Dave Chappelle is once again facing a backlash for his stand-up. This time, it’s for his Saturday Night Live monologue on Ye (formerly known as Kanye West), Donald Trump, and the midterm elections. The bit probed Ye’s recent antisemitic outbursts, and has been decried as equally antisemitic itself. Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt argued as much, saying the segment helped to “not just normalize but popularize antisemitism.”
But here is the thing: Chappelle knew he was wading into dangerous waters when he started his segment. That’s why he opened the monologue with a statement condemning antisemitism in all its forms—which, like much of what followed, was half straightforward and half tongue-in-cheek. And he closed it with a rebuke of the current climate in which some comedians have faced public outrage over commentary that doesn’t hew to “woke” notions of the world, concluding, “It shouldn’t be this scary to talk about anything.”
He’s right. Comedy provides an outlet to explore uncomfortable ideas. That exploration won’t please everyone, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t offer new ways to consider our problems. And what the still-ongoing backlash over his bit misses is that Chappelle gives us a compelling frame to explore the deeply uncomfortable answers to the question Who does run the country, anyway?
Like many of us, Chappelle has watched the recent string of interviews in which Ye espoused antisemetic talking points—claiming that the answer to that question is, well, Jews. And while Chappelle doesn’t offer a full-throated reproach of that idea, he isn’t morally ambiguous about the comments either. He tells us that he is usually quick to defend Ye, but after going “DEFCON 3 on the Jews,” he waited. He said Ye is under the “delusion that the Jews run show business.” He makes fun of this jump to conspiratorial conclusions, adding that “There’s a lot of Black people in Ferguson, Missouri. It doesn’t mean we run the place.”
I’ve said before that Chappelle is not the progressive darling that many want him to be. His comedy mines the Black experience and his allegiance is with Black people (he even hesitated to speak ill of Herschel Walker). Which is why it did not surprise me to hear Chappelle also being protective of Ye. A lot of this hinges on the way Chappelle chooses to deal with Ye’s mental illness: “I don’t think Kanye is crazy at all, I think he’s possibly not well,” he said. His monologue is a deft balancing act of condemnation—and defense.
Chappelle fans will remember that the comedian has a history with the word “crazy.” When Chappelle walked away from Chappelle’s Show on Comedy Central, that’s how critics often described him, and his choice. And when he returned to the spotlight, Chappelle defended himself, and several other Black celebrities who were being cast as “crazy,” during a 2006 interview on Inside the Actors Studio: “The worst thing to do is call somebody crazy,” he said. “It’s dismissive. ‘I don’t understand this person, so they’re crazy.’ That’s bullshit.” And, he added: “Maybe the environment is a little sick.”
This empathy is critical to Chappelle’s assessment of Ye. Chappelle makes clear that Ye’s rantings are the delusions of an unwell person. Because while he admits that saying the Jews run Hollywood might be a “crazy” thing to say out loud, for an unwell person like Ye, “it’s not a crazy thing to think.” Saying this shouldn’t be a scary, career-threatening endeavor for a comedian: In recent years, more and more people have embraced dangerous conspiracy theories about who is in charge, including the idea that Jews exert an undue influence through Hollywood and the media. Rather than use the bit to forcefully condemn these notions, Chappelle’s carefully crafted monologue makes space for us to think about why they’re here in the first place.
It’s worth recognizing the cost of these conspiracy theories. The narrative that a secret cabal of Jews runs the media has given way to a rise in very real violence against Jewish people. One of the worst attacks in recent history happened in 2018 when a gunman killed 11 worshippers at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The gunman frequented chatrooms beloved by neo-Nazis and the far right, where he spewed “anti-Jewish slurs and references to anti-Jewish conspiracy theories,” the New York Times reported after the shooting. Just two years earlier, another conspiracy theory about who is in charge—Pizzagate—gave way to violence. A growing share of Republicans believe that U.S. government, media, and economic systems are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping liberal pedophiles who run a global sex trafficking ring. This theory led one man to drive across state lines and open fire in a pizza restaurant he believed to be the hub of the trafficking ring.
