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Jon Stewart, Still A ‘tiny, Neurotic Man,’ Back To Remind Americans What’s At Stake

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Jon Stewart does a segment on Feb. 13, 2024, on the Biden-Trump rematch. Screenshot, The Daily Show

It’s an uncomfortable truth: Jon Stewart and Donald Trump both tapped the same well of latent public disaffection with politics and the media in the 2000s. Trust in media and government had been declining for several decades. But the symbiotic relationship between the White House and the press during the Iraq War highlighted the dangers of a lap dog press.

It was against this backdrop that Stewart and Trump used their positions outside the fray to ally themselves with their audiences and draw pointed contrasts with the artifice of postmodern politics. But they did this – and continue to do this – in opposing ways.

Trump lashes out when politicians and journalists bring us closer to truth. Stewart criticizes them for keeping us in the dark. To Stewart, the solutions to America’s political spectacle are political accountability and increased transparency. To Trump, the solution is far simpler: He alone can fix it.

In 2003, maybe Stewart could call himself “a tiny, neurotic man, standing in the back of the room throwing tomatoes at the chalkboard.” But today, with his return on Monday nights to host “The Daily Show,” he is part of the school administration trying to keep the lights on and the students learning.

Criticizing Bush’s war

During the George W. Bush years, Stewart perfected the art of ironic satire, playfully critiquing politicians, the press and the public, while implying something better was possible.

He feigned incredulity as he critiqued the Bush administration’s political hypocrisy and cynical invocation of Sept. 11 in its justification for the Iraq War.

Stewart used irony to describe failures of American policy as though they were fabulous successes. Like on July 16, 2007, when he said enthusiastically, “As you know, we are now entering our fifth year of making … very good progress in Iraq. Obviously the president defining ‘progress’ now as ‘moving forward in time.’” Stewart invited his young, politically interested, liberal/moderate audience to conclude the opposite: “Things should not be this way, and we deserve better.”

Around the same time, Trump was also criticizing Bush, but through hyperbole and outrage rather than ironic satire. In 2007, he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that “everything in Washington has been a lie. Weapons of mass destruction – it was a total lie. It was a way of attacking Iraq.”

By 2011, Trump aimed his hyperbole and outrage at a new target: President Barack Obama. Trump challenged the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency by spreading racist lies about Obama’s birthplace and suggesting that Obama was a Muslim. The “Birther Lie” launched Trump’s political career. It also solidified his appeal among those whose worldview was amenable to authoritarian populism: those high in political distrust, racial resentment and conspiricism.

Authoritarianism vs. democracy

Trump has embraced an authoritarian vision of the presidency with concentrated powers in the executive branch. If reelected, he has vowed to use the Department of Justice to investigate political opponents and has explored ways to use the military to subdue political unrest stemming from his reelection.

Trump’s critiques of the press echo an authoritarian perspective, too. When Trump lambastes the press as “fake news,” it is in response to negative coverage of himself or fact checks of his own false statements.

To Stewart, though, journalism’s failures are not ideological or personal, but professional. He criticizes them for not getting us closer to the truth. He has critiqued how journalists leave political spin uninterrogated, give time to “both sides” and “leave the conversation there,” even when one side is demonstrably wrong. He has criticized politicians’ reliance on communications professionals who obfuscate the truth to get more favorable coverage.

Stewart’s new old role

Though a political outsider two decades ago, Stewart now finds himself inside the political and media institutions whose roles include making the public aware of – and thus safeguarding them from – the antidemocratic and destabilizing forces of populist authoritarians like Trump.

Since Stewart’s return to “The Daily Show” after his 2015 departure, he has interviewed democracy expert Steven Levitsky on ways to protect democracy, journalist Jonathan Blitzer about the complex forces shaping U.S. immigration policy, Middle East-focused journalists Murtaza Hussain and Yair Rosenberg on Israel’s war in Gaza, and legal scholars Melissa Murray and Kate Shaw on Trump’s efforts to avoid prosecution.

Jon Stewart does a segment on freedom of the press, cued to Donald Trump saying he would jail certain journalists.

Through these conversations, Stewart showcases guests who espouse a pluralistic liberal vision of democracy. And through his satire, Stewart himself shows that democratic institutions and processes may be messy, but their ability to protect the will and liberty of the people makes them indispensable.

Or, as Stewart said in a February episode, “The difference between America’s urinal-caked chaotic subways and Russia’s candelabra’d beautiful subways is the literal price of freedom.”

Stewart explained his 2024 return to “The Daily Show” as wanting to “have some kind of place to unload thoughts as we get into this election season.”

