This past Thursday, Jimmy Fallon interviewed Republican Presidential nominee and person-who-wants-to-ban-Muslims-from-entering-the-country Donald Trump on The Tonight Show. Rather than asking him insightful questions about his campaign or anything moderately challenging, Fallon treated Trump the same way he would treat any of the normal celebrities he goofs around with. That is to say, he amicably goofed around with Trump, lobbing softball after softball, and most cringingly, tousled his hair. The blowback was immediate and fierce.
Let’s get the obvious part out of the way: Jimmy screwed up. While Fallon’s show is notoriously devoid of any edge, I have no interest in begrudging him for what he does. He does a better job than anyone else of taking massive celebrities and reminding us that these polished, hyper-managed avatars of fame are actually, in fact, human beings. He usually does this by playing some silly, needlessly complicated game, but hey, whatever it takes. All of that is fine, but giving this treatment to someone who thinks Mexican immigrants are rapists, wants to ban an entire religion from entering the country, and when he disliked the line of questioning at a debate, implied that it was because the moderator was menstruating, is a step way too far. Fallon’s job is to humanize people, and that’s respectable, but some people simply don’t deserve to be humanized, and Donald Trump is one of them.
That being said, it was hard not to watch the barrage of hate aimed at Fallon and not think he was scapegoated a bit. The truth is, treating Donald Trump like a normal person and not someone with incredibly dangerous beliefs (who may get the chance to act on those beliefs) is a problem that has been plaguing late-night comedy ever since he entered the race. Consider Stephen Colbert’s interview with him a year ago, in which Colbert failed to ask Trump a single challenging question, and even apologized to him for some of the jokes he made in the past. Seriously, Stephen Fucking Colbert, possibly the most important political satirist of the 21st century and normally the antithesis to Fallon’s edgeless lovefest, apologized to Trump.
But Colbert doesn’t even come close to being the worst offender here. No, that would be Fallon’s former employer, Saturday Night Live, who invited Trump to host last November. Again, this was after his comments about Mexicans, after his comments about Megyn Kelly, and after his disparaging remarks about John McCain’s military service. SNL thought it was totally okay to have this person come in and host. And as with Colbert’s interview, no attempt was made to put him in his place. The whole thing might as well have been a commercial for Trump’s campaign, save for a few charged remarks from Michael Che during Update. These moments set the precedent that it was okay to normalize Trump and to treat him like any other guest rather than the imminent threat that he is. While there’s nothing wrong with calling Fallon out for being part of this problem, it would be naive to think he’s the main source of it.
And let’s be honest, it’s not like a few semi-tough questions from Jimmy Fallon would have put much of a dent in his campaign. Maybe the overall normalization of Trump has played a role in why some people think it might be acceptable to vote for a candidate like him, but at the same time, these people probably don’t care what Jimmy Fallon thinks. Why? Because nobody does! Even his biggest fans aren’t showing up to hear his thoughts on healthcare reform. Fallon shouldn’t get a free pass for his uninspiring interview, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. If Donald Trump is elected President, there will be dozens – hundreds! – of people who would earn a greater share of the responsibility for it than Jimmy Fallon.
So why did Fallon take so much heat? Well, as the old cliche goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. The image of Fallon rubbing Trump’s hair was a perfect visual representation of every bit of soft coverage Trump had ever received since he began his campaign – every lie that Matt Lauer let him get away with at that godawful Commander-in-Chief forum, every time a milquetoast interviewer failed to ask him about his most bigoted statements, every half-assed justification of his indefensible positions by professional opinion-havers. That hair-tousle was the perfect symbol for all of it. Really, people weren’t so much mad at Jimmy Fallon as they were mad at an entire media that’s been enabling Trump for 15 months. Fallon was just the fool who did it in the most simperingly obvious way. And while there’s nothing wrong being mad at him for contributing to the problem, don’t forget to save some of your anger for the countless other media personalities who have been doing their own, equally repugnant versions of that now-infamous hair-tousle. Their complacency might not have been laid quite as bare as Fallon’s was, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t just as guilty.