Why do people embrace these ideas? Taking a note from Chappelle’s treatment of Ye and his insights from Inside the Actors Studio, we shouldn’t dismiss these conspiracy theorists as crazy: Their environment is more than a little sick. Consider that in 2016, Trump supporters more often hailed from counties in which the population is declining and where life expectancy decreased and deaths of despair have climbed. These conditions are key to understanding why adherence to conspiracy theories is on the rise. Research shows that “feelings of anxiety make people think more conspiratorially,” Scientific American reported in 2019. Conspiracy theories help to soothe our anxieties and “provide comfort by identifying a convenient scapegoat and thereby making the world seem more straightforward and controllable.” Instead of offering a nuanced analysis of the complex social and economic factors that have led to the depressing conditions in Trump country, Republican politicians have used the anxiety to their advantage. The “crazy climate” Chappelle sheds light on is the result of deliberate misinformation.
It may be tempting to believe that the Republican losses in the midterms signal a step away from all this nonsense. “Watching the news now, they’re declaring the end of the Trump era,” he says. But this is the wrong takeaway, the comedian proffers. Trump still holds enormous sway over the “poor whites,” Chappelle jokes. The very people whose communities are being destroyed by population decline and early death—and whose misfortunes have been manipulated to encourage the embrace of conspiracy theories. Trump built his campaign and his following by stoking these economic anxieties and whipping up this frenzy.
It’s why Chappelle’s categorization of Trump as an “honest liar” is so striking. Trump knows there’s no grand conspiracy—just an uneven playing field. During his first presidential debate, Trump told the public that the country’s economic system is rigged in favor of the wealthy. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Chappelle said. “I’ve never seen a white male billionaire screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘This whole system is rigged.’ ” Trump’s ability to do that while retaining his position inside the system he was decrying was the true marker of his power. “No one had ever seen somebody come from inside of that house outside and tell all the commoners we are doing everything that you think we are doing inside of that house,” Chappelle said. “And he just went right back in the house and started playing the game again.”
What, exactly, was happening inside the house, besides Trump exploiting tax loopholes? A lot of antisemitism and racism and the stoking of some white Americans’ social and economic fears that they are falling behind because of a grand conspiracy. Inside of that house is Trump running a campaign ad that included the images of three Jewish people—George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein—while warning that a secretive “global power structure” is to blame for economic policies that have “robbed our working class“ and “stripped our country of its wealth.” Inside of that house is Trump, as president, waiting to condemn the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, before adding that there were “very fine people on both sides” of a white supremacist rally where attendees chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Inside of that house is Trump praising Hitler to his former chief of staff, saying the leader of the Nazi party also “did a lot of good things.”
The supposed danger of Chappelle’s monologue, contributing writer Yair Rosenberg wrote for the Atlantic, is that “Once a person has convinced themselves that an invisible hand is manipulating the masses, they are just a couple of Google searches away from discovering that it belongs to an invisible Jew.” But is Chappelle the one who is unleashing this idea about an invisible hand? Or is Chappelle the one pointing out who is partially behind the resurgence of these theories (Trump), and who is being manipulated by them (a lot of white voters, and also now, Kanye West)?
Outrage over Chappelle’s monologue makes sense in our political climate. With terrorist violence against Jewish people ticking up sharply in recent years, many rightly are quick to shut down anything that whiffs of antisemitism. But what Chappelle’s monologue is trying to do is bring us face to face with the way these dangerous ideas have taken hold. The system sure is rigged, it’s just not by Jewish people. Trump has figured out how to use the rigging to his advantage. He has figured out a way to sit in the house, and still throw stones at it. With his MAGA hat on, Ye might have thought he could do the same. But in America, only Donald Trump can pull that off.