At various points during the Trump campaign and presidency, Jon Stewart would emerge from beneath his old friend Stephen Colbert’s desk to deliver searing diatribes about the state of the political world.
He returned to The Late Show Wednesday night ahead of the premiere of his new political satire movie Irresistible. But in the midst of a global pandemic and just a few months away from another presidential election, the mood was noticeably darker.
Stewart, who joked that he was going “full Christopher Lloyd” during quarantine, said that the “politicization of basic hygiene” has been “one of the more surprising aspects” of this particular crisis. “The mask is now the ‘don’t tread on me’ snake, it’s the symbol of tyranny. It’s the garb of the authoritarian. It’s the swastika arm band. It’s the brown shirt.”
“And I keep thinking to myself, ‘They wear those in operating rooms, right?’” he continued. He imagined people going into the operating room and telling their surgeon, “You take that liberal bullshit somewhere else! You don’t wash those hands, and you stick them in my open wound, because I’m an American!”
Later, they moved on to the protests against systemic racism and police brutality that have erupted across the country and the world over the past few weeks.
“In some respects, I wonder if the pandemic, because we all went into kind of a stasis, and the distractions of your daily life were removed, that it allowed the country a moment of clarity,” Stewart said. “It’s almost like in this moment of more quiet reflection, America suddenly stopped and smelled the racism, do you know what I mean?”
After several minutes discussing the problem with racism in this country, Stewart ultimately admitted that it was “ridiculous” for “two old white dudes to be sitting around going, ‘The problem with racism in this country…’” But at the same time he said he believes “white people can function as avatars” to force other white people to pay attention.
Finally, Colbert asked Stewart to weigh in on the 2020 election. “Who are you liking this year, Biden or Trump?” he inquired. “Is it a coin toss at this point?”
“It’s a toss-up, I’m going back and forth,” Stewart joked. When Colbert noted that 14 percent of voters in a recent New York Times poll just “aren’t sure yet,” Stewart dropped his head into his hands.
“For me, I remember thinking, when he came down the escalator and said that a lot of Mexicans are rapists, I was like, OK, he’s done,” Stewart said. “And then ‘grab ‘em by the pussy,’ he’s done. His morality has been litigated. I didn’t expect him to be moral. I think what caught me off guard was the utter incompetence. I’ve been somewhat surprised, you know, you were sold this idea that he was a disrupter and that the chaos was strategic. And now you know, no, no, I think his pants are on fire and he’s just running around the room. And he really is just mainly concerned with credit and praise.”
Early in 2017, Stewart went on Colbert’s show and joked that it felt like Trump had been in office for a hundred years. “The presidency is supposed to age the president, not the country,” he said now, suggesting that Biden’s slogan should be “It’s enough already!”
As for the 2020 race, Stewart admitted, “Biden wasn’t my guy,” explaining that he was more in the Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren lane. “I’m not crazy about the ‘Uncle Joe’ character,” he said.
But while he doesn’t “like that shtick,” Stewart said, “I feel like that’s not the core of who that guy really is.” Given that the country is “in terrible anguish right now,” he said, “When I see Biden past the shtick, I see a guy who knows what loss is, who knows grief.”
“That’s it,” Colbert chimed in.
“And I think that that kind of grief humbles you,” Stewart said, adding that it’s something he appreciates about Colbert as well. “There’s a humility to the randomness of tragedy that brings about a caring that can’t be faked. And it can’t be contrived.”
“What I think in this moment this country needs is a leader of humility,” he continued. “That understands that he doesn't understand, that understands the humanity of this experiment and the difficulty that it is in maintaining it, and that we have to connect with each other on a much deeper level without the bullshit. And it gives me hope that that can bring about—that maybe he is the man of the moment.”
“Trump doesn't have that gear,” Stewart said. “He’s still in the mindset that COVID was created to stop him from a second term.”
“Right. It requires you to care about something other than yourself,” Colbert added.
“So I’m not just making the negative case for Biden anymore,” Stewart said. “It’s not just, ‘Well, we gotta get rid of that fucking guy.’ I actually believe something in his life experience can benefit this country at a moment where it desperately needs it.”
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