Thursday night, Jimmy Fallon interviewed Donald Trump on The Tonight Show. As with every event in this remarkable election, what once would have been a straightforward enough pop-culture appearance was a lot more complicated.
Fallon has established himself as the dominant late-night personality of his age by hosting a sunny variety show in which he gets special access to celebrities by doing goofy things with them. The man has never asked a hardball question in his life, and, relatedly, reliably makes famous people seem charming. Earlier this year, Fallon had Hillary Clinton on his show; he lobbed softball questions before a hometown crowd and gave her a viral moment when she demurred that she was “not worried” about Donald Trump. Following the existing script for non-partisan behavior, Fallon invited Trump on the show, where last night he lobbed softball questions before a hometown crowd and gave him a viral moment by mussing his infamous hair.
But Fallon was working from an old, outdated script, one that misses both the moral and the mortal threat of this year’s election. Twitter exploded with criticism of Fallon from the left, viewers furious that, by acting as if this election is like past elections, Fallon was normalizing Trump’s bigotry, xenophobia and lies:
FALLON: May I...muss your mustache— Proven Content Maker (@Bro_Pair) September 16, 2016
HITLER comically grimaces to the audience which is exploding with cheers and applause
Any appearance that gives Trump free rein to charm without challenging him, goes this argument, establishes a false equivalence between Trump and previous Republican candidates—as well as between Trump and Clinton. Trump is not just another candidate and despite structural incentives to treat him as such, doing so has a moral valence, even if it is only intended to have entertainment value.
I’ll confess that I find this line of reasoning persuasive, and yet still wonder where that leaves someone like Jimmy Fallon, a man allergic to the tough question. In this circumstance, Fallon is like the dog who, tail wagging, brings a suicidal America a loaded gun. A dog is gonna be a dog, even on the eve of Kristallnacht. Donald Trump and this election are different and more crucial than any election in recent memory, but if, as many liberals would have it, this election should answer the question, “What would you have done during Hitler’s rise to power?” I hope the answer is: something more than fuming at a late-night host.
One can wish that Fallon would have gone after Trump, or at least asked him something pointed, while still understanding that to have done so would have not only been entirely out of character for a professional sycophant, but would also have signaled Fallon’s partisanship in the other direction. Who cares! one might say: There is not just left and right here, but right and wrong. But Fallon, who wants a career putting America to sleep for many years to come, may be particularly sensitive to the appearance of partisanship. (And thrumming underneath the outrage about this interview is the very partisan anxiety that Hillary can’t be as “charming” in this context, and so treating the two the same is not just immoral, it’s advantage Trump.)
What Fallon’s interview demonstrated is that in this election there is no longer a non-partisan space, no non-contentious ground. There are no Switzerlands in the 2016 election. Behaving in a traditionally un-partisan way, which is to say hosting goofy, lame late-night interviews with both candidates, is in fact, partisan—and so is the reverse. Fallon’s interview with Trump will soon be a minor footnote to the most feverish and frightening election in recent memory, but the real question it raises will linger long after it’s done: not how we can go on watching a hack like Jimmy Fallon, but how we can go on as Americans, living with one another.