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The Bubble Won’t Break That Easily

Trevor Noah’s interview with Tomi Lahren was captivating — though not exactly for the reasons you’d expect

(Comedy Central)
(Comedy Central)

Wednesday night’s sit-down between Daily Show host Trevor Noah and Facebook phenomenon Tomi Lahren was a 26-minute Venn diagram where the circles never touched. You couldn’t come up with a better visual metaphor for our two Americas if you read a thousand literary dispatches from a Trump rally: a black, multilingual, immigrant emissary of the liberal media and the bleach-blond, motor-mouthed embodiment of the upstart conservative one. Two bubbles collided into each other, and both somehow emerged intact.

We tend to like our politics as blood sport. Faced with institutional spinelessness from our liberal avatars and a reluctance to get with the program from our conservative ones, we’ve retreated to our respective camps, where we’re free to eviscerate, destroy, or otherwise maim our faceless opponents. It feels good to have a Samantha Bee give voice to our frustrations when CNN won’t. Doubtless Lahren’s audience feels the same.

Trevor Noah’s suffered this year by bringing a butter knife to a shiv fight. He doesn’t have Bee’s cathartic anger or John Oliver’s nerdy outrage, a problem before the election that became a full-blown identity crisis during it. Noah may be Jon Stewart’s literal successor, but Bee and Oliver quickly became his spiritual ones. Now, Noah’s finally offered something else instead: a willingness to sit down with the other side. It was an attempt to turn Noah’s weakness into a virtue, casting an inability to come out swinging as an ability to hear out his ideological opposite — meeting extremism not with extremism, but with a non-American’s incredulity. It was also an attempt to follow in their former boss’s footsteps in a way Bee and Oliver so far have not: What else was Lahren vs. Noah but the bizarro-world version of Stewart vs. O’Reilly? Besides, the election was as sobering a reminder as any that even the best comedy doesn’t make for effective rhetoric. Anything was worth a shot.

So: Did it work?

In the sense that Lahren stuck firmly to her guns, inevitably not. Lahren wasn’t miraculously converted in some kind of godless-elite version of a revival meeting. She wasn’t shamed, either. Most importantly, though, the common ground both sides claimed to be seeking continually eluded them. Mutual respect was never established, mutual principles never found — like watching a replay of Thanksgiving with the decibels turned up.

But if the interview was a failure, it was an engrossing one. Both Noah and Lahren regularly have guests on their shows, yet there was something uncanny about a woman almost exclusively known for breathless monologuing in actual conversation with another human being, let alone a left-leaning one. Noah, too, was out of his comfort zone on a show much less known for substantive discussion than it once was. The host was actively straining to keep the temperature down and the mood civil, a Sisyphean effort immediately undercut by either Lahren’s instinctive return to combative form or his own audience. Every time the exchange started to resemble a conversation, a round of applause or laughs would turn it back into a cage match.

Still, there were off-message moments. Though Noah’s repeated claims that he just didn’t understand Lahren didn’t seem entirely ingenuous, they gently and effectively pushed her into admitting she didn’t have a model for a “right” method of Black Lives Matter protest. Lahren vowed to come after Donald Trump if he didn’t deliver on his campaign promises. And then there were the genuine jaw-droppers: Lahren earnestly asking, “What did the KKK do?”; Lahren being unable to see the joke, or even the irony, in declaring, “I’m a millennial — I don’t like labels.”

Those sound bites, of course, are what’s dominating the headlines the morning after. As earnest and cool-headed as Noah came across in the interview, it was still a spectacle, a bid for attention that was perhaps too effective for its own good: “Trevor Noah grills conservative host Tomi Lahren in fiery interview”; “Trevor Noah Takes on Tomi Lahren: I ‘Don’t Believe’ You Don’t See Color.” Going straight to the source finds their two fan bases as divided as ever. “Hey libs … Trevor Noah had zero response when Tomi Lahren brought the facts,” Infowars’s editor-at-large tweeted. “Trevor Noah didn’t make Tomi Lahren look stupid. Tomi Lahren made Tomi Lahren look stupid,” a “lib” fired back.

As noble a gesture as the interview could have been (even for a segment designed to maximize the eyeballs on it), it ultimately brought us to the same dispiriting place. But while Noah didn’t quite offer a path forward for our national discourse, he may have found one for his own show, currently enjoying its first cultural moment in months. The host’s curiosity finally made his outsider’s perspective on American politics seem like an advantage rather than a handicap. For once, even-handed analysis didn’t feel like a bad mismatch with his audience’s mood, but a way to guide them into something they wouldn’t find elsewhere. In this case, that “something” turned out to be a walking megaphone without an off switch — and someone The Daily Show surely expected to make noise on the show, and outside it. But even if Noah hasn’t found the right sparring partner yet, it’s possible he’s found the right tone. Unlike his late-night peers, Noah doesn’t have a choir to preach to. It only makes sense to try outreach next.