Colbert’s Gay Trump Joke Was Bad, but #FireColbert Is Worse

Stephen Colbert tapes a segment for his show at the Quicken Loans Arena on July 17.

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Why are we here?

In his Monday night monologue, Stephen Colbert directed a homophobic insult at Donald Trump: “The only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.” Here’s the video; the relevant segment starts at 11:18 and the Putin joke starts around 11:43.

Then the hashtag #FireColbert lit up on Twitter.

I think this already happened.

No. You are remembering #CancelColbert, a really dumb thing that took place in 2014.

Well, I don’t think he should be fired.

Nor does anyone, really. The outrage is thoroughly ironic and originated among embittered conservatives who felt that it was “about damn time the right started claiming pelts” for improper speech. As far as I can tell, the hashtag was first used in this tweet:

Lucian Wintrich, a gay Trump supporter in the mold of Milo Yiannopoulos, gave the campaign a boost with a jeremiad published Tuesday evening on Gateway Pundit. By Wednesday morning, the faux-outrage was flowing. Somebody made a website, firecolbert.com.

I downloaded and analyzed about 50 thousand #FireColbert tweets and retweets from Wednesday afternoon. The data clearly indicates that the accounts driving the trend belong to conservatives. Though some liberal writers criticized Colbert’s joke, none have called for his pelt. That hasn’t stopped conservatives from righteously defending Colbert against the P.C. hordes.

Let me get this straight: A bunch of conservatives made up a fake boycott, and now other conservatives are blaming it on “the left.”

That’s correct.

I would like to be excluded from this narrative.

It’s too late. The Twitter agitators have framed the issue as an inescapable moral choice: You either have to protest the joke or let it slide, like the liberal hypocrite you surely are.

That framing is obviously deficient. You can engage with the joke in a million different ways. But Colbert did screw up—badly, in my eyes. It’s worth your time to think about this and figure out how you feel.

OK, I’ve thought about it and this is how I feel: The joke was not offensive. Colbert was poking fun at himself, as he often does. As Mark Harris wrote on Twitter, “not enough is being said about the fact that Colbert slung that while ‘playing’ an insult comic.” This will all blow over in a couple days.

You’ve become remarkably well informed about this issue in a very short time.

It’s true that Colbert delivered the line from inside a loose-fitting comic character, but that character’s purpose was largely to channel the frustration of the studio audience. They went wild at the Putin joke. Maybe they liked it—as Harris could argue—because they thought it was the sort of thing that would rile Trump. Or maybe they liked it because it was the latest escalation of a ubiquitous trope: the Trump bromance.

It emerged long ago and refuses to leave us. For a while, there was just the Trump–Putin bromance. In the last week, the New York Times has identified a Trump–Xi bromance and the Washington Post a Trump–Duterte bromance. The president has had bromances with Tom Brady and Elon Musk. Basically every non-adversarial relationship that Trump has had with a powerful man—or TV show or dead person—has at some point been called a bromance.

The thesis, in most of these cases, is that Trump is submissive in the presence of power. He is enchanted and beguiled by strong men. He cannot relate to them the way a normal adult would. His fascination is adolescent, narcissistic, and—as in any good Apatovian bromance—pathetically erotic. That has always been the teasing implication: not that Trump is literally gay, but that he might as well be.

Colbert isn’t the first comic to make the sexual part of the analogy explicit, but he’s the first one to do so graphically on network TV.

OK, I get it. Thank you, wise internet writer. But now that you mention it—isn’t this exactly the sort of dig a raunchy drag queen would make about Trump in a bar?

I am learning a lot about you.

It is—but Colbert isn’t a drag queen in a gay bar. If he identified as queer, we most likely wouldn’t be having this conversation. This also isn’t the first time he’s treated same-sex intimacy as a punchline. He has faced some pushback for the crude way his character talked about trans people on the Colbert Report. Nobody’s keeping score, but Colbert has a low-key pattern of clumsiness around sex and gender.


Maybe sleep on it—he will reportedly address the controversy Wednesday evening in his monologue and in an interview with Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons, who is appearing as a guest on the show.