Monday, October 03, 2016

Blame Jon Stewart for the 2106 Election

It is hard not to be confused by how the American 2016 presidential election has come down to Clinton and Trump. They are hated by almost everyone and have the highest disapproval numbers ever.  How did this embarrassment happen? 

Obviously the answer is complicated, but let me suggest one reason you might not have considered.  Jon Stewart.  Stewart, the former host of the Daily Show, helped bring America to its knees and has led us to the farcical match up of Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton.  Let me explain.

In 1999, Stewart took over The Daily Show on Comedy Central, a news satire and talk show, turning its focus away from pop culture and toward politics and the national media.  He interviewed political guests such as presidential candidate John Kerry.  As host of this program, Stewart repeatedly criticized Crossfire, a current events debate program airing on CNN.  Eventually in 2004, the hosts of Crossfire invited him to be on their program as a guest.  In that appearance, he stated that Crossfire was hurting America, and he called the hosts “political hacks” and worse.  He rejected the concept of a two part only (liberal-conservative) worldview, and in turn he rejected the political discourse that took place on Crossfire.  Within three months, Crossfire was cancelled by CNN.  A little over a year after Stewart’s appearance, his own Daily Show launched a successful spin-off, The Colbert Report. 

Both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were comedy shows that garnered their laughs through mockery of politics, politicians, and political beliefs.  Both shows concentrated their jeering on conservatives with very little spent on the liberal/progressive side.  Originally this was explained by Stewart as simply a consequence of the Republicans presenting a bigger target since they were in power; however, when Barak Obama became President, both shows continued to focus their fire on Republicans, conservatives, and conventional values. 

The serious-minded debate show on CNN died, Daily Show ratings went up, especially among young people, and Liberal politicians noticed.  Not only did they all want to appear on the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, but this joking-at-the-conservative's-expense began to be imitated by Progressive Liberals.  By the time of the 2016 presidential campaign, Stewart’s method of dealing with political opponents with mockery is the main way politics is done, and it is not a coincidence.     

Bill Maher is another comedian who reflects this trend.  From 1993 until 2002 he hosted a show called Politically Incorrect.  It was not as contentious as Crossfire, usually incorporating guests from various viewpoints speaking together in a light debate style on various topics.  The show was canceled before Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire, but well after The Daily Show was growing in popularity.  Maher then launched his own mocking show called Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO. This show has a much more liberal tone and jeers conservatives with jokes such as: “Conservatives don’t believe in facts.”  In 2008 he filmed a “documentary” titled Religulous, designed to make fun of religion and deter people from belief. 

In 2008 the people of Minnesota actually elected a comedian to the Senate, further bolstering this movement away from thoughtful, even-handed debate and toward sarcasm and mockery as a primary means of political expression.  The drive to destroy one’s opponents with ridicule rather than argumentation was well-established on the political Left and is evidenced in the fact that most people believe that Sarah Palin, Republican candidate for Vice President, said that she could see Russia from her backdoor, a statement which in reality came from a Saturday Night Live skit. 

Remember when then-candidate Obama was taking on Senator Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination?  What helped sway the tide for Obama?  There are lots of factors, but one that stands out is Obama’s mocking, patronizing dismissal of Hillary as “You’re likable enough,” during a January 2008 debate.  Hillary’s likability became a regular concern for the rest of that election cycle.  It is a routine part of Obama’s arsenal, and he uses it effectively.  Rather than engaging in dialog and rational discussion with his rivals or even arguing like participants on Crossfire, President Obama ridicules his opponents a la Jon Stewart.

“But apparently they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America as part of our tradition of compassion,” he said. “At first, they were too scared of the press being too tough on them during debates. Now they’re worried about three-year-old orphans. That doesn’t sound very tough to me.”

In fact, this was a deliberate strategy of his campaign in 2012.  Ridiculing Mitt Romney became the path to winning.  It was implemented apparently on October 4.  He stopped speaking of lower expectations and began “adding a heavy dose of ridicule”.   Mitt Romney was caught by surprise when, during the second presidential debate on October 16, he was asked about his “binders full of women.”  The phrase was then used by both President Obama and Vice President Biden on the campaign trail to mock Romney. 

Hillary Clinton learned the lesson and now uses ridicule and mockery regularly.  Whether it is her “delete your account” tweet to Donald Trump, the hashtag #Trumpyourself, telling Trump she knows he lives in his own reality, or even her “basket of deplorables” comment, she uses mockery as a campaign tactic.  Secretary Clinton has imbibed deeply at the well of Stewart’s method of ridicule.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens (Ecclesiastes 3:1).  This includes a time to laugh, but when we get confused and laugh at the wrong time, we end up with vanity and confusion. 

Jon Stewart’s rejection of political discourse in favor of sarcasm and ridicule as a means to promote political beliefs is an example of such confusion and vanity.  His behavior had the cover of “comedy” to prevent backlash or thoughtful disagreement.  Unfortunately, this approach has changed our culture so that comedy is now a weapon rather than a release and escape.  Jerry Seinfeld, a satirist in his own right, admits that he no longer performs on college campuses because the college kids don’t understand comedy and are too easily offended.  (And of course he was attacked for stating this.)  The reason, I believe, is that this generation of people in college grew up hearing comedy as a tool and a weapon.  Being the butt of a joke is not funny; it’s an attack.  Comedy’s purpose is now tearing others down, not making people laugh.  A similar incident occurred when comedian Jimmy Fallon interviewed candidate Donald Trump on the Tonight Show and good-naturedly joked with him as he does all his guests.  The progressive world, most notably Samantha Bee, the host of another Daily Show spinoff, attacked Fallon for his “softball” interview.  The next week Candidate Hillary Clinton appeared on the Tonight Show, and she mocked Fallon by giving him a bag full of softballs, but she did not complain when Fallon treated her just as he had treated Trump.  It is now expected that comedians use their comedy to accomplish a political goal.  Comedy is a weapon. 

But how does this give us Trump vs. Clinton?  Progressive liberals have mocked and ridiculed the conservative right for over a decade now.  The progressive left appears to be winning the Culture Wars, and candidates from the right who try to participate in debate are mocked out of the public square.  Enter Donald Trump.  Trump was already rather famous for his insulting treatment of people on his TV show The Apprentice.  The primary campaign began, and one by one, the other Republican candidates fell away before Trump’s onslaught of ridicule.  Some tried to fight back with ridicule and the subsequent Republican debate went down in the books infamously featuring an exchange on the size of the candidates’ hands, which served as a euphemism.  Senator Marco Rubio experienced some of his highest approval numbers after that exchange.  Ridicule wins.  The people on the conservative right are now embracing fighting fire with fire.  Ridicule with ridicule.  Senator Ted Cruz, perhaps the best debater in the group, embodied the final vestige of reasoned debate and policy knowledge.  And he, too, fell.  Trump won the primary using the Stewart method and backed by an electorate that’s tired of being mocked and eager for a candidate who can fight fire with fire.

It should not be surprising that eventually the conservative side pushed back and adopted the same mocking methodology.  Nor should it be surprising that they picked a professional mocker to do it.   The war is on, but it is no longer a war of ideas; it is a war of ridicule. 

Jon Stewart helped introduce us to this age where ridicule is reason and comedy is policy.  Now, no matter who wins, we are going to have a clown in the White House.