Earlier this week, Jimmy Kimmel made a futile appeal to Donald Trump to end the government shutdown, now the longest in U.S. history. “I know it doesn’t mean much to Donald Trump that a bunch of Americans are being forced to work without paychecks,” he said. “Or that vital services like food inspection and TSA, anti-terrorism efforts are being compromised.” Instead, Kimmel framed the shutdown as something that affects the president personally: Once it’s over, he can get back to playing golf. That appeal hasn’t magically solved the problem, of course. But Kimmel wasn’t really asking the president for anything, anyway. He was taunting him.
For more than a week now, Kimmel has been inviting workers impacted by the shutdown on Jimmy Kimmel Live to perform odd jobs. It started with a federal prison guard playing tambourine as part of the show’s house band, but Kimmel has stuck with it, and his guests have since included an air traffic controller working as a bartender in the greenroom and a NASA engineer pressing the button for the show’s “Applause” sign. Some of the resulting segments are simply silly, as when Kimmel stuck a fake mustache on a fire captain for the U.S. Forest Service as a stand-in for Kimmel regular Guillermo Rodriguez. Others capitalize on a worker’s particular talents, like TSA agent Fatina Amina McIntosh guessing which pedestrians on Hollywood Blvd are high on marijuana.
This isn’t just Kimmel goofing around. With each guest, he makes a pointed statement about how essential their role is for the country to function. When USDA Safety Inspector Sandy Cross comes on the show as a meteorologist, it’s more than a gag about how rare rain is in Los Angeles, it’s an opportunity for Kimmel to highlight what she’s supposed to be doing instead of standing around in a yellow windbreaker. “Is it safe to say that without you, we cannot trust our bacon or our eggs?” he asks, and she agrees. Without Cross—not the nameless, faceless employees of the Food and Drug Administration, but this particular inspector, Sandy Cross—our meat and poultry may not be safe to eat.
That’s the other advantage of Kimmel’s stunt: It humanizes the people who are impacted by the shutdown, hundreds of thousands of whom are now working without a paycheck. McIntosh tells a funny story about travelers who don’t speak English stripping in front of her—as Kimmel reminds us that she’s working with no paycheck. Nathan Steinhubel, the air traffic controller, laughs at a joke about wanting to keep the people in the tower happy—and by the way, he’s receiving no paycheck. Mark Munoz, who fought the devastating wildfires that tore through southern California, has seven daughters—and still no paycheck.
Whether Trump is watching or not, Kimmel is hitting him where it hurts: his so-called populist appeal. The shutdown is already costing Trump the support of his strongest supporters, white Americans without college degrees, and Kimmel is taking advantage by deploying his own everyman persona, using common sense, basic compassion, and a let’s-grab-a-beer ease to transcend political ideology, as he’s done in the past with health care. He’s deploying it now to remind us on a nightly basis that ordinary Americans are stuck working without pay because of Trump’s tantrum, and in the process, he’s making the president look like exactly what he is: an out-of-touch millionaire who doesn’t care about the little guy. As long as the shutdown continues and Kimmel keeps it up, no amount of fast food can change that.
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