Over the past week, an army of pundits and pols has engaged in a public freak-out over Donald J. Trump. They’re trying to figure out how an overgrown adolescent reality TV star who spouts racist invective, brags about his manhood, and urges violence at rallies became the presumptive Republican nominee for president.
This question tends to suggest an even more urgent one: How can we keep Trump out of the Oval Office?
A number of commentators have begun to float one possible answer: an election-year comeback from Jon Stewart.
The fantasy here is that Stewart’s voice would be influential and incisive enough to cut through the noise and compel the electorate to recognize Trump for what he is.
This is, in a word, nonsense.
Yes, Stewart would have a field day with Trump, as was clear from the lacerating comments he offered a few days ago on David Axelrod’s podcast. But he’d be preaching to the choir, not Trump voters.
To position Stewart as an anti-Trump “savior” is not just wishful thinking. It betrays a basic misunderstanding of the symbiotic roles played by Stewart and Trump. They are both entertainers, charismatic showmen whose careers are predicated on mocking civic dysfunction. In fact, it would be more accurate to describe Stewart as one of Trump’s enablers.
Throughout his tenure at “The Daily Show,’’ Stewart hammered one basic note: that the establishments we’re stuck with are hopelessly corrupt, that our politicians and journalists are buffoons.
This happens to be the exact same note that Trump hits at every one of his rallies and in all his interviews. It’s the most convincing aspect of his appeal, frankly.
To hear Stewart now excoriating “the media” for its role in promoting Trump as a candidate is to ignore that Stewart himself was one of the central architects of our current zeitgeist.
It’s certainly true that Stewart exposed all manner of hypocrisy. He offered viewers vital insight and perspective. But he did almost nothing to change the political landscape of this country. That wasn’t his job. His job was to convert our anguish and rage into disposable laughs.
Trump’s job is to convert those same emotions into raw political power.
In this sense, Trump is merely the most recent symptom of an insidious cultural shift: the blurring of the line between politics and entertainment.
The success of “The Daily Show,’’ after all, didn’t usher in an era of political reform. It led to a parade of fake news shows, all of which operate from the assumption that politics, and its manner of coverage, should be a pretext for rollicking fun.
Thirty years ago, the cultural critic Neil Postman confronted this dilemma in his seminal book “Amusing Ourselves to Death.’’
“To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles?” he asked. “What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?”
Beneath the laughter, after all, is a kind of reflexive cynicism. We’ve allowed guys like Stewart to turn politics into a punch line. Expecting them to rescue us from Trump is like expecting the court jester to lead an armed uprising against the king.
“When, in short, a people become an audience,” Postman concluded, “and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”
Those alarmed by the rise of Trump must recognize that the only way to reshape our democracy is to take it seriously. This means rejecting the easy pleasures of mockery and embracing the earnest and inconvenient tasks of civic and political engagement.Steve Almond is the author, most recently, of “Against Football.”