No, Jon Stewart Couldn’t Have Stopped Donald Trump
There are many, many reasons for the rise of Donald Trump to the presidential nomination of the Republican Party. Dissatisfaction with the Republican establishment, and “politics as usual.” Economic stagnation. The sheer force of Trump’s personality and celebrity. A significant amount of full-on racism and misogyny in the GOP race. It’s likely some combination of all of the above.
But do you what isn’t a reason for Trump’s rise? Jon Stewart’s retirement from The Daily Show.
Versions of this argument have been creeping up lately, that the absence of Stewart on the Daily Show (and to a lesser degree, Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report) somehow eliminated a critical check that has allowed Trump to bust through and win the Republican nomination. Dean Obeidallah wrote last week for CNN that “We Need Jon Stewart Back Now.” One Salon writer Randyn Charles Bartholemew, wrote last week that Stewart is “our only hope to defeat Donald Trump,” while another, Sophia A. McClennan, argued this week that “The Daily Show’ is dead to me,” because of the unsatisfactory performance of Stewart’s successor, Trevor Noah.
There was a new round of this last week, when Stewart ended a months-long silence by trashing Trump in a podcast interview. Another piece, by the Boston Globe’s Steve Almond, argued somewhat absurdly that Trump’s rise is Stewart’s fault, because he turned “politics into a punch line.” The argument has been all over Twitter as well.
These people are all very wrong. If Stewart still hosted The Daily Show Trump would probably be doing exactly as well as he is now. Those who argue otherwise massively misunderstand what Stewart’s role was, and what his strengths and weaknesses were.
Over the course of his time on The Daily Show, Stewart was especially great at two things: Displaying satirical, hilarious and often brilliant humor, and making the liberals in his audience feel better about whatever was going on in politics at the time.
But there’s something else that Stewart wasn’t especially great at: Actually defeating conservative politicians and policies. Stewart would likely admit this himself and argue that it was never his job or purpose in the first place.
This is part of why that whole “Jon Stewart eviscerates…” clickbait construction as always so ridiculous- Stewart may have performed a brilliant comedy routine at a particularly loathsome politician’s expense. But the day after it aired, that politician remained in office, able to continue whatever awful thing he’d been doing doing before.
In the dark days of the Bush Administration, Stewart and Colbert helped a lot of liberal viewers make sense of an insane world. They stood up to and skewered the Bush-Cheney Administration, especially at the time of the Iraq War, when large segments of the news media weren’t doing so. There was even the time Colbert delivered that devastating speech, right in front of Dubya at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006.
But what Stewart and Colbert didn’t do was prevent George W. Bush from getting elected or re-elected or enacting his agenda, nor prevent multiple major GOP congressional victories. Remember the Rally to Restore Sanity in 2010? It was fun to watch on TV and I’m sure the people attending had a great time. But what it didn’t do was prevent a GOP takeover of the House the following week.
That’s why I’m skeptical as to whether Stewart could have “stopped” Trump. If Jon Stewart still hosted The Daily Show, he’d likely be producing devastating takedowns of Trump night after night, as he did for many years and for several months last year. A lot of it, I’m sure, would be hilarious and incisive and shared on every social media platform by all my friends.
In other words, he’d be doing exactly what John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Larry Wilmore and numerous others are doing- slamming Trump day after day, often in hilarious fashion, but not in any way that damages his electoral prospects whatsoever.
That’s because people who watch The Daily Show (and Last Week Tonight, etc.) aren’t swing voters, nor are the types likely to ever consider voting for Trump in the first place. Trump has been mocked a whole lot already, and deservedly so. There’s nothing special that Stewart could add that would put that mockery over the top.
That’s because comedians don’t cripple candidacies. It’s not the way politics works, nor the way it should work. Defeating Donald Trump is no job for a comedian.