But having studied the content and effects of political satire since Stewart became “The Daily Show” host in 1999, I see his return as evidence he recognizes the protective role he can play for American democracy. Because even if ironic satire isn’t great at persuading people to change their minds, research shows it does subtly shape how we think about and engage with our political world.

When satirists cover an issue, viewers become more likely to see that issue as important. Satire also shapes how people think about politicians and issues. In the early 2000s, I conducted a series of studies that revealed that exposure to jokes about presidential candidates provided study participants with criteria they then used to evaluate those candidates – like Al Gore’s lack of charisma or George W. Bush’s lack of intellect or performance on Iraq. And when study participants didn’t have a lot of political knowledge, satire helped them fill in the gaps.

Satire is also great at highlighting issues that audiences haven’t thought much about, such as the implications of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United campaign finance decision.

Satire encourages audiences to pay attention and discuss politics in new ways, motivating them to seek out other information or talk about politics with friends. And even though satirists like Stewart may be critical of journalism, their programs highlight the importance of an independent press to a democratic society, increasing viewers’ perceptions of the importance of news.

There’s always a role for the satirist

Because Trump’s rhetoric is so explicit and outrageous, some have suggested it may rob satirists of the ability to deconstruct his messaging. But despite its explicitness, there is still a lot that authoritarian populists like Trump don’t ever say.

This is where satirists like Stewart can help fill in the gaps: By juxtaposing populist authoritarians’ glittering generalities with the ugly reality of life under authoritarianism.

For example, in a recent episode of “The Daily Show,” Stewart deconstructed Tucker Carlson’s interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Carlson’s glowing reviews of Russia’s grocery stores and sparkling subway system.

“Perhaps if your handlers had allowed,” Stewart says as though addressing Carlson, “you would have seen there is a hidden fee to your cheap groceries and orderly streets. Ask likely assassinated opposition leader Alexei Navalny or any of his supporters.”

In a 2021 discussion on CNN about American democracy, Stewart lamented Democrats’ endless hand-wringing over Trump’s threat to democracy. Instead, Stewart proposed: “Action is the antithesis of anxiety.”

What we see in Stewart’s return is him reminding us that American democracy is never done. It takes constant action.

Stewart may still be “a tiny, neurotic man,” but far from throwing tomatoes at the chalkboard, now he’s standing tall in front of the class, and school is in session.

The Conversation

Dannagal G. Young was a production assistant on the Daily Show for 10 days during the RNC in Philadelphia in 2000.

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‘I’m Not Black, I’m O.J.’: What O.J. Simpson’s Life Showed About Transcending Race And Being Trapped By It

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O.J. Simpson listens to testimony during his 1995 trial, in which he was acquitted of murder charges. David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

It’s still unclear when – or if – O.J. Simpson actually said the words that rapper Jay-Z attributed to him in his 2017 Grammy-nominated song “The Story of O.J.”

But the words stuck and came to symbolize the complicated relationship the Black community had with Simpson, who died on April 11, 2024, from complications of prostate cancer. He was 76 years old.

“I’m not black, I’m O.J.,” Jay-Z wrote.

Indeed, O.J. did transcend race. He had the life of the rich and famous that many Black and white people could only dream of. In the early 1990s, the former professional football player and Hollywood actor was earning US$55,000 per month and had a net worth of nearly $11 million, according to court records.

But it all came crashing down on June 12, 1994, after the vicious killing of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.

Simpson was charged in both murders and during the trial became the epitome of Black, male toxicity. Though acquitted – in large part because of the Los Angeles Police Department’s racist history of police brutality – his trial exposed the racial divisions within America and the deep-seated resentment that many Black people had for the U.S. criminal justice system.

As a scholar of ethnic studies, I followed the case of O.J. Simpson as it unfolded and understood the jubilation that many Black people felt after his acquittal. I also understood that jubilation was more about the fairness of the criminal justice system than it ever was about O.J.

The rise of a Black media star

During the early 1960s, Orenthal James Simpson was a cultural hero for millions of Black boys and girls who saw him dominate college football as a star running back for the University of Southern California. He led the team to a national championship in 1968 and earned a Heisman Trophy, the sport’s highest award.

A Black man stands next to a white woman as they pose for a photograph.
O.J. Simpson and his wife Nicole Brown Simpson attend a party in New York City in 1993.
Rose Hartman/Getty Images

Simpson went on to have a spectacular professional football career before turning his star power to Hollywood movies and commercials, the most memorable of which saw him running through an airports to get a Hertz rental car.

