been moving that way ever since Bill Clinton blew his sax on Arsenio, or maybe since Nixon said “Sock it to me” on Laugh-In. In addition to judging them by whether or not we’d like to have a beer with them, whatever the fuck that means, we also demand that our would-be leaders give us breezy, quippy banter that can slot in nicely between Debra Messing plugging whatever dramedy she’s on this week and a “Wheel Of Impressions” skit. That blurring of the line between pop and politics is the whole reason we’re in this Trump mess in the first place.

So Alex, while I came in this morning to you and some of our fellow staffers railing against Fallon in our office Slack channel, lamenting the “recklessness” of allowing Trump to run rampant over a late-night comedy show, I guess I don’t understand what you want Fallon (or any member of his giggle-press gang) to do in that situation. Is the issue just that Fallon—or anyone—shouldn’t book Donald Trump for these things at all? And if that’s the case, shouldn’t we call for a widespread ban on all politicians appearing on the professional fluffer circuit? Or do you just think Trump, as he is in so many other ways, is so specifically over the line that he merits grand political stances, even from a guy whose most fervent ideology boils down to “The ’90s were awesome”?

Alex: I’m the last person to demand public political stances from people, especially those in the entertainment business. If anything, I think America suffers from a surfeit of strident political opinionating, and not just on Twitter. Partisanship at the expense of dialogue, communication, or just being able to coexist without endless conflict is a serious problem, and it’s giving rise to bigger ones. Polarization may have started as an elites-only issue, largely superseded by average Americans’ capacity for tolerance and pragmatism (in that sense, at least, Morris Fiorina’s Culture War? The Myth Of A Divided America used to be right), but it has now seeped into the firmament, to the point where we literally exist in different sociopolitical realities, depending on the environment and media landscape with which we choose to surround ourselves. When I would teach undergrad poli sci courses, my students would always get into a discussion at the end of the semester as to whether I myself was liberal or conservative, and that’s how I wanted it. If we can’t talk to each other, just because we share different political views, then we’ve got problems way beyond Jimmy Fallon.

Similarly, the expectation that entertainers should cater to the political whims of one segment of the population is absurd, to put it mildly. Unless it’s your job (i.e., you work for Fox News, MSNBC, or some other infotainment outlet building a brand on a specific ideological perspective), you have about as much obligation to espouse a political persuasion in public as I do to reveal what my doctor saw in my last CAT scan. (Doritos, mostly.) Celebrities have just as much right to air their views publicly as anyone else, and that includes the right to not come out and take some public stand that may well fly in the face of their duties as, say, a late-night talk show host, whose job is literally to make whoever is onscreen with them a fun and engaging affair.

Thirdly, no, Donald Trump is not some special snowflake, wholly unique unto himself. He is the latest outcome of a Republican Party that has carried on a proud tradition of embracing the most radical wing of its base, catering to the fears and ignorance of a large swath of the population. Moderates may like to pretend he’s not a “real” Republican, but a good percentage of his muddled worldview is utterly reflective of a significant number of people in this country. He is the public face of the party, its most important representative. To pretend that he’s some crazy deviation from what the right has been barreling toward is simply misguided. (Corey Robin’s book, The Reactionary Mind, explains this nicely.)

All that said, when I say I have a problem with Fallon’s treatment of Donald Trump, I’m not marching in lockstep with a progressive party line (one I’m often irritated by). It’s because “I’m just doing my job!” is the last refuge of the cowardly. And when I see an openly and proudly racist, xenophobic, proto-fascist demagogue using the rhetoric of populism to play to the basest, most ignorant fears of a population already screwed 12 ways from Easter—thanks to a corrupt political system and rapacious capitalist ideology that destroys working people and seems hell-bent on plunging America into a new era of plutocracy and corporate serfdom—I get mildly annoyed, yeah. Especially when he’s given a platform to do so by someone who can and should have the ability to refuse it. Jimmy Fallon’s colleague Seth Meyers has already done what needs to be done in the face of such raw hatred and malignancy. He’s said, “You’re not welcome here.”

This should be the standard form letter Donald Trump’s people get any time they try to send him glad-handing into some comfortable media situation, if the people behind that media outlet consider themselves at all moral. You don’t ask David Duke to play Snapchat games and beer pong, and the same should go for any other hate-monger. It’s not a tough call or brave stance. It should be an easy call. Let Trump wallow into the gutter where he belongs. Don’t give him a national platform to crack jokes about how great he is, then throw up your hands and say, “Whaddya gonna do? Up next, Charli XCX!”

