Don’t Fire Colbert — Fire His Crowd

Stephen Colbert rehearses a sketch at the Republican National Convention (Reuters photo: Mark Kauzlarich)
The real problem is that so many on the left and right demand ever-cruder political discourse.

With all due apologies for language and content, I’d like you to watch the two short excerpts of the “political comedy” — actually just crude mockery — of Stephen Colbert.

The first shows Colbert on Monday night, and the second is from last summer.

In both, he makes essentially the same joke about Donald Trump fellating Vladimir Putin. (Hilarious and creative, right?) The truly troubling thing isn’t the joke itself — there will always be comedians willing to go low for a laugh, after all — but the crowd’s reaction:

Watch again. Listen to the screaming and cheering.

If you want an explanation for why the Colberts of the world say the things they do, there it is in the adulation of the audience. He is their voice. He’s speaking out their rage. He’s not leading them; he’s riding their wave of progressive scorn, anger, and hate. If he fell, another would rise to take his place. Angry progressives demand cathartic mockery, and they shall have it one way or another.

Which is not to say that this phenomenon is unique to the Left. Spend time with core Trump supporters, the folks who boarded the train early, and you’ll find that many of them genuinely love the president’s angry, personal schoolyard taunts. They glory in his trolling and relish every single liberal tantrum it prompts.

It’s not just Trump, either. Countless thousands of conservatives laughed heartily when Milo Yiannopoulos called comedienne Leslie Jones a “black dude.” (So creative! So funny!) Some of these same conservatives ripped anyone who asked for better discourse as a “cuck” or a “beta” unwilling to do what was necessary to win. Angry conservatives demand vicious insults, and they shall have them.

There was an interesting phenomenon that took hold on AM radio last year. Conservative talk-show hosts who were used to leading found instead that they faced a stark choice: follow their audience onto the Trump train or face an unrelenting, angry backlash. Conservatives had been begging for warriors for years, and when Trump stepped up and truly fought the Clintons and the mainstream media, they had no patience for anyone who would try and restrain him.

Yes, Stephen Colbert is responsible for his actions. Of course he went too far. But it’s time to understand that when it comes to elections, to ratings, and to pop culture “moments,” the demagogue goes nowhere without the people. Without the demand, there is no supply.

“To wander around America is to discover the happy reality that most liberals and most conservatives are perfectly nice, not particularly smug, and seldom if ever vitriolic,” Conor Friedersdorf recently observed in The Atlantic. Yes indeed. And to wander around a college campus is to discover the “happy reality” that most students and faculty members dislike rioters and radicals, and just want to finish their degrees or immerse themselves in their research.

Our political and cultural agenda is typically dictated by those who care the most, and right now those who care the most also tend to hate their opponents.

The problem is that this silent majority is largely irrelevant to the prevailing discourse. Our political and cultural agenda is typically dictated by those who care the most, and right now those who care the most also tend to hate their opponents on the other side with a fiery, reflexive passion. Colbert’s crowd may be smaller than, say, the less-political Jimmy Fallon’s, but it is much, much more likely to set the terms of the American discussion.

In short, the people who truly care move this country, and the people who truly care are truly angry. Their anger is so all-consuming that it often forecloses the possibility of a debate about ideas. One of the more remarkable things about the 2016 election was that it was simultaneously the most vitriolic of my adult lifetime and the least ideological. Trump and Clinton were and are extraordinarily malleable, driven by self-interest above all else. Trump shifts positions almost daily. Yet the partisan devotion remains. Hillary is celebrated as a martyr to the progressive cause, and Trump’s base holds firm behind him.

There is nothing new under the sun. In ancient times, the people were forced to choose between Jesus and Barrabas, and they chose Barrabas. They choose him still today. There is no shortage of opportunists willing to fill his shoes, just as there is no shortage of onlookers willing to chant his name. The sad irony here is that Colbert himself is a Christian, a man who has spoken frequently and with great feeling about his faith. Hopefully, he will soon remember its commands.


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