While it was refreshing to watch Bernie Sanders live tweet the second GOP debate, and gratifying to see Carly Fiorina hamstring Donald Trump, there was one voice sorely missing in the cacophony of post debate coverage: Jon Stewart. It may be just over a month since his last "Daily Show,” but right now it feels like ages.
When he first went off the air I hoped that his spirit would live on. Between the professional satirists stepping up to fill the void and the waves of citizen-satirists tweeting round the clock, perhaps we could soldier on without him. But I was wrong. His voice is profoundly missing from the political landscape.
First of all, only a satirist can effectively call out the BS that was flying all over the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. And let’s be clear, almost the entire debate was BS. Thanks to CNN’s decision to effectively avoid moderating the crowd of contenders, the debate was a pack of lies, ad hominem attacks, posturing, and poor attempts at looking cool. There was no substantive policy discussion of any kind. Instead we established that Trump doesn’t think Fiorina is that ugly after all, that Jeb Bush will stick up for his brother, and that Ben Carson really doesn’t want Trump to touch him. It sounded like middle school.
The candidates were left alone on the playground and the result was thinly controlled chaos. Each candidate was left to spew lies without any significant push back from the moderators. Now we have all come to expect little from mainstream journalism, but the debate took the lapdog quality of the news media to a new level. It was literally like they forgot they had a job to do.
Only in a free-for-all can Trump link autism to vaccinations, Mike Huckabee state that Hillary Clinton is under investigation by the FBI and that Iran is poised to take over the United States, Fiorina make up stories about Planned Parenthood and claim that marijuana use kills, Marco Rubio lie about his family’s history and North Korea’s nuclear capacity, Trump forget all the other nations that offer birthright citizenship, and Bush say that his brother kept us safe. And that’s just a few of the highlights.
The only time that any correction to these blusters was offered was by the candidates themselves. More often, though, the candidates used these opportunities to grandstand. Nothing even remotely resembled the spirit of an electoral debate, which is meant to offer voters a chance to see candidates discuss key policy issues side-by-side. This “debate” had no time restrictions, encouraged direct interaction, and offered no on-the-spot fact checking of comments. Even Ben Carson later told Megyn Kelly that “the moderators lost control.” This wasn’t just a clown car event; it was a real circus.
But the surreal nature of the debate just doesn’t hit home they way it would have with Stewart’s satire. Sure, there are tons of articles fact-checking the loons. Yes, there are lots of pieces analyzing the fluffy nature of the event. But none of them has the combination of sharp insight, wit, and entertainment value of Stewart.
Stewart offered viewers a perfect combination of outrage, analysis, and parody. His first response would have been his trademark WTF that combined indignation with incredulity. Stewart reminded us again and again that our nation was being taken down the wrong path—but he did this with a perfect degree of surprise and anger. That sort of genuine passion is absolutely essential as a counterbalance to the posturing of the candidates.
Then he would do more. He would actually remind viewers that we should expect our candidates to at least try to tell the truth. Sure politics is often about hyperbole and messaging, but we have now entered a moment in U.S. politics when GOP candidates seem more interested in riling up their base with hype and fear than actually appealing to anything resembling common sense. Stewart always had a great way to fact check politicians: he simply used graphics and video clips to put politicians’ bombastic comments next to reality. It was sharp and effective. Want a reminder? Check out this takedown of Trump from July.
He also did a fabulous job of calling out faulty logic, false arguments, and other forms of delusional statements. Stewart held to the belief that the public deserved not just the truth, but clear thinking and reasoned judgment. One of his favorite moves was to take apart the “logic” of Fox News. But, of course, he relentlessly went after politicians too. It would have been fun to see what he would have done with some of the comments from Wednesday night.
Stewart combined passion with reasoned insight, but most importantly he offered his viewers the entertainment value of satire. The beauty of satire is that it is fun and smart and politically energizing. That makes it the perfect counter to silly and stupid and politically demoralizing. Satire is the perfect foil for farce, because it is smart humor in the face of political slapstick. But, perhaps most importantly, satire builds a community of those that get the joke. Through satire we feel less alone and less dejected. Without Stewart we feel a real loss of a community that had been building momentum for over fifteen years.
We're recovering from a depressing debate without Stewart to inspire us and remind us that we are not the crazy ones. And it’s no fun at all.