At this point, seven months into the Trump presidency, late-night hosts have gotten a thorough grounding in reacting to things that would have been unimaginable a year or so ago. Seth Meyers, who made a promise the day after the election that he’d “be watching” closely for the next four years, has excoriated the 45th president on an almost nightly basis, interrogating his advisers and mocking Trump’s reportedly short attention span by presenting foreign-policy briefings in limerick form.
The exact role political entertainers should play has been up for debate long before Jon Stewart gave up his Comedy Central perch at The Daily Show, and the lines have only blurred further in the Trump era. Are Meyers and his ilk comedians? Journalists? The new public intellectuals? But on Monday night, Meyers and his NBC stablemate Jimmy Fallon seemed to redefine themselves as something different again: arbiters of a national moral compass that sometimes feels increasingly skewed. In two powerful, impassioned monologues, the hosts took pains to denounce white supremacy and racism in a way that both argued the president had delegitimized himself by failing to do.
For Fallon, who was widely critiqued in September for ruffling Trump’s hair on his show rather than addressing any substantive political issues, the moment was uncharacteristically serious, and sad. “Even though The Tonight Show isn’t a political show, it’s my responsibility to stand up against intolerance and extremism as a human being,” he said. Watching what happened in Charlottesville over the weekend, Fallon explained, and seeing “Nazi flags and torches and white supremacists … I was sick to my stomach.” Speaking of his daughters, who are 2 and 4, he wondered, “How can I explain to them that there’s so much hatred in this world?” At times he seemed close to tears, particularly when he praised Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old protester who was killed when she was hit by a car allegedly driven into a crowd by a white supremacist.
It was an act Meyers later described as a “terror attack on American soil … a horrifying incident that left most of the country stunned.” And yet, he said, rather than denounce the hatred that had motivated it, the president blamed the “many sides” participating in the protests. “If that choice of words made you feel sick to your stomach,” Meyers said, “the good news is you’re a normal and decent person. The jury’s still out on the president.”
It was an extraordinary denunciation of a sitting president on network television, not for being corrupt, or inept, or dishonest, but for being fundamentally morally flawed. “The leader of our country is called the president because he’s supposed to preside over our society,” Meyers said. “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.”
Fallon, who has perhaps struggled more than some of his politically oriented peers at a moment when politics are unavoidable, found a similar gear, although he was less outraged and more dismayed. His kids, he said, who play joyfully with other kids of all races, “need people to look up to … they need parents and teachers, and they need leaders who appeal to the best in us.” President Trump, he implied, was simply failing them in that regard. The fact that it took the president two days to openly denounce white supremacy, he said, “is shameful.”
And yet, Fallon and Meyers both argued, it isn’t just kids who need people to look up to. It’s the whole country. “We all need to stand against what is wrong, acknowledge that racism exists, and stand up for what is right and civil and kind,” Fallon said. “And to show the next generation that we haven’t forgotten how hard people have fought for human rights. We cannot do this. We can’t go backward.” The message was that President Trump, who fanned the flames of racism when he encouraged the perception that the first black president wasn’t American, was dragging the entire country down. Meyers reminded viewers that Trump was often “written off as a clown” during the 2016 campaign, but that now his impact on the country was becoming clearer. “Now,” Meyers said, “white supremacists and American Nazis are visible and energetic and demonstrative in a way we’ve not seen in our lifetimes.”
By affirming to their viewers that the president is morally bankrupt, the two NBC comedians took a big gamble. On the one hand, it’s easy (and makes for good PR) to publicly denounce racism and bigotry. On the other, both entertainers risk alienating the 34 percent of the population that approves of Trump’s presidency. But the point they seemed to make was that it didn’t matter—that in this specific moment, there are simple choices everyone has to make between doing what’s right and doing what’s easy. The president, both implied, has always done the latter, and thus his leadership isn’t a model. But who can step into the void? It’s a role that, not too long ago, no one would have expected comedians to play. And yet here were two Saturday Night Live alums, taking advantage of their sizable public platforms to remind Americans to reject “evil” and instead to seek out the better angels of their nature.