Monday, August 15, 2016

Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, and the Trump Campaign

Jesse Bernstein of Tablet blames Donald Trump on Jon Stewart. Well, partially, at least; he does admit upfront that there are plenty of factors in the matter. But apparently Stewart and his The Daily Show compatriot Stephen Colbert are partially to blame because they “helped to create the very specific type of internet-era liberal smugness (and, consequently, ignorance) that, though far from the sole cause by any means, has been a significant factor in both the rise of Trump and our current political fracturing.”

The Daily Show’s Liberal Smugness

Here’s the centerpiece of Bernstein’s argument:

[Stewart’s] show [The Daily Show] was a cultural touchstone that dealt in mockery and ridicule, as good political comedy should. It parsed the bluster to find the nugget of insincerity that drives selfish politics. But as the democratization of media made it easier and easier to hear only from the sources you wanted to hear from, those who counted The Daily Show and its even jokier spawn, The Colbert Report, as news sources slowly but surely created an echo chamber.

The process went something like this: Someone said something on Fox News that mainstream liberalism didn’t like; Stewart and/or Colbert aired a sustained critique of the idea and the thinking behind it; liberal internet publications hailed it as the greatest rhetorical victory since Darrow argued for Scopes; liberals’ Facebook feeds full of liberal friends filled up with clips of the takedown. No one learned anything, no one engaged with an idea, and nothing outside of a very specific set of ideas was given any real credence. As Emmet Rensin so perfectly put it:

Finding comfort in the notion that their former allies were disdainful, hapless rubes, smug liberals created a culture animated by that contempt. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy. … Over 20 years, an industry arose to cater to the smug style … and culminated for a time in The Daily Show, a program that more than any other thing advanced the idea that liberal orthodoxy was a kind of educated savvy and that is opponents were, before anything else, stupid.

As Rensin deftly discerns, this sort of intellectual elitism is probably part of the reason that the Democratic Party went from getting 66 percent of the manual laborer vote in 1948 to outpolling the GOP by just 2 points in 2012. It’s the inevitable consequence of eight years of reducing George W. Bush and all of his supporters to dumbass hicks, and choosing to denigrate the poor and uneducated (if only they read The Atlantic!), rather than doing real outreach to them. But as Christopher Hitchens learned on Bill Maher’s show, people don’t want to consider that possibility[.]

Politics Makes People Stupid

The substance of Bernstein’s argument, then, is that The Daily Show wasn’t Firing Line or The McNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. But then, it never pretended to be anything than it was — a comedy show. In fairness to Messrs. Stewart and Colbert, they did occasionally skewer liberals, and their fans would laugh but not pass the replays around as they would when the dynamic comedy duo took on conservatives. Unfortunately, over the Stewart years, conservative politicians and talking heads provided more mock-worthy material than did liberals. But even granting a liberal bias, their show was primarily intended to entertain … although, as Rensin unintentionally pointed out, The Daily Show did a good job of instructing as well.

“There’s a simple theory underlying much of American politics,” explains Ezra Klein in the aptly-titled “How politics makes us stupid”. “… It’s what we might call the More Information Hypothesis: the belief that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings. The cause of these misunderstandings? Too little information — be it about climate change, or taxes, or Iraq, or the budget deficit. If only the citizenry were more informed, the thinking goes, then there wouldn’t be all this fighting.” More to the point, MIH assumes that, if those other people were better informed, they’d abandon their foolish ideology and come join us clever folks. MIH is a feature of both liberal and conservative cultural assumptions.

But as the studies Klein discusses show, where controversial issues are concerned, more information increases disagreements. Scientific literacy proves no barrier to confirmation bias; if anything, it strengthens confirmation bias. Political orientation is a stronger predictor of one’s perception of fact than is education or raw-knowledge intelligence. Why? Because a person’s politics affects his social relationships, his public standing, and his self-perception.

