For a few fleeting moments Friday on The Tonight Show, Donald Trump appeared to demonstrate a trait rarely seen in his astonishing presidential campaign: self-awareness.
After beginning the interview with an appropriate tribute to the September 11 anniversary, Jimmy Fallon asked the Republican frontrunner a question on the minds of most of the still-sizable-but-incredibly-shrinking percentage of Americans who haven’t hopped aboard the Trump bandwagon. “When did this happen?” How did the punchline candidate of 2016 somehow morph into, gasp, a legitimate contender for the presidency of the United States?
After a couple seconds, Trump launched into his stump speech, talking about people in the U.S. who are "tired of being ripped off” and how the Obama administration was negotiating bad deals on trade and with Iran, and how institutions like the Veterans Administration were failing miserably. Then he made a joke in reference to parliamentary democracies in which leaders can simply call an election at a moment’s notice. “Well I’m demanding that the election be held this week!” Trump quipped.
The crowd laughed, but the joke (which Trump has made before) suggested that like so many in the political class, he doesn't necessarily believe his surge in the polls will endure. At another point, Trump briefly squirmed when Fallon asked him whether he had, “ever in his life,” apologized. “That was not supposed to be one of the questions,” he replied, buying time so he could come up with a Trumpier retort. (He settled on: “I fully think apologizing’s a great thing. But you have to be wrong...I will absolutely apologize sometime hopefully in the distant future if I’m ever wrong.”)
There were no apologies from him on Friday night, but neither were there any moments to provoke fresh outrage. Trump has turned the conventional wisdom of a presidential campaign so upside down that by the time his appearance with Fallon ended, it wasn’t clear whether the lack of some jaw-dropping statement from the candidate represented a plus or a minus for him.
He declined to double down on his comments about Carly Fiorina's “face,” and when the topic turned to Hillary Clinton, Trump resorted to some boilerplate criticism of her email controversy, along with a few crocodile tears. “I feel terribly about it,” he said as the audience laughed. “Honestly, it’s tough stuff.”
In addition to the interview, Trump filmed a sketch with Fallon impersonating the self-obsessed billionaire as he prepared for the interview, in a dressing room covered with portraits of him. The conceit was that Trump was interviewing himself. “Me interviewing me? That’s what I call a great idea,” Trump said.
The trouble with the sketch quickly became apparent: When the candidate himself is a spoof, there’s nothing left to spoof. The humor in these type of bits is found in watching a stiff, awkward politician take a modest risk and make fun of themselves. But thanks to his years on reality TV, Trump is already a polished performer, and the sketch felt familiar, if occasionally amusing. Fallon ribbed him about the utter lack of policy detail in his campaign platform (How will you grow the economy? “I’m just gonna do it!”), and the two Trumps let out a harmonic “YUUUGE!” to the crowd’s delight.
Trump’s appearance on Friday was his first on a late-night comedy show since he launched his presidential bid. But he has done no shortage of interviews in other formats, and his rather conventional give-and-take with Fallon could not have presented a starker contrast to the emotional introspection of Stephen Colbert’s interview of Joe Biden a night earlier. Next week will feature two more candidate appearances on late-night, as Bernie Sanders sits down with Colbert while Hillary Clinton goes on Fallon—the same night as the second Republican debate.
Just their different choice in comic interlocutor is at least somewhat revealing: Sanders went with the one who might engage him in an earnest discussion of policy, while Clinton went with Fallon, the host who prefers a few easy laughs. For Trump, there probably wasn’t much choice: Aside from a few mild jabs from Fallon, he departed NBC’s studio at Rockefeller Center on Friday without much threat to his “yuge” lead in the polls.