On Monday, Seth Meyers used his “Closer Look” segment to assemble a clip show of Trump administration officials making the case that Donald Trump’s assassination of Qassem Soleimani was justified by intelligence pointing to imminent attacks on American interests. None of the administration’s stories have added up, and the minute they settle on one version of what happened, Donald Trump opens his mouth again and some poor schmuck from Raytheon has to try to clean up the mess. Meyers breaks it down here:
Meyers has always been at his best when he’s extracting the throughline from a longer story, not because he is better at assembling clips of Republicans doing stupid or evil things, but because he is unusually willing to draw conclusions from their behavior. This passage from Monday’s segment neatly illustrates what’s good about that approach:
Because no one believed him, Trump decided to do his usual routine of making even more outlandish lies, changing his story multiple times within the span of just a few days. [Insert several clips of Trump changing his story.] In the span of two days, he went from not talking about embassies at all to saying it was one embassy to saying it was multiple embassies to saying it was four embassies. I know he’s a bad liar, but even for him, it’s obvious he’s making stuff up off the top of his head. “What if it was four embassies? Is that a number where you would all leave me alone? What if they were Embassy Suites? I mean, that would be bad, right? That would be a bad thing.”
It is, in fact, obvious that Donald Trump is making up things off the top of his head, and it is good for people to say this openly and often, instead of wasting everyone’s time making Mark Esper humiliate himself on national television. (Save that for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission!) But the catharsis that comes from watching someone point out that the emperor has no clothes (and that, on closer inspection, the emperor appears to be gleefully jerking off to Triumph of the Will) doesn’t last very long, because of another salient point Meyers makes: This has all happened before.
Now, if you are getting a feeling of déjà vu at this point, it’s because we’ve been through this before: in the runup to the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003, the Bush administration repeatedly lied about the intelligence they used in eerily similar ways. They claimed definitively that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that he had ties to the terrorists who carried out 9/11. They manipulated intelligence and concocted all kinds of lies about that intelligence to justify an immoral and catastrophic war that destabilized the region and the world, and they were adamant and unequivocal about it.
That is also a true statement, even if it’s been said many times before, but what follows is unspeakably depressing. Meyers rolls footage of one of George W. Bush’s most famous verbal missteps, then spends a little time roasting him over it. If you live long enough, everything will eventually remind you of everything else, but watching a late night host laugh at Bush’s inability to remember a simple aphorism felt like falling through a time warp, specifically to September 18, 2002, the day after George W. Bush gave that speech. Here are three consecutive segments from The Daily Show that day:
There are differences in approach here that speak to both Jon Stewart’s lasting influence and the ways in which his successors have tried to make their own paths: The Daily Show of 2002 had much more nihilism and much less interest in making an argument than Late Night With Seth Myers in 2020. And Donald Trump is visibly more unfit for the presidency than George W.
Bush, who at least managed to mangle his sentences without slurring his words. But the feeling that comes from watching Seth Meyers point out that the president is vicious and stupid is not qualitatively different from the feeling that came from watching Jon Stewart point out that the president was vicious and stupid back in 2002, which, in retrospect, was not qualitatively different from Peter Cook’s comment about “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.” There’s nothing wrong with revisiting the incompetence of the Bush years—as Meyers notes, the same thing is happening again, so we should all be drawing those comparisons if we want to understand what is happening—but seeing a late night host revisit the same footage that was so relentlessly recirculated to so little effect during the Bush years is a reminder of how little this stuff moves the needle.
It is extremely tempting to believe that most of your fellow citizens have some commitment to reality, that there is a point at which assembling and presenting mountains of evidence that their leaders are incompetent, murderous, criminal liars might lead to some sort of political change. At this point, it seems safe to conclude that that is never going to happen—or if it does, it won’t happen because anyone’s mind was changed by comedy or satire or facts or reality or self-interest or the threat of complete planetary destruction. So perhaps it’s Rob Corddry who is taking the sanest approach here: Back in 2002, instead of making any attempt to use a video showing George W. Bush behaving like a dumbass to build a case that George W. Bush was a dumbass, he just took whatever pleasure he could from watching George W. Bush behave like a dumbass and moved on. He’s right, after all: It is so fucking funny.