Stewart and Colbert’s rally to save the USA from itself

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are taking to the streets in their fight for moderate news coverage

What started as a joke post on the highly addictive link-sharing website Reddit has morphed into a reality that could alter the immediate future of US politics.

Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" and Stephen Colbert's "March to Keep Fear Alive" have so shaken up the political discourse in the US that the Washington Post today asked if comedy could save the United States. And, boy, does it need saving, according to the Post:

The United States of America isn't united any more; it's being torn apart by media-driven extremism . . . Democracy is the art of compromise; it requires that Americans who hold different views be able to develop enough empathy for each other so that bipartisanship can actually occur, and the country move forward. If we cannot cut each other any slack at all, democracy cannot function.

The tonic for this dysfunction is Stewart's upcoming rally. After months of hysterical, right-wing Tea Party-dominated reports, America's political discourse will undergo a calming change. Stewart's rally is not for the enraged minority, it's for the moderate majority.

We're looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn't be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it's appropriate to draw a Hitler moustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.

Stewart is sometimes billed as the most trusted man in America. Often, his show is the only news programme on American television that toes a line between the extremes of Fox's right-wing evangelism and the browbeating liberalism of MSNBC. Stewart, however, has always been careful to disassociate himself from personal political activism. In a profile published just last week, he said candidly:

We're not provocateurs, we're not activists; we are reacting for our own catharsis . . . There is a line into demagoguery, and we try very hard to express ourselves but not move into, "So follow me! And I will lead you to the land of answers, my people!" You can fall in love with your own idea of common sense. Maybe the nice thing about being a comedian is never having a full belief in yourself to know the answer. So you can say all this stuff, but underneath, you're going, "But of course, I'm fucking idiotic." It's why we don't lead a lot of marches.

Except now Stewart is leading a march -- well, a rally -- and branching out into brand new territory. As the New York Times points out, the lines between politics and the media are becoming blurred:

Picture a football game where the reporters and commentators, bored by the feckless proceedings on the field, suddenly poured out of the press box and took over the game.

In politics, it seems as if the media [are] intent on not just keeping score but also calling plays.

This trend started on the right. Palin has more influence now, as a Fox News Commentator (with a capital C), than she ever did as governor of a backwater state. Glenn Beck is just one of a handful of Fox News anchors -- such as Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly -- who use their shows as a pulpit to indoctrinate rather than inform.

The antithesis of these shows is provided by Stephen Colbert, the lampooner-in-chief of personality-driven news shows, such as Beck's. Colbert sends up their emotive, manipulative style to devastating effect on his spoof show The Colbert Report. (Imagine Brass Eye and The Day Today, but with higher production values, and produced every night.)

Colbert and Stewart have been fighting against the hysterical coverage of Fox News and figures like Beck and O'Reilly for years -- except now the game has changed. Figures such as Beck have taken to the streets. If Colbert and Stewart want to keep fighting for moderate, sensible news coverage, they will have to follow.

Duncan Robinson blogs here. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war