Tragic fall

All of that stardom made Simpson’s arrest on June 17, 1994, even more bizarre.

I recall watching the slow-moving chase of the white Ford Bronco in which Simpson fled, followed by dozens of police cars on a Los Angeles highway. Inside the Bronco, Simpson held a gun to his head.

Given his behavior, Simpson appeared to be guilty in the court of public opinion. But during the trial, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran was able to shift the focus of the case away from Simpson’s erratic behavior and to the racist behavior of the Los Angeles Police Department.

A photograph of a Black man taken by the Los Angeles police.
O.J. Simpson following his arrest in Los Angeles on June 17, 1994.
Kypros/Getty Images

In what was dubbed by media analysts “the trial of the century,” Cochran was able to create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury after he detailed the numerous forensic mistakes that Los Angeles police made in handling evidence in the case. Cochran’s defense ended with Simpson trying on a pair of gloves that prosecutors claimed were used in the murders.

“If they don’t fit, you must acquit,” Cochran told the jury.

They didn’t fit.

The Simpson trial came at a time when police brutality in Los Angeles had become the subject of national media attention after the March 1991 beating of Rodney King by four Los Angeles police officers. A year later, on April 29, 1992, a jury found the four officers not guilty, and that verdict triggered days of riots in Los Angeles.

In my view, this backdrop was partly the reason why Black people saw Simpson as yet another Black man falsely charged with – and often lynched for – a crime involving a white woman.

No longer a symbol of the American dream, O.J. became the black face of domestic violence and a tragic lesson on the flaws of the U.S. criminal justice system.

The Conversation

Rodney Coates does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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A Monumental Case, Unfolding In A Court Of Law And A Court Of Public Opinion – Trump Goes On Trial

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Former President Donald Trump stands trial on April 15, 2024. Yuki Iwamura//AFP via Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump’s New York trial on charges related to paying hush money to an adult film star begins on April 15, 2024. The Conversation U.S. asked Tim Bakken, a former New York prosecutor and now a legal scholar teaching at West Point, and Karrin Vasby Anderson, a political communication expert at Colorado State University, to set the scene from each of their perspectives.

It will be a “monumental drama” inside and outside the courtroom, said Bakken. Anderson adds, “It’s not just what happens inside the courtroom, but how we manage it outside the courtroom, that will be equally consequential for us as a nation.”

Bakken: The scene is very dramatic: A former president is on trial, for the first time. Trump is facing relatively minor charges that are not complex, and the evidence should not require a complex presentation. But the aura surrounding the introduction of the evidence has rarely occurred in world or U.S. history. And that’s not an overstatement.

Trump has been charged with over 30 counts of filing a false document. There’s just one basic charge: that he filed a false document and enlisted other people in his organization to help him file the false document to conceal the fact that he had paid money to Stormy Daniels to urge her not to speak up about his relationship with her.

A gray-haired man in a dress shirt and tie, sitting in a study.
Juan M. Merchan, the judge who will preside over Donald Trump’s hush money trial.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Anderson: The rhetorical scene is complicated. Let’s break it into three separate scenes.

The first is sort of inside the courtroom, where there’s a modicum of moderation, particularly from Trump’s lawyers when speaking on his behalf. They speak of him as if he is like any other former U.S. president. There’s no recognition of the ways in which Trump has not conducted himself like past U.S. presidents, both in office and after leaving the White House.

The second stage is how Trump interacts with the judicial system in nonjudicial, nondemocratic ways. He’s doing a lot of communication outside of the courtroom, and that’s going to influence the way that we understand the case as it is unfolding.

One of the reasons why Trump has been subjected to a number of gag orders is because his rhetoric outside the courtroom appears to be trying to potentially intimidate jurors. If it’s not outright intimidation, then he’s openly trying to cast doubt by spreading misinformation and false information about the people who are involved in the case, including judges and their families.

The third scene is what Trump does on Truth Social, his social media platform, and at his rallies, which is what every authoritarian does: their rhetorical formula. They use their communication to destabilize democratic institutions, dehumanize opponents and scapegoat others. The institution that Trump is looking to destabilize with his pronouncements at rallies and on social media is the judiciary.

How can a judge keep control of a trial when all of this is happening?

Bakken: From what I’ve observed of Trump, once he enters a courtroom or is inside a legal proceeding, there doesn’t seem to be any issue in regard to misbehavior. He’s a practical person in that regard. But he goes just about as far as he can.

