Jon Stewart: Comedian. Political commentator. Liberal conscience of a nation (in the W. Bush era). Resistance™ hero. Occasional transphobic joke-maker. That guy from The Daily Show is back, and he’s got something new for East Coast liberal elites to pat themselves on the back over: On his new season of The Problem With Jon Stewart, the host aims his signature blend of jokey entertainment and substantive politics discussion at the topic of youth transgender health care.
In one segment, which has gone megaviral, Stewart interviews Leslie Rutledge, the attorney general of Arkansas, which is attempting to ban transgender youth and their families from accessing treatments recommended by every major medical association. During the interview, Stewart does what journalists should be doing a lot more of: After he asks Rutledge to make the case for the state law she fought so hard to bring about, he asks her follow-ups. Stewart uses the basic knowledge of someone who prepared for the interview by reading the available evidence. He asks Rutledge, straight up, to defend a law that prevents the families of trans youth from choosing a treatment option with the evidence and the most widespread support among expert medical associations. Rutledge cannot answer him convincingly, which is what makes the clip so shareable. Here’s one of the jaw-dropping exchanges:
Rutledge: For all of those physicians, all of those experts, every single one of them, there’s an expert that says, “We don’t need to allow children to be able to take those medications, that there are many instances where…”
Stewart: [nodding] Right … but you know that’s not true. You know it’s not “For every one, there’s one.” These are the established—
Rutledge: Well, I don’t know that’s not true, I don’t know that. … You know that.
Stewart: Well, why would you pass a law, then? If you don’t, if you don’t know that that’s true.
The interview, and the entire episode (which is being offered for free on Apple TV+), is very good. It is good in the sense of being well researched and well edited, it is good in the sense of being morally righteous, and it is good in the sense of having the potential to make a real and lasting positive impact in the lives of trans people. If your instinct is to show your cynicism and scoff at a bunch of liberals cheering on a lefty celebrity without taking any real-world action, I’m here to tell you: This isn’t that. This is the real deal, the kind of rare celebrity moment that has the potential to really have an impact.
Critics of Stewart’s viral moment have pointed out that he is preaching to the choir. They say he won’t convince conservatives to see the light or change their ways, and he’s just giving people on the left a feel-good moment. This observation is accurate, but it misses the point of the potential here, for both the episode and the reception it’s received.
For too long, trans people have been struggling in vain against an enthusiasm gap between the rage-stoked, violent right and a left and center that have a few polite questions about whether maybe the conservatives have a point, and have we considered that there might be too many trans people? Stewart is giving the trans community what many had been losing hope of seeing, a moment where our cis allies took note of all the new, explicitly anti-trans laws that conservatives have pushed over the last year, as well as all the violent rhetoric (and, increasingly, violent actions) aimed at an incredibly vulnerable minority.
That Stewart himself has made tasteless jokes in the past about trans people, a fact he briefly mentions and implies an apology for in the episode proper, only increases that potential impact. Here is a figure whom fence-sitting liberals who’ve themselves made the odd joke about Caitlyn Jenner, or about identifying as an attack helicopter, can identify with. Stewart has, in effect, declared a one-time amnesty. A chance for waffling allies—really, anyone appalled by the right’s increasingly draconian campaigns against transgender people and especially youth—to recognize the stakes, inform themselves about the evidence, and joyously and unapologetically join the fight.
By no means am I saying this one moment has changed everything. An absolutely brutal legislative and cultural attack on trans people’s basic rights and dignity is still underway, and it will take more than an elder statesman of comedy having one good viral moment to reverse it. But at least a battle call has been made. The kind of people who like to feel smart are finding that, gee, it sure feels smart to take the side of the American Medical Association and against Christian-right politicians—who don’t hesitate to blur the truth on camera—like Leslie Rutledge. Trans people need the full support of the sort of people who think it was actually pretty bad, and scary, for a sitting U.S. president to attempt to overturn an election that didn’t go his way by inciting followers to violence, because those are the people who are interested in fighting back against the steady creep of far-right facism.
So, make fun of #resistance-style liberalism, if you’d like. You can say they’re living in an echo chamber, that they’re out of touch with the real honest-to-gum transphobic farmers of Iowa, or obsessed with celebrities and viral moments. I see those criticisms, and to some extent I share them. But I also know the transgender community needs these people to start caring again. We need people excited about comedians sticking it to a dumbstruck conservative attorney general who can’t even name the medical organization she’s attributing her completely made-up, bogus desistance statistic to.
For too long, the right has been frothing in rage at trans people for merely existing, while on the other side, far too much of the left has acted embarrassed to have ever been associated with trans equality. Now, Stewart has given liberals a reason to fight for us. All it took was some follow-up questions.