Over the long term, the politicization of everything is a greater threat to American national life than any single politician — including Donald Trump or any candidate the Democrats nominate to challenge him in 2020. If there is no place for common engagement or common enjoyment, then we face more polarization. And make no mistake, polarization can’t continue to worsen indefinitely without placing dangerous strains on the union itself.
And that brings me, of course, to Jimmy Fallon. Yes, this guy:
Fallon, you see, is under fire for not using his late-night show as an arm of the #Resistance. Sure, he pokes fun at Trump, but he was famously relatively kind to Trump when Trump appeared on his show last September. He’s far less political than, say, Stephen Colbert, and when he is political, he’s far less biting.
And now it turns out that Fallon’s relatively apolitical stance may actually be costing him — not just elite regard but his place in the ratings. Colbert has closed the gap. Today the New York Times published a long piece exploring Fallon’s response to Trump, his modest ratings slump (the show is still profitable), and whether he intends to change. Here’s how Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff frames Fallon’s challenge:
He is weathering the most tumultuous period in his tenure there — a predicament for which he has himself to thank, and one that raises the question of whether the multitalented but apolitical Mr. Fallon can ride out the current era of politicized, choose-your-side entertainment, when he just wants to have a good time.
The one phrase I’d challenge is Itzkoff’s statement that Fallon “has himself to thank” for the tumult. While, yes, an entertainer is responsible for knowing their audience, an audience makes choices as well, and audiences are choosing polarization. Fallon, however, is not — at least not so far:
As strongly as ever, Mr. Fallon believes it should be a place for a wide swath of viewers to get their entertainment and laughs, and that this philosophy will steer it through a period of intense polarization.
“I don’t want to be bullied into not being me, and not doing what I think is funny,” he said more defiantly. “Just because some people bash me on Twitter, it’s not going to change my humor or my show.”
As he says, “People who voted for Trump watch my show as well.” Yes, of course they do, and the fact that Fallon doesn’t seize that opportunity to browbeat them with insults and mockery is to his enduring moral credit.
Yes, moral. As I wrote in my print cover story about The Rock, there is a valuable place for sheer fun, for a good laugh, for solid entertainment. This is a positive good in the life of a country (not to mention in our personal lives as well). It has a tempering effect. It keeps from driving us to extremes. It serves as a pressure valve from the stresses of the day and the antagonisms of the time.
A good laugh. Beautiful music. A great game. These are things that we can all enjoy. The other day, a friend forwarded me the extended LeBron James Nike commercial, released when he returned to Cleveland after his heartbreaking departure to Miami. Yes, it’s overwrought. Yes, it’s too grandiose. But it still captures a shared cultural experience (at least in one city) that politics will never, ever give us:
But if the cost of a laugh is enduring spiteful mockery, or if the music is preceded by a political screed, or if sports is inflicting a dose of disrespect right alongside the dunks and buzzer-beaters, then the joy fades. The vengeance and anger remain.
There are those who look at this trend with immense satisfaction. Politics is So Important that all else — fame, talent, athleticism — fades in comparison to commitments to social justice or individual liberty. But hidden behind this alleged altruism is often a healthy dose of ego — that talent and athleticism have made the entertainer or athlete So Important that we need to hear what they believe.
No. We do not. Their jump shot might place them in the world’s elite. Their comedic timing and individual creativity may make them a matchless performer. Their political speech brings them right down with the rest of us, in the muck and mire of unending political conflict. There is a cost to that choice — not just to the athlete or entertainer but also the public they hope to enlighten.
I don’t want Jimmy Fallon to be on “my team.” Frankly, I don’t care about his politics. I think he’s funny. I think he’s fair. And he seems to respect his audience, his guests, and his place in the entertainment universe. He’s the guardian of a television tradition. As he says, “It’s not the ‘Jimmy Fallon Show.’” It’s ‘The Tonight Show.’ So, political obsessives, leave Jimmy Fallon alone. For all our sakes. We need more of this:
And much, much less of this:
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.