[Yale Law professor Dan] Kahan [one of the researchers in the studies] is quick to note that, most of the time, people are perfectly capable of being convinced by the best evidence. There’s a lot of disagreement about climate change and gun control, for instance, but almost none over whether antibiotics work, or whether the H1N1 flu is a problem, or whether heavy drinking impairs people’s ability to drive. Rather, our reasoning becomes rationalizing when we’re dealing with questions where the answers could threaten our tribe — or at least our social standing in our tribe. And in those cases, Kahan says, we’re being perfectly sensible when we fool ourselves.

Bernstein’s assumption that more millennials would vote Republican if Stewart and Colbert actively engaged conservatives instead of mocking and dismissing them is simply another iteration of the More Information Hypothesis. Conservatives treat liberals like idiots, too. However, they’re not smug so much as they’re angry and fearful.

Jumping the Logical Gap

But the argument has a much more obvious flaw: Bernstein explains why millennials were attracted to The Daily Show — mostly by regurgitating Rensin — but gives us no clue why anyone put off by the smugness of liberals would choose Donald Trump over Mario Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, or any of the other candidates. He simply crosses the logical gap like motorcycle stuntman Robbie Knievel jumping 21 Hummers.

Grant that liberals treat conservatives like idiots — sometimes like dangerous fools, more often like brain-damaged children. Grant that their assumption of moral and intellectual superiority is not only irritating but positively alienating. Grant that their masturbatory self-congratulation has driven an indeterminate number of voters into the arms of the GOP (has it? I don’t know, but let’s grant it causa argumenti). Grant all that, and you’re still a long way from explaining how so many members of the GOP came to embrace a boorish, profane, narcissistic huckster as their preferred candidate for POTUS … some willingly, some reluctantly.

And you’re even further from explaining how The Daily Show bears any responsibility for that embrace. Is Bernstein suggesting that Messrs. Stewart and Colbert managed to drain the Republican brain pool of some intelligence through their wickedly smart burns of the GOP establishment? That Republicans didn’t become hysterical, xenophobic morons until Stewbert started lampooning them as hysterical, xenophobic morons? That, through the magic of television and internet memes, the smug liberal satire of The Daily Show short-circuited the critical thinking apparati of a large swath of GOP voters?

Bernstein does such a bad job of connecting the dots that you’re forced to wonder why he even tries; it’s like trying to blame the emergence of Westboro Baptist on Dan Savage. He gives no credit at all to the emergence of conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Ann Coulter: men and women who specialized in enraging their audience in the service of a dumbed-down neo-conservativism that would have horrified Russell Kirk. He doesn’t even allude to conservative memes, despite the fact that they’re the single biggest reason Dr. Ben Carson was a viable candidate for a month or so. No, Stewart and Colbert are to blame because … well, because Bernstein says so.

They Were Always There

The sad fact is, most if not all of the people to whom Donald Trump appeals were part of the Republican Party years, probably decades, before Stewart took over the desk from Craig Kilborn (do you remember him?). The sad fact is, these people are part of the conservative base. The sad fact is, “Trump says what people are thinking” means that Trump says what they want to hear; Trump has given them not only a voice but public validation. The saddest fact of all is that whether Trump is lying or even knows what he’s talking about doesn’t matter, so long as he says what enough people want to hear.

The most obvious explanation is that conservative pundits and analysts have simply ignored or marginalized this uglier element of the Republican Party, comforting themselves with educated, intellectual rationalizations of their own motives and persuading themselves that the “better sort”, the Optimates, are the only Republicans that matter. Unlike Democrats, though, Republicans have no mechanism for sabotaging the candidacy of one candidate in favor of a “more suitable” choice. Moreover, the vote of the Republican Optimates was split until almost the very end, when Mario Rubio dropped out to make Ted Cruz the day-late-dollar-short last hope of stopping the Trump juggernaut. Trump could not have chosen a better time for shredding the Optimates’ veil of illusion.

And what the parting of the veil reveals is that the Republicans’ conservative base is made up in significant part by racists, nativists, sexists, and homophobes — angry, aging, white blue-collar workers, whom America is slowly leaving behind to die. Jesse Bernstein’s pathetic attempt to attribute their presence to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show is simply shooting the messenger for the message. It’s time for Republicans to own the suck, to take responsibility for the monster in their midst, instead of blaming it on others.