Donald Trump on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" (NBC)

TV can't not be political: What Jimmy Fallon's defenders get wrong about late-night

Fallon cozying up to Donald Trump on "The Tonight Show" is a political act — not to mention selfish and cruel


Silpa Kovvali
September 24, 2016 2:59AM (UTC)

After Jimmy Fallon welcomed presidential candidate Donald Trump onto his show with open arms, the notoriously affable host opened himself up to a great deal of criticism, none more scathing than from fellow late-night comedian Samantha Bee. The segment, worth watching in its entirety, provoked some ire of its own.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, in lampooning Bee's view, joked, “When the histories of the Trump era are written from exile in Justin Trudeau’s Canada, they will record that it was none other than Jimmy Fallon who brought down the republic.”

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Douthat's article mimicked a similar piece of commentary in Politico, where Justin Gest asked, “Is it racist to associate immigration with the greater globalization of commerce that has altered the economic prospects of outmoded people? Is it racist to be frustrated that members of ethnic minorities are rendered new advantages unavailable to white people, such as affirmative action policies and ethnicity-specific advocacy?” The answer to these questions and more is, of course, yes.

According to both Douthat and Gest, that answer makes me part of the problem. Which is not racism, staunch opponents of political correctness will tell us, but the use of the word. Tasked with explaining why exactly the accurate identification of these views is unproductive, commentators begin to sound remarkably similar to the bleeding-heart liberals they denounce. They tell us, in so many words, that the characterization is triggering. That it makes white Americans feel vulnerable and under attack, as though their “space” were unsafe. That we fail to recognize the depths of their suffocating, ever-present and seemingly all-encompassing emotional fragility.

The difference, of course, is that the condemnation of immoral views is meaningfully distinct from the assignation of immorality to amoral traits like race. Gest's piece ends on a bit of clever wordplay. “Silencing and demonizing Trump’s supporters as racists simplistically shuns them into the ideological silos that segregate our society.”

It's funny, you see, because black children once had to be accompanied by armed federal agents in order to safely set foot in all-white, publicly funded schools. But the comparison is absurd. Pluralism and tolerance are not the same thing as blanket inclusivity; they are inherently alienating to intolerant people who hate pluralism. And tolerance certainly isn't the same thing as the normalization of intolerant, hateful and thus, yes, deplorable beliefs. It is, in fact, directly at odds with said normalization.

Douthat's position, however, doesn't just draw a false equivalence between ideological and racist, sexist or transphobic forms of intolerance. He selectively prizes ideological tolerance above all else. The increased cultural presence of minorities and “bluestocking” women and trans people, by virtue of making conservative audiences uncomfortable, is thus too political, symptomatic of liberalism's encroachment upon all corners of the public sphere.

But if diversity is political, homogeneity is necessarily equally so. When he describes pop culture as unnecessarily alienating, what he really means it that because it makes others feel welcome, it is inherently alienating to people like him: straight, white, socially conservative cis men.

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Douthat's inescapably white-centric view of late-night television similarly infects his political analysis. He highlights Hillary Clinton's “basket of deplorables” remark as a symptom of liberal delusion in a culture purportedly dominated by their views. (Never mind that the same media enriched and glorified Trump long after he defined himself as a political figure in 2011 via a series of explicitly racist campaigns meant to question the legitimacy of the nation's first African-American president, a fact that Bee describes as the inspiration of Monday's segment.) Douthat argues that liberals lack an understanding of “the harsh realities of political disagreement in a sprawling, 300-plus million person republic,” pushing candidates like Hillary Clinton to extremes. Hence the infamous “basket of deplorables” remark.

Clinton's statement, though bad optics, was in many respects reasonable and measured. She took special care to separate Trump voters into two separate camps: those who are drawn to white nationalism because these ideals are central to their political beliefs, irrespective of their material wealth and social standing, and those who are drawn to racist demagoguery as an outlet for their economic anxiety, which represents a very real government failure.

Her condemnation of the former was a statement to people of color, who form a significant proportion of her coalition, and who are invisible as a political force in Douthat's eyes, about her unwillingness to make political concessions to those whose political views are motivated by white supremacy. But her dedication to help and serve the latter group was also a testament to progressive values of inclusion, compassion for the less fortunate. It revealed a very clear understanding of the messy process of growing that coalition, part of which (unless you're Donald Trump) occasionally involves drawing hard lines.

Douthat's condemnation of this framework raises further disturbing questions. When, if ever, are we allowed to hold white people responsible for racist views and votes? Gest's piece, which contrasts their “sincere expressions about how their societies are being transformed” with racist ones, suggests the two are mutually exclusive, and that the answer is never. Douthat, too, not only excuses Fallon, a person of tremendous power and privilege, for normalizing racism because he simply doesn't do politics, he also suggests it was his moral duty. He doesn't merely relieve Fallon of a moral obligation to condemn bigotry; he argues Fallon had a moral obligation not to.

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And in doing so, Douthat himself plays an active role in normalizing racism by setting standards so unbelievable low that nonracist views become fringe. Which only serves to further victimize people of color for whom, I must say, it's been quite a year.

At times such as this, we also need our comic relief. I loved watching Jimmy Fallon eat buffalo wings with Priyanka Chopra and play Hungry Hungry Hippos with the U.S. Gymnastics squad and blush with embarrassment with Nicole Kidman. That was my escape. Fallon has undoubtedly interviewed racists before Trump. He'll undoubtedly interview racists again.

But this was the first time I turned on my television to see him mussing up the hair of a person whose political movement threatens my safety, my comfort, my very citizenship in the country I call home. The point isn't merely that it's political. It's that it's bigoted and selfish and cruel. So while we take a moment to express compassion for the white Americans who've turned to Trump because they feel their country is slipping away from them, who feel they must turn to extremism to save it, remember that the rest of us have lost something, too.

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Silpa Kovvali

Silpa Kovvali is a New York-based writer who focuses on social and cultural criticism. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, and The New Republic, amongst others.

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