After walking away from The Daily Show in August 2015, Jon Stewart popped up throughout the election like the ghost of political comedy past. He haunted his friends’ shows — Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, the late Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore — with a newly gray beard and a hangdog expression that seemed equal parts exhausted by the news and relieved that he doesn’t have to cover it daily anymore.
Stewart had just participated in an aggressively silly bit with Colbert the night before the election — but his first public post-election thoughts were decidedly more measured and somber.
Talking to Charlie Rose on CBS This Morning’s November 17 show, Stewart chose his words carefully to describe how he felt after Donald Trump’s presidential election victory. While Rose tried to get him to say he might be afraid in this new reality, Stewart pushed back against the idea that we are now living in a “fundamentally different country” than we were before the election happened.
“The same country, with all its grace, and flaws, and volatility, and strength, and resilience exists today as existed two weeks ago,” Stewart said. “The same country that elected Donald Trump elected Barack Obama.”
Stewart went on to try and parse his feelings not just on how Trump became president-elect, but on how Republicans are now using his win to bolster their own agenda — even though, he said, Trump’s whole campaign was a rejection of their tendency toward governing via gridlock.
“Donald Trump isn’t just a reaction to Democrats but Republicans,” Stewart insisted. “He’s not a Republican. He’s a repudiation of Republicans, but they will reap the benefits of his victory.”
“I will guarantee you,” he continued, “Republicans are going to come to Jesus now about the power of government.”
Stewart also cautioned liberals against turning Trump voters into “a monolith,” or defining them all by the “worst of his rhetoric.” It wasn’t exactly a call to find empathy for Trump voters — which many liberals have called out as usually one-sided — but Stewart did flat-out call casting all Trump supporters as racist “hypocrisy.”
Then again, he said, there’s value in having some of the very real hate and racism that’s come out of this election out in the open. “I would rather have this conversation openly and honestly than in dog whistles,” he said, going on to point out that the country’s history brims over with racism, if you’d only care to look.
Maybe the most revealing part of the interview, though, came when Stewart mused that one thing that’s bothered him throughout this election is that “nobody asked Donald Trump what makes America great.”
Going off his own words, Stewart said, the impression he gets is that Trump believes America is great because “it’s a competition.” In Stewart’s eyes, America is a singular experiment of a “multiethnic democracy” — and Trump’s candidacy may have given breathing room to the idea that such a thing is impossible.
“America is not natural,” Stewart laughed, though grimly. “Natural is tribal. We’re fighting against thousands of years of human behavior and history. ... That’s what’s exceptional about America. This ain’t easy.”
And in fact — as he said toward the top of the interview — “this fight has never been easy.”
So, no, this interview wasn’t exactly done in the sputtering “can you believe this shit?!” style Stewart made his signature at The Daily Show. But considering the extraordinary circumstances he was responding to, it makes sense that Stewart might exercise more caution in his response than he might’ve in front of a cheering studio audience.