Sean: I get all that, I do. But leaving aside the fact that corporate synergy almost certainly played a hand into Trump’s appearances on SNL and Fallon, plus last night’s expression of mutual admiration for Today’s Matt Lauer—all of these people are employed by NBC, lest we forget—I still feel like the welcoming of Trump to these cushy couches is a larger problem than even talk-show producers can solve, one that’s sadly endemic to modern politics. Despite your own arguments (which I’m not even sure you believe), I actually do think that Trump is a special snowflake—one of the gray, dirty ones clogged beneath America’s tailpipe. And yes, maybe he does deserve the kind of blanket ban enacted by Meyers and also John Oliver. But I still think it’s a little unfair to blame Fallon specifically for making his tired jokes about Trump’s hair, or Kimmel for handing Clinton a pickle jar to open, when they choose to play along with the ratings game that’s also swallowed our elections. They’re hired performers, and in many ways that’s what we’ve turned our politicians into as well.

That’s true even when those performers are known for espousing the sort of political stances you admit aren’t really within their purview. There’s been a lot of digital ink lately spilled over how Stephen Colbert, who once skewered lesser demagogues so fearlessly, actually apologized to Trump over things he’s said that “in polite company perhaps are unforgivable.” Many have lamented Colbert’s transition from the guy who was so merciless to George W. Bush’s face, the White House Correspondents Dinner had to retreat behind Rich Fucking Little, into a guy who’d stop just sort of giving Trump an edible bouquet. But this is the inevitable infection that sets in after the booster shot of broadcast exposure you get when taking a job like that: It softens your once-hardy gut, which makes it easier to swallow the endless churn of promotional bullshit.

And the way I see it, that’s what our modern political campaigns have become: a never-ending junket that’s often as focused on superficialities, clickbait soundbites, and meme-able moments as any movie press tour. To put the onus on our Jimmies Fallon, Kimmel, et al. to be the ones to finally stand up to that and refuse to get their little piece of the traveling carnival seems a bit unreasonable to me. They didn’t sign up to be political commentators nor give voice to our collective conscience, and they certainly didn’t invent this current, shallow, pop-political landscape. Do you really think they can have serious, issues-based debates in those kinds of environments without them alienating their core audiences, or it turning into something akin to “Klassic Krusty”? Or is your beef not even about the fact Fallon should have done a marginally better job, but specifically that Trump—more than any of his fellow camera-chasing politicians—is such a monster he shouldn’t be allowed on these stages at all?

Alex: You’re absolutely right to call out Trump’s buddy-buddy invitations to large media conglomerates as endemic of a much bigger problem. And I agree with your earlier point, and I don’t think the politician-as-celebrity problem is a new one. Newspapers eagerly treated Teddy Roosevelt as a rock star of his day, too, and the gradual insertion of pols and pundits into every realm of our entertainment landscape is more the political system catching up with the cultural one, rather than the other way around. And you’re right: It’s probably unfair to blame Fallon for doing his job once Trump was sitting on his couch with the cameras rolling, any more than we should scold a bull mastiff for shitting in the hydrangeas. But to answer your question, I do think we can still have serious political conversations in these environments. To that point, I think Colbert’s apology was as much an acknowledgment of the benefit to be gained by getting Trump in the room, because serious political discussion is one of Colbert’s strengths.

And yet, Trump—as you ask, and also seem to acknowledge—does violate something fundamental in political discourse. Namely, he refuses to participate. If a student in my classroom doesn’t actually listen to what others have to say, and isn’t open to critical thought or revising their views, then that’s not a student, and they shouldn’t be there until they’re ready. Similarly, if you have a man who isn’t willing to even admit what he’s said, to defend his worst aspects, or to engage in any sort of conversation, then debate is impossible. Any appearance is nothing but a photo op. It’s a waste of Colbert’s time, and he should know better.

And in my view, rescinding invitations to so much as sit down—whether it’s with Colbert, Fallon, or anyone else whose cameras can be exploited—should be de rigueur for anyone who’s so far gone, they can’t look at a video of their own words and admit they said it. In my view, it’s that refusal to participate in the most fundamental political act of all—dialogue—that should most disqualify Trump from all of this, not his atrocious mentality and repellant hate-mongering. If you can’t listen, you shouldn’t get to speak. And you definitely shouldn’t get to sit there while Jimmy Fallon tousles your hair.