Lost in all the cloth-rending and Pepe memes that followed the hair-mussing that shook the world was the subtly terrifying setup that preceded it. “The next time I see you, you could be president of the United States,” Jimmy Fallon said to Donald Trump, explaining why he was about to turn a major-party nominee into a human Troll doll. He didn’t seem remotely perturbed by that possibility.
That’s because the most prominent late-night host in America was effectively aiding Trump on his relentless march to the Oval Office. And he did it with the same goofy, aw-shucks tone he always uses on The Tonight Show — a strategy Fallon’s now made clear he has no plans on adjusting, stakes, decency, and basic standards of civic responsibility be damned.
Jimmy Fallon is a clown. That’s not an insult; it’s just his brand. The genius, and shamelessness, of his schtick comes from realizing that the public looks to celebrities’ late-night appearances for carefully choreographed yet “relatable” charm. So Fallon and his crew have trimmed the dry Q&A interview format to a minimum. In its place: stunts that maximize goofiness and minimize the pretense that The Tonight Show is anything but a PR shop. What few straight interviews are left fall in line with the guiding philosophy: We’re here to have fun.
So are the guests themselves. Last month, my colleague Ben Lindbergh noted that almost two-thirds of Fallon’s guests in a given 100-episode period were actors, as opposed to the academics and authors relatively favored by competitor Stephen Colbert (who has since started booking more celebrities) and follow-up Seth Meyers (who interviewed Bernie Sanders on Thursday night). Fallon is president and CEO of the biggest entity in the celebrity economy. If you have a project to promote and zero desire to expose yourself, Fallon’s your man; what’s a little silly string if it means a guarantee that things won’t get awkward? No wonder Colbert consistently loses out to Fallon when they try to book the same guests.
What happened Thursday night is the logical endpoint of two-plus years of musical impressions, whisper challenges, and dreaded, franchise-spawning lip sync battles. Jimmy Fallon is not in the business of challenging celebrities. He’s not even in the business of revealing anything interesting about them. He’s in the business of promoting them — or at least turning them into semi-recurring characters on his viral YouTube channel, where they’re promoting nothing so much as the extra-fun Tonight Show experience. And Donald Trump is a celebrity above all else — so he gets adorably meme’d, too.
By making nice with Trump — throwing softballs like “Why should [kids] want to be president?” — Fallon just took a giant step toward making Trumpism the status quo. We’re now that much closer to accepting that Islamophobia, racism, and white supremacist rhetoric are simply part of our national discourse — or not even worthy of discourse, because Fallon turned the guy spouting it back into a cartoon character with funny hair. In 10 minutes of palling around, Jimmy Fallon did more to normalize Trump than Fox News ever could, all by sending the signal that Trump is just as affable and harmless as the next person Fallon asks to do the goddamn Best Friends Challenge.
It’s striking that Fallon’s exchange aired the day after another Trump family sit-down with a “frivolous” — emphasis on the scare quotes — outlet. If Cosmopolitan was willing to make Ivanka Trump sweat over her father’s maternity leave plan, why couldn’t Fallon do the same with Trump himself? All he’d have to do is go to Twitter to find a daily list of Donald’s latest lies. And yet doing so would require a hasty reprogramming of Fallon’s entire ethos.
In his opener, Fallon struck a fittingly, if accidentally, ominous note: “Donald, this is getting real.” If only his actions bore that out. But why would they? “Real” is not what Jimmy Fallon does.