Seth Meyers’s incisive dissections of the news on Late Night — its status as comedy show be damned — have served as searing indictments of injustice for months. But with his opening statement on Charlottesville on Monday night, Meyers made it clearer than ever that he will let comedy take a back seat if the news demands some straightforward explanation, and he will not mince words when it comes to President Donald Trump.
“It was a horrifying incident that left most of the country stunned and terrified,” Meyers said of both the white supremacist Unite the Right rally and the terror attack that resulted in protester Heather Heyer’s death. “But on Saturday, you didn’t hear her name, or the terrorist’s name, or even the word ‘terrorist’ from our president.” Instead, he continued with his hands clasped, Donald Trump condemned violence “on many sides.”
“If that choice of words made you feel sick to your stomach, the good news is you’re a normal and decent person,” said Meyers. “The jury is still out on the president, as he initially refused to condemn the white supremacists in this country. Now, he did read a statement at the White House today that finally struck the right tone, but I’m sorry, pencils down on this subject was Saturday evening. He only gets very partial credit.”
This is exactly the kind of response that has made Late Night so striking in the months leading up to and following the 2016 election; Meyers is brilliant at delivering this particularly difficult balance of frank disapproval and crucial context.
Meyers later devoted almost 15 minutes of his Monday episode to “A Closer Look” at the various responses to Charlottesville. But in his opening comments, he focused on Trump by digging into the president’s long history of launching personal, racist attacks on those he considers to be his enemies:
Some ignored it or played it down when Donald Trump claimed our first black president wasn’t born in this country. It was racist and insane, but he was written off as a clown — a bitter little man who didn’t know an American could have a name like “Barack Obama.”
And then he called Mexicans rapists during the speech announcing his candidacy; he called Elizabeth Warren Pocahontas. Then he brought Steve Bannon into the White House with him, worked to take away voting rights from black people, and hammered away at the idea that Chicago was a wasteland because of the violent black people living there.
And now white supremacists and American Nazis are visible, and energetic, and demonstrative in a way that we have not seen in our lifetimes. Donald Trump did not immediately denounce the white supremacist movement when given the chance, and now, whether he knows it or not, many of those people see him as leading that movement.
What it comes down to, Meyers concluded with grim pragmatism, is that Trump has no interest in actually leading or uniting America. “The leader of our country is called a ‘president’ because he’s supposed to preside over our society,” the host insisted. “His job is to lead, to cajole, to scold, to correct our path, to lift up what is good about us and to absolutely and unequivocally and immediately condemn what is evil in us. And if he does not do that — if he does not preside over our society — then he is not a president.”
“You can stand for a nation, or you can stand for a hateful movement,” Meyers continued. “You can’t do both.”