Anderson: Inside the courtroom, he and his lawyers are going to present him as a sort of normal, typical defendant, remarkable only in that he is a former president. When it is to his advantage to use democratic norms strategically, he will. But he doesn’t abide by them; he weaponizes them. What he’s really doing inside the courtroom is posing as someone who doesn’t need to have multiple gag orders applied.

Bakken: Everybody has fear in a criminal legal proceeding. You’re facing an institution that can imprison you. But the things that Trump is doing outside the courtroom, at least recently, seem to reflect his concern that he cannot control a proceeding. How does a person deal with the fear that emanates when somebody else has control over you? Some people are more meticulous and will crouch. Other people – there are few of these because the stakes are very high – will strike back. And that’s who Trump is. He’s learned throughout his life that the way he can survive is to strike back at people.

Anderson: Trump recently posted, in reference to the judge in his upcoming trial, “If this Partisan Hack wants to put me in the ‘clink’ for speaking the open and obvious TRUTH, I will gladly become a Modern Day Nelson Mandela – It will be my GREAT HONOR.”

Right there, he’s hedging his bets. He doesn’t want to go to jail. What he has to do is get ahead of that message and further destabilize the democratic norms, by saying essentially, “Well, if I get convicted, it’s not me getting convicted in a court of law. It’s me getting thrown in the clink like Nelson Mandela.”

A wood-paneled courtroom.
Judge Juan Merchan’s courtroom in New York.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Bakken: There are a lot of people who comment on the legal system and say exactly the same things that Trump does. Very few will accuse those people of being authoritarian.

I’m certainly not an advocate of Trump or the district attorney in this case – I’m trying to look at it neutrally. And in any number of controversial cases going back decades, we can see people arguing that the system is unfair.

Trump is on a larger stage, but he’s essentially saying the same things that 50 out of 100 people would say in downtown New York City, where his courtroom will be. They’ll say the system is rigged. I heard that, of course, as a prosecutor, and I continue to hear that on an almost daily basis from people when they comment about the legal system.

Anderson: Trump does play the victim and the martyr, saying the system is unjust and charges against him are politically motivated.

But an authoritarian doesn’t stop there. They flip it. So it goes seamlessly, both at rallies and in social media, from “Look at me, I’m like Nelson Mandela, they’re going to throw me in jail,” to “If you don’t want this terrible system to be exploiting you, you’ve got to elect me, I alone can fix it.” He pairs those two things. That’s one of the key indicators that this is not just victim rhetoric; it’s actually authoritarian rhetoric.

Since 2015, there’s been a dramatic uptick in attacks on judges. That’s a telltale sign that Trump is not just critiquing the system or even just playing the victim. He is flipping that to say, we need to fight back using these other means, and his supporters are hearing that message and they’re threatening judges.

Some last thoughts from each of you?

Bakken: The case will be a monumental drama not only inside the courtroom, but outside the courtroom. Whether the trial can go off the way trials have normally gone off is a real test of our country and our legal system. And if it does, then we can have some confidence that Trump’s extracurricular statements and admonitions have not affected the jurors.

Anderson: I hope that as people are paying attention to the trial, they see themselves as actors and participants in creating whatever culture is going to come out of this. It’s not just what happens inside the courtroom, but how we manage it outside the courtroom, that will be equally consequential for us as a nation.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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The Unfinished Business Of John F. Kennedy’s Vision For World Peace

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John and Jackie Kennedy in Paris in May 1961. Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Less than a week after her husband’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, Jackie Kennedy granted an interview with esteemed political writer Theodore White for Life magazine, one of the leading national publications of its day.

Determined to protect the legacy of the fallen president, Jackie likened the unfulfilled promise of his short-lived administration to the mythical days of King Arthur’s court as portrayed in “Camelot,” a popular Broadway musical at the time and one of Kennedy’s favorites.

“Don’t let it be forgot,” Kennedy told White, “that for one brief, shining moment there was Camelot.”

Though historians have since revealed many of Kennedy’s shortcomings, one fact is undeniable. From his 1960 campaign against Richard Nixon to his little more than 1,000 days as president, Kennedy’s boldness defined the times.

In my view as a scholar of Kennedy’s life, he set the modern-day standard for public service that is all but absent in the 2024 presidential election dominated by the legal woes of Donald Trump and the age of 81-year-old President Joe Biden.

Kennedy’s lofty rhetoric, coupled with his energetic youth, propelled the nation into what he termed the “New Frontier,” the campaign slogan he used to inspire ordinary citizens to make the world a better place at a time of Cold War nuclear tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

“Let us begin anew … remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof,” Kennedy said during his inaugural address in 1961. “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

Decorated war hero

Part of the Camelot myth starts with Kennedy’s military service during World War II.

