Stephen Colbert was put on Earth to interview people like Donald Trump.
Maybe that’s why a lot of people were disappointed when he actually did, last night (Sept. 22) on the Late Show on CBS. Pieces on Yahoo