Donald Trump hit “The Late Show” Tuesday night, and Stephen Colbert fans might have expected some fireworks, given that the host has mocked Trump mercilessly over the years. But that’s not what happened.
Instead, we got a virtual bromance — a disappointment and a missed opportunity. Trump dialed down his usual self, leaving Colbert to come off — as Trump might have put it — like a “low-energy person.”
“Who knows? One day I might be able to tell my grandkids I interviewed the last president of the United States,” Colbert said, tweaking Trump to the audience before the interview.
But as soon as Trump appeared, the sharp, satirical Colbert seemed to vanish, leaving in his place a respectful and contrite interviewer. What followed was a volley of mainly softball questions, more suitable coming from a fanboy rather than a supposedly edgy interviewer.
As Tim Teeman noted in The Daily Beast, “It felt like a first date, rather than a gladiatorial encounter.”
One of the strangest moments came when Colbert publicly apologized to Trump (yes, you read that correctly) “because I’ve said a few things about you over the years that are in polite company unforgivable,” Colbert said. “… I hope you’ll accept my apology. … Is there anybody you would like to apologize to yourself?”
The way that this setup collapsed was reminiscent of how Trump refused to apologize to Jeb Bush during the last debate for insulting Bush’s wife. In both instances, it was Trump who managed to appear in control.
We know that Colbert is capable of putting politicians on the hot seat from his years of skewering lawmakers (as his alter ego) on “The Colbert Report.” More recently he has done insightful, newsworthy interviews with Joe Biden and Ted Cruz. So it makes no sense that Colbert would apologize to the man who has insulted Mexicans, immigrants, women, TV anchors and his fellow candidates.
Rather than pushing Trump to explain his bigotry and misogyny, Colbert treated him deferentially, further legitimizing a candidate who has imported nativist, hateful views into the political mainstream. This is ironic, given Colbert’s own advocacy: He appeared before a House judiciary subcommittee in 2010 to argue for immigrant workers, calling them “the least of my brothers.”
Nor did Colbert voice any serious objection to Trump’s idea for deporting 11 million undocumented people. It was all, apparently, a joke to Colbert, who, we’ll recall, plays himself these days, not his alter ego. What could be funnier than rounding up and removing men, women and children, most of whom have been here for over a decade?
Colbert failed to bring up the latest Trump controversy, when he allowed a man to publicly defame Muslims and suggest that President Obama was not born in the U.S. Instead Colbert gave him an opportunity to once again flaunt his birtherism. “I’m going to throw you a big fat meatball for you to hit out of the park right now,” Colbert said. “Barack Obama: born in the United States? Was he? It’s a meatball. It’s hanging out there.”
Once again, Trump demurred, saying, “I don’t talk about it anymore.” Amazingly, here Trump came off as the bigger person. Colbert seemed not to realize that questioning the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency is not funny to African-Americans and other people of color.
Later Colbert told Trump, “I want to thank you for running for president. I’m not going to say that this stuff writes itself, but you deliver it on time every day.” That might have been a funny joke, had Colbert not appeared blind to the consequences of the brand of hate speech that Trump promotes.
Consider that one of two brothers who is a suspect in a hate crime against a Latino homeless man in Boston last month reportedly told police, “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.” Or that a 14-year old Latino boy in Indiana was recently shot by suspects allegedly yelling a racist slur.
To be clear, Trump had nothing to do with either of these incidents. However, his candidacy, built on bigotry and fear, has created a climate in which some people may feel emboldened to commit such deplorable acts.
By ignoring the myriad ugly aspects of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign, Colbert only humanizes Trump in a way that he does not deserve.
And if we need any further evidence of the corrosive “Trump effect,” just look at the disrespectful way in which Colbert impersonated the president of Mexico; in an exchange with Trump over his proposed border wall, Colbert assumed a faux Spanish accent and a high-pitched voice.
Trump’s candidacy is no joke. It is to Colbert’s great discredit that he treated Trump as an entertaining, thoughtful politician — rather than the shameful race-baiter that he is.