It’s hard to be shocked at a horrible thing someone’s done when that person’s been telling you for four-plus years that he’s going to do exactly that thing. In the time that—for their sins—America has been under the shadow of a Donald Trump administration, the plain fact that he would never, ever, under no earthly or otherworldly circumstance accept that he had to leave the presidency just because the voters decided he should has echoed from the time he said… exactly that. Hillary Clinton—for all her sins—told us at the time, and to Trump’s face, that that baldly stated intention was “horrifying.” And on Thursday, Americans—well, Democrats and a yet-to-be-counted number of Trump supporters—watched in horror as Donald Trump went on TV and, from the White House, stammered through a 15-minute speech where he refused to accept that he was going to lose the election to Joe Biden, no matter what those votes say, and called the entire basis of American democracy a sham.
That’s not hysterical, it’s not “Trump derangement syndrome.” It’s just stenography. And Stephen Colbert, who tapes his show just in time to have seen a flailing, desperate American President announce his plan to destroy what legitimacy American democracy has left clinging to it, threw out his monologue. He did the jokes eventually, but, for eight stirring minutes, the black-clad and impassioned Colbert stood in the center of his still empty Ed Sullivan Theater set (100,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported yesterday), and spoke from what he emotionally described as his broken heart.
Colbert, who’s made a career the last four years mocking every petty, ugly thing Donald Trump stands for, appeared genuinely shaken by what he’d just seen. Referring to his funereal threads, Colbert told viewers, “Donald Trump tried really hard to kill something tonight,” before launching into an at-times emotional plea for the country to unite in condemning—some for the first time in their Republican lives—what had just happened. After showing a mercifully short clip of Trump—back on the campaign trail—foreshadowing, for all to hear, exactly what he said on Thursday, November 5, 2020, Colbert was seen silent, his head bowed, for a long, long moment. He sighed, and when he finally spoke, there was a throb in his voice as he said of Trump’s utterly predictable yet unthinkable pronouncement, “What I didn’t know is that it would hurt so much. I didn’t expect this to break my heart.”
We’re so used to “Trump being Trump” by now that it’s become almost comforting to watch Twitter wags and late-night comedians, and Saturday Night Live dunk on him. But Colbert wasn’t amused, he was shattered. “For him to cast a dark shadow on our most sacred right, from the Briefing Room in the White House—our house not his—that is devastating,” said Colbert with the passion of someone whose nightly cynicism about American politics has always shone through with a streak of unabashed, unashamed patriotism. “That office means something, and that office should have some shred of decency.”
Colbert made his case in the manner of all of those hokey movie and TV idealists. You know, the ones whose climactic pleas that even the most jaded would finally, somehow, decide—this time—that opportunistic, grasping evil had gone too far make for such fine, inspirational, ultimately inconsequential Oscar clips. “For evil to succeed, all that is necessary is for good men to do nothing,” Colbert paraphrased Edmund Burke ruefully, before speaking directly to those Trump voters, apologists, and enablers still riding that Trump Train. “Right now, something unpredictable needs to happen,” said Colbert, before sweetening the deal by appealing to self-interest, if not improbably stirred embers of dying patriotism. “You only survived this up ’til now because a lot of voters didn’t want to believe everything that was obvious to so many of us—that Donald Trump is a fascist. And when it comes to democracy versus fascism, I’m sorry,” said Colbert with loaded contempt, “there are not fine people on both sides.”
Comedians write jokes, and entertainment writers write about them—it’s the job. But sometimes you step out and say what needs to be said, free from the constraints of being funny, or clever, or of crafting your message so it will be most pleasing to the most people. Colbert quoted the Latin saying, “qui tacet consentire,” translating it as “who is silent gives consent,” and asked for an offscreen update if (current) Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had yet given any response. “He declined to comment,” Colbert received the news contemptuously, before laying out just what’s on the line for Mitch, Lindsey Graham, and the rest of the GOP should silence continue to signal acceptance. “Americans are gonna count something else, starting right now,” said Colbert, referring to Trump’s plot to stop the counting of legally cast ballots, “They’re going to count who was willing to speak up against Donald Trump trying to kill democracy. And they’ll count who will stay silent in the face of this desperate attack on the bedrock institution of this truly great nation.”
There’s an oft-quoted (usually by right-wingers preemptively defending their racism) maxim from author and lawyer Michael Godwin that says that you lose an argument when you resort to comparing your enemy to Hitler. Well, Michael Godwin himself came out to suspend his own Godwin’s Law in 2017, saying in a tweet, after the 2017 Charlottesville neo-Nazi march where one of Trump’s “very fine people” murdered Black Lives Matter activist Heather Heyer, “By all means, compare these shitheads to Nazis. Again and again. I’m with you.” Colbert needed no prompting, saying of those MAGA-hatted folks out there presumably hate-watching The Late Show, “This is the time to get off the Trump Train. ’Cause he just told you where the train is going, and it’s not a passenger train. And he’ll load you on it someday, too.”
Note: As of press time, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-NC) has gone on Fox News to declare his loyalty to the man Colbert referred to as “Il Douche-ay,” even claiming to have pledged a half-million dollars to help Donald Trump’s multifarious legal battles to stop the vote counts where he’s ahead—and keep them going where he’s behind. So that’s one.