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How Jon Stewart’s Culture of Ridicule Left America Unprepared for Donald Trump

The right deserves its share of the blame and more for the rise of Trump. But certain icons on the left lowered our cultural defenses and also helped make him possible.

Jesse Bernstein
August 09, 2016
Brad Barket/Getty Images
Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart appear on 'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart' #JonVoyage on August 6, 2015 in New York City. Brad Barket/Getty Images
Brad Barket/Getty Images
Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart appear on 'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart' #JonVoyage on August 6, 2015 in New York City. Brad Barket/Getty Images

No single event or trend initiated the takeoff of Space Shuttle Trump. It’s not just white lower- and middle-class resentment; it’s not just nationwide frustration with whatever “The Establishment” means to a particular voter; it’s not just a chance for white supremacists to pour out of the woodwork. It’s a combination of all of that and much more. But there is one culprit who has thus far escaped blame for the Trump fiasco and who deserves his due: Jon Stewart.

Let me explain.

On July 21, Stewart made an appearance on his good friend Stephen Colbert’s show, one of his first extended appearances on TV since leaving The Daily Show. Stewart took the desk from Colbert for a segment about Fox News and the mental “gymnastics” it has been performing in order to explain how it can support Donald Trump for all of the things that it so viciously criticized Barack Obama for doing in the past. It was vintage Stewart; he only referred to Sean Hannity as “Lumpy,” he mocked his own ignorance of the West/Kardashian/Swift feud, and he anchored the farce with real substantive criticism at the right moments. The guy’s a pro.

And yet, as Stewart ranted to the camera and reminded Hannity and Co., to raucous cheers, that they “don’t own” this country, it was hard not to see how he and Colbert had helped to create the very specific type of internet-era liberal smugness (and, consequently, ignorance) that, though far from the sole cause by any means, has been a significant factor in both the rise of Trump and our current political fracturing.

The Daily Show debuted 20 years ago in July, but Stewart didn’t take the desk until 1999. What he has accomplished since then is remarkable: A whole liberal generation that might have otherwise been turned off of politics by the early-2000s hegemony of the right was brought into the fold. Looking at the overwhelming Obama margins of victory in the 2008 and 2012 elections with 18-29 year-olds (including 66-32 against McCain, a significant jump over John Kerry in 2004), Stewart’s fingerprints are all over the outcome. At his show’s height, 74 percent of viewers were between 18-49.

Stewart, for his part, insists that he’s no cultural critic, no political commentator, nothing more than a comedian who makes fun of hypocrisy. But that can’t really be true of a man who’s interviewed heads of state on his show. It’s a cop-out to claim that he was the little guy by the end.

His show was a cultural touchstone that dealt in mockery and ridicule, as good political comedy should. It parsed the bluster to find the nugget of insincerity that drives selfish politics. But as the democratization of media made it easier and easier to hear only from the sources you wanted to hear from, those who counted The Daily Show and its even jokier spawn, The Colbert Report, as news sources slowly but surely created an echo chamber.

The process went something like this: Someone said something on Fox News that mainstream liberalism didn’t like; Stewart and/or Colbert aired a sustained critique of the idea and the thinking behind it; liberal internet publications hailed it as the greatest rhetorical victory since Darrow argued for Scopes; liberals’ Facebook feeds full of liberal friends filled up with clips of the takedown. No one learned anything, no one engaged with an idea, and nothing outside of a very specific set of ideas was given any real credence. As Emmet Rensin so perfectly put it:

Finding comfort in the notion that their former allies were disdainful, hapless rubes, smug liberals created a culture animated by that contempt. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy. … Over 20 years, an industry arose to cater to the smug style … and culminated for a time in The Daily Show, a program that more than any other thing advanced the idea that liberal orthodoxy was a kind of educated savvy and that is opponents were, before anything else, stupid.

As Rensin deftly discerns, this sort of intellectual elitism is probably part of the reason that the Democratic Party went from getting 66 percent of the manual laborer vote in 1948 to outpolling the GOP by just 2 points in 2012. It’s the inevitable consequence of eight years of reducing George W. Bush and all of his supporters to dumbass hicks, and choosing to denigrate the poor and uneducated (if only they read The Atlantic!), rather than doing real outreach to them. But as Christopher Hitchens learned on Bill Maher’s show, people don’t want to consider that possibility:

Trump is the confluence of too many factors to count, not least a cretinous right-wing media machine that uncritically boosted his stature and amplified his bigotry. But the way in which liberal media, helped along by the culture of ridicule fostered by Stewart and Colbert, cordoned off a section for those who flattered themselves by being “in the know” (TED talks! SlateThe New Jim Crow!) helped position enormous swaths of the country against each other. It’s part of why facts don’t seem to matter this election cycle, and Trump’s dissimulations seem to prove impervious to correction.

When ridicule replaces reasoned discourse, there’s no longer a place for persuasion.

Jesse Bernstein is a former Intern at Tablet.