What’s the Matter with Stephen Colbert?

The fatuousness of anti-politics doesn't fit where we are right now.

What's the Matter with Colbert?

Donald Trump talked about his presidential campaign on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last year. (Photo by John Paul Filo/CBS via Getty Images)

Now that Jon Stewart has gone to a quieter place, no one I know of in our national culture speaks to millennials — and pre-millennials too, for that matter — more trenchantly than Stephen Colbert. Remember when Colbert was devastating on the absurd and dangerous penchant for “truthiness,” the fog of deception and impression that drowns reason? Insert here your own favorite gags — remembered, I expect, from the era when Colbert brilliantly impersonated that preening blowhard Bill O’Reilly on Comedy Central, bouncing across the stage collecting on-air ovations on behalf of a million or two home enthusiasts reveling in the evidence that somebody out there, a surrogate authority, could be counted on to blast away mercilessly at vile, moronic authorities. During the grotesque Bush years, the relief was far more than comic. It was the overcoming of loneliness. It was the wondrous feeling that somebody out there gets us.

What Colbert got was perfect for Comedy Central, where every one of his winks was well-nigh guaranteed to be greeted with appreciative nods. Three out of seven of Colbert Report viewers were under 30. I would guess that a disproportionately high percentage of them had at least some college education, though only 40 percent described themselves as liberal. To get Colbert’s gags — like Jon Stewart’s — you had to be paying enough attention to the news of the day to know who Donald Rumsfeld was and be able to distinguish between Iran and Iraq. Now that Colbert faces the more diffuse mass that is CBS’s late-night audience, he has to be on somewhat better — at least more inclusive — behavior; his ratings, roughly 2.8 million, are almost twice the number he found on Comedy Central.

Colbert regressed into the cheap and false equivalency that passes for objectivity.

On Nov. 8, the election night that shall live in infamy, Colbert appeared on CBS-owned Showtime for an “election special” to usher in the election results that he expected — the same results that everyone I know expected, which would constitute proof that America, while tormented, had not lost its mind.

Such proof did not materialize. So Colbert had to go off-script. His closing riff was, in fact, more sermon than riff, tacking between mournfulness and jokes-as-usual. He began in a chastened spirit:

Now I think we can agree that this has been an absolutely exhausting, bruising election for everyone, and it has come to an ending that I did not imagine. We all now feel the way Rudy Giuliani looks.

But why did we feel that way? What went wrong? Damn good question that many rightly ask and need to go on asking, and then acting upon their answers. But Colbert regressed into the cheap and false equivalency that passes for objectivity out there in the quietest land of conventional news, where we are supposed to overlook the unpleasantness of noticing that America is hurtling into autocracy. Now came the failure of nerve, the thud of anticlimax, as Colbert regressed into a recycling of the anodyne pieties that he and Jon Stewart proclaimed in 2010 at the Washington Mall spectacular they called by the name “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” As on the Mall, Colbert bemoaned extremists — as if denouncing the Khan family was comparable to deploring anti-Muslim slurs; as if trashing women for being either fat or flat-chested was just like the moral equivalent of saying no to mass deportation; as if talk about grabbing women by their pussies was the equivalent of declarations that Black Lives Matter. And where did these extremists come from? What made, and makes, these extremists extreme? Too much politics, Colbert went on:

By every metric we are more divided than ever….Both sides are terrified of the other side….So how did our politics get so poisonous? I think it’s because we overdosed….When I was a kid we didn’t think about politics this much….Politics used to be something we thought about every four years — maybe two years, if you didn’t have a lot of social life.…And that’s good that we didn’t think about it that much, because it left room in our lives for other things, and for other people….Now politics is everywhere, and that takes up precious brain space we could be using to remember all the things we actually have in common. So whether your side won or lost, we don’t have to do this shit for a while….


So just which “shit” was that? Hillary Clinton arguing for progressive tax policies or Donald Trump fabricating everything under the sun? Was all of it, indistinguishably, excrement?

Hispanics, Muslims, Jews, all tarred by the victor, and tarred again and tarred yet again, were told to get back to their lives.

“Get back to your life,” Colbert said. Hispanics, Muslims, Jews, all tarred by the victor, and tarred again and tarred yet again, were told to get back to their lives and forget the slurs and physical assaults and threats of deportation? The African-Americans whose church was burned down in Greenville, Mississippi, just before the election, were now supposed to relax, to look for Republicans to hug, as if America had not just buried them in an Electoral College landslide? The targets of neo-Nazi tweets and white supremacist blasts were supposed to whimper for unity?

What followed Colbert’s plea for unity was a string of jokes not worth repeating. Did he mean to show that the greatness of America is that everyone feels compelled to laugh at the same lame jokes? According to CBS, this closing monologue has been viewed more than 2 million times.

Honorable Stephen Colbert: We didn’t overdose on politics. Not enough of us took politics seriously. Not enough of us troubled to vote against a grotesque parody of populist politics laced with enough racism, nativism, sexism, bullshit and lies to choke a Constitutional convention. Not enough of us resisted the systematic rollback of voting rights that choked off the votes of people of color — restrictions mounted for the first time in 2016 in 14 states, including such swing states as Virginia and Wisconsin. As Ari Berman wrote in The Nation, as “27,000 votes currently separate[d] Trump and Clinton in Wisconsin
300,000 registered voters, according to a federal court, lacked strict forms of voter ID…. On Election Day, there were 868 fewer polling places in states with a long history of voting discrimination, like Arizona, Texas and North Carolina.”

These outrages against democracy did not draw the attention of major networks.

This anti-political doctrine greases the skids for despotism.

While Colbert would have his devoted fans abandon politics until summoned again by a quivering trumpet, those who are not his fans — Republicans, not to put too fine a point on it — have arranged to take over the governments, the governorships and legislatures, in two-thirds of our states.

Two-thirds. With that control, they overthrow voting rights. With that control, they redistrict to force right-wing dominance of the House of Representatives.

To advise his hip fans to get over their retrograde interest in politics, to lighten up, to live as if hugging your adversary were the sole vitality of life, as if citizenly life were nothing more than a clogging of mental arteries — this is yahoo encouragement for the screaming me-me’s. This anti-political doctrine greases the skids for despotism. This disrespect for the common life, this indifference to truth, this counsel of surrender, Stephen Colbert, is how a republic dies.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.