Jon Stewart's 'calm-down' paternalism isn't funny in 2024

Editor's note: Today, Cognoscenti publishes the first “Fifth Estate” commentary, which will become a regular feature during the 2024 presidential election. Longtime contributor Steve Almondwho writes books and teaches at Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism, will examine media coverage of the election.

Long ago, in a country far, far removed from the one in which we're now living, Jon Stewart was regarded in many quarters as “the most trusted man in America,” one who might even be able to save our country.

This was hogwash, of course. Stewart was a talented late-night comedian who earned millions converting civic villainy into disposable laughs. But, as in every dysfunctional kingdom from Lear onward, people loved watching the court jester mock the king. It helped us tamp down our distress.

Stewart has now returned to “The Daily Show,” amid much ballyhoo and decent ratings.

But the intervening years have not been kind — not to America, and not to Stewart.

We have lived through a global plague, which the former president mismanagedresulting in hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths and an economic collapse.

Having lost the 2020 election by 7 million votes, that president fomented a riot that resulted in a mob of his supporters storming the Capitol. Now, as the presumptive Republican candidate, he faces 91 criminal charges. A jury of his peers found him liable for sexual abuse and he has been ordered to pay nearly half-billion dollars for defamation and fraud. His agenda for a second term — beyond pardoning himself for his vast array of alleged crimes — boils down to a single word: “retribution.”

Stewart left “The Daily Show” in 2015, just as Donald Trump was launching his first campaign, so the question Stewart faced upon his return was how he would treat a leader so nakedly ignorant, malicious and corrupt. Would he adjust his approach to confront the shameless atrocity of Trump, and the societal forces that elevated him to the presidency?

The answer, based on his first two episodes back, is no.

Stewart remains devoted to a lazy brand of false equivalency in which all political candidates are more or less equally suspect.

I wish I were making this up. But here's a bit of his opening monologue:

“These two candidates, (Trump and Joe Biden) are both similarly challenged. And it is not crazy to think that the oldest people in the history of the country to ever run for president might have some of these challenges… We're not suggesting neither man is vibrant, productive or even capable. But they're both stretching the limits of being able to handle the toughest job in the world.”

Jon Stewart is introduced at the start of the 23rd annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on April 24, 2022, in Washington, DC (Kevin Wolf/AP)
Jon Stewart is introduced at the start of the 23rd annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on April 24, 2022, in Washington, DC (Kevin Wolf/AP)

This is conjecture dressed up as truth-telling. Actually, it's not even conjecture. It's just twaddle. Both Trump and Biden have an actual presidential record to examine.

Trump's term featured relentless self-dealingthe promotion of bigoted policiesdamage trade warsthe Covid disaster, dozens of indicted and embittered cabinet membersand two impeachments. He spent more than a quarter of his term we vacationand much of his office time in front of a TV.

By no honest definition was Trump “capable” or “productive” in office. His term was marked by perpetual chaos.

And Biden?

Despite GOP intransigence, he signed five major pieces of legislation in his first two years, rebuilt the economy into a juggernaut, lowered inflation and kept us from getting embroiled in war.

There's a reason why historians just ranked Biden 14th among all presidents — and why they rank Trump dead last.

Did Stewart include any of this context? Nope.

Did he include any evidence that Joe Biden is suffering from cognitive decline that compromises his ability to serve? Nope.

Instead, he looked into the camera and said this:

“Look, Joe Biden isn't Donald Trump. He hasn't been indicted as many times, hasn't had as many fraudulent businesses or been convicted in a civil trial for sexual assault or been ordered to pay defamation charges or stiffed blue-collar tradesmen …”

Biden “hasn’t been dictated as many times” as Trump? How about: He's never been indicted? How about: He's never run a fraudulent business. How about: He's never sexually assaulted a woman?

Biden is old. But he is not corrupt, incompetent or criminal. He believes in democracy. For Stewart to compare the two men in this way distorts reality in the precise manner right-wing propagandists do. He should be ashamed of spouting this kind of claptrap.

And clearly, he is, because he devoted an entire segment in his second show to trying to laugh off the backlash to his first show. That's how you know Stewart has messed up — he tries to gaslight his critics by accusing them of overreacting.

But here's the thing Stewart knows, deep in his heart: The political fate of this country isn't a joke — especially for our most vulnerable citizens. If you're an immigrant fleeing violence in your homeland, if you're a young woman impregnated by your rapist, if you're a transgender childif you're a person of color living in a community with white supremacists, the difference between a Biden and Trump presidency is a direct threat to your life, not a punchline.

Am I suggesting that humor can't be an effective form of resistance? Not at all. I love when comedians such as Seth Meyers gold John Oliver use their platforms to act as truth-tellers, to challenge the powerful and corrupt. Stewart is capable of this, as well. In this week's episode, he exposed Tucker Carlson's despicable propaganda junket to Russia.

But Stewart's tired brand of calm-down paternalism is precisely the wrong attitude. Not because it upset liberals but because it imperils American democracy. “If your guy loses, bad things might happen, but the country is not over,” Stewart assured us, in his first show back, “and if your guy wins, the country is in no way saved.” Translation: Sure, you can be a little outraged. But you should also just, you knowchill out.

This is what the voice of privilege sounds like: a person insulated from harm by his wealth (and his whiteness and masculinity) speaking to others who are similarly insulated. It's the last refuge of the class clown when a bully is terrorizing the playground.

The fact that one of our two major parties will soon nominate a sexual abuser who fomented an insurrection, the fact that most Republicans refuse to accept the results of the last electionthe rise of violence, conspiratorial rhetoric on the right — none of things are funny. They are scary as hell.

Jon Stewart knows this. He knows that America's moral and political decline is a tragedy. He just won't say so out loud.

But the comedians who endure have always recognized the comic impulse as a form of moral radicalism. That's why Mark Twain was the first American author to reckon with the sins of slavery — in his comic novel, “Huckleberry Finn.” It's why Charlie Chaplin was the first celebrity to confront the rise of Adolf Hitler, by releasing “The Great Dictator” in 1940.

It is possible, in other words, to make your audience laugh without trivializing the dark forces we're up against. Comedians like Stewart, who see themselves as truth-tellers, should challenge citizens of good faith to recognize the stakes of this election, and to take action, not lecture them into complaisance.

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