Late-night comedians on broadcast TV (i.e. not cable, where pretty much anything goes) have become savage and even profane in their criticism of President Trump. I don’t regularly watch late-night TV, so I don’t know if this is a sudden development or has been going on for some time. Either way, it is a remarkable, even shocking, change from the norms that governed TV ten much less twenty years ago.
Back in the day, there was more than lip service to the idea that the President was entitled to a modicum of respect, or maybe much more than a modicum, just because he occupied an institution worthy of respect. That norm has seemed was a bit suspect since at least the Vietnam war, but this is a primarily positive, not normative, post so let’s leave that issue aside until we circle back at the end.
This week, Trump attacking Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg via Twitter unleashed the comedic id. When Greta beat Trump for TIME magazine’s person of the year cover, Trump lashed out on Twitter. This provoked Stephen Colbert (CBS) to say “go Fjuk yourself” to the President; Colbert then softened it (not) by noting that he could say this on CBS because the reference was culturally appropriate, invoking Fjuk, a Swedish island: “it is lovely, they have a lighthouse, and you know where you can stick it.”
Colbert also responded to a Trump staff tweet photoshopping Trump’s head over Greta’s on an image of the TIME magazine cover by saying, “I’m guessing not the first time that Trump has forced himself on a young woman … [audience reacts] joke is based on a true story.”
Compared to the above, Seth Meyers (NBC) was actually tame, addressing Trump as follows:
Whenever you scream, you look like a tick that’s about to burst. I mean, look at him. He looks like a rabid possum hissing at you for disturbing his nest. Also, you are a 73-year-old man attacking a 16-year-old activist, because she cares about the environment. Think about how sad that is. You are a husk of a man. Actually not even, for there to have been a husk of a man, there would have had to been a man to begin with. You’re a husk of a husk.
Meanwhile, over on cable, mild-mannered Daily Show (Comedy Central) host Trevor Noah called President Trump “an asshole.”
The President of the United States is on Twitter bullying a teenage girl. Just try to imagine any other President doing something like this.
Noah then expanded the category to include first Donald Trump, Jr. for shooting an endangered sheep with a laser sight. Then Noah added in more adult Trump children: “this family is cartoonishly villainous — they even do charity like assholes”.
If these TV performances created any groundswell of public revulsion, it completely passed me by. One could argue this absence of respect for the Presidency began in the Nixon administration, and has grown steadily ever since — rightly (Bush 2) or wrongly (Obama). But now, surely, we can safely say that any reverence the public has for the Presidency as an institution is quite dead? On balance, this freedom might even be a good thing, since the US has often been criticized by political scientists for giving the head of government the deference that elsewhere is reserved for a separate and often largely ceremonial head of state. That said, the costs of getting to this point seem to me to have been quite high.