Due to a myriad of illnesses, Kennedy was deemed unfit to join the U.S. Army and was able to serve in the Navy only after his father, the wealthy businessman Joseph Kennedy who was U.S. ambassador to Great Britain during the early war years, intervened on his behalf. Shortly after joining the Navy, Kennedy became commander of a patrol torpedo boat stationed near the Solomon Islands in the southwestern Pacific Ocean.

A white man is wearing a military uniform and has his hands in his lap as he poses for a photograph.
A 1941 portrait of John F. Kennedy wearing his U.S. Navy uniform. Photo by Frank Turgent/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Frank Turgent/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On Aug. 2, 1943, a Japanese destroyer rammed his boat and sliced it in half, immediately killing two of his men. Kennedy later told an interviewer that when he saw the destroyer pass in front of him he thought, “This is how it feels to be killed.”

The 26-year-old Kennedy led his crew of 11 survivors on a 3-mile swim while towing a badly burned crew member to safety by holding a strap of a life vest between his teeth.

After several days of hiding on an uninhabited island with very little food and water, he was able to get help by etching a message on a coconut that was given to two Solomon Islanders who were patrolling the area in a canoe for Allied forces. They brought the message to a nearby British base, and Kennedy and his men were subsequently rescued.

Once safe, Kennedy sent a note home to his family saying that many people thought they were dead, but “fortunately they misjudged the durability of a Kennedy.”

Kennedy received a Purple Heart medal for being wounded in combat and remains the only U.S. president to receive the honor. JFK also earned the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his “extremely heroic conduct” after his boat was sunk.

That coconut was later set on a wooden base and used as a paper weight on Kennedy’s desk after his narrow victory over Republican Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 presidential election.

Baptism by fire

Even though he stumbled in his first year as president, Kennedy learned, made changes and initiated bold measures such as a moral stand on civil rights and a plan for peace with the Soviet Union.

Kennedy’s first major blunder was the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Troubled by Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his relationship with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy approved a U.S. invasion of the Caribbean island by using about 1,400 CIA-trained Cuban exiles who also wanted to overthrow Castro. The attempted coup was launched on April 17, 1961, and was defeated in less than two days by Cuban armed forces.

An elderly man with a balding head talks with a younger man as they sit near each in two chairs.
President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev meet in Vienna, Austria, on June 3, 1961.
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The botched invasion led Khrushchev to believe that Kennedy was young, naive and weak. That line of thinking played out two months later at the Vienna summit, where the Soviet leader demanded the removal of U.S. troops from West Berlin.

Kennedy refused, but Khrushchev retaliated by starting construction of the Berlin Wall, which became the symbol of the Cold War divisions between Western European democracies and Eastern European countries controlled by communist governments.

An unfulfilled legacy

Kennedy was a Cold Warrior, but he was also a realist.

In October 1962, Kennedy learned that the Soviet Union had placed missiles in Cuba that could strike the U.S. Kennedy’s advisers urged him to invade Cuba, this time using U.S. military forces.

On the brink of nuclear war, Kennedy ignored his advisers and enacted a naval blockade around Cuba to prevent the Soviet Union from shipping any more military supplies to Castro. It was a bold move that went against Cold War orthodoxy, which would have called for a stronger response to Khrushchev’s actions. Instead, the crisis made it clear that both sides feared nuclear retaliation from the other.

Eight months later, on June 11, 1963, Kennedy gave a speech at American University that proposed peace with the Soviet Union.

“I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living,” he told the crowd. “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

A group of people are sitting in the sun as they ride in a car that doesn't have a top.
Moments before the president’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, the Kennedys join Texas Gov. John Connally in a ride through Dallas, Texas.
Corbis via Getty Images

In my view, this speech is perhaps his greatest legacy, because it stressed that peace was a process and led to a limited nuclear test ban treaty. Signed in 1963 by the U.S., Great Britain and the Soviet Union, the agreement prohibited tests of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, outer space and underwater.

It also put Kennedy and Khrushchev on a path to end Cold War tensions between the two superpowers. Those negotiations came to an abrupt halt after Kennedy’s assassination. The Cold War lasted for another 30 years until Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall was torn down and communist regimes in Eastern Europe were booted out after free elections.

He served only 1,036 days as president, and much like the myth of Camelot, Kennedy’s legacy remains an unfulfilled dream for peace around the world.

The Conversation

Philip A. Goduti, Jr. does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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