On Monday night’s episode of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, the eponymous host, while talking to Texas senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz, did something wonderful, something that seemed like a definitive statement of purpose for his new late-night program: He told his audience to stop booing Ted Cruz.
As Cruz was attempting, with more success than you might think, to come across as moderate and reasonable, Colbert, respectfully, pressed him on an issue on which Cruz is outside the mainstream: Gay marriage. As Cruz tried to explain that it should be an issue for the states, the crowd—like all New York City talk show crowds, not one predisposed to agree with Cruz on much—began to jeer him. Colbert stopped them immediately. “Guys, guys,” he said, waving a firm hand to his audience. “However you feel, he’s my guest. Please don’t boo him.” They stopped immediately. (Relevant moment at the 3:50 mark of this clip.)
In Colbert’s first show, when he had former Florida Governor Jeb Bush on, the first thing he did was thank him for coming on. “I could never get as many Republicans to come on my last show,” he told him. That hasn’t been a problem this time, and it’s clearly by design. The Colbert Report was an oft-savage satire of Republican politics, but that’s not what The Late Show With Stephen Colbert is. Here, he legitimately wants to talk.
It’s through this lens that Donald Trump’s appearance last night should be filtered. Colbert wasn’t as chummy and borderline-fawning the way that Jimmy Fallon was when Trump was on The Tonight Show last week (Fallon’s show is becoming so all-denominations-welcome-even/especially-the-lowest-common-one that it’s nearly content-free at this point; he is morphing into Jay Leno before our very eyes) but Colbert wasn’t an attack dog either. He had fun with Trump (how could you not?), but also showed him something that resembled respect—which turns out to be a core value of Colbert's new show. It's about sharp satiric wit and performative exuberance, but it’s also about civility. And for a night, Trump embraced this. With Colbert, Trump actually seemed civil—an impressive accomplishment.
As Politico pointed out, Trump was subdued, but it wasn’t because he was cowed, or just tired. (Trump is usually only subdued when he’s tired.) He just didn’t quite seem to know what to do with Colbert, and therefore defaulted into simply being a person. Trump is usually attacking, or is self-consciously absurd, but with Colbert, who tried to engage him as a human, Trump the political performer seemed to recede, something one would imagine impossible. And it sort of worked. Trump didn’t come across as normal, exactly, but there were brief moments—particularly when he meta-commented on his persona, telling Colbert he “works hard at it.”
Trump also proved, not surprisingly, to be brilliant at one aspect of public policy: Donald Trump Trivia. Not only was he unfailingly able to choose which statements he’d said in the past and which had been said by Colbert’s old character, he even knew not to attribute the trick question, actually said by Charles Manson, to himself.
In the wake of this cordial, almost casual interview, some liberal critics, used to the old Colbert, have claimed Colbert took it too easy on Trump. (The Daily Beast called him “craven.” ) But this is to miss the point of the new Colbert show. It is not about taking candidates down a few pegs, or to mock all those dumb dumb Republicans, Jon Stewart-style. It’s about attempting to find out who they really are by engaging with them on a human level. (On Colbert's show, Cruz was as relatable as Cruz has ever come across.) It wasn’t Colbert vs. Trump last night. That’s not the game Colbert’s playing anymore. The new game is one he wants everyone to play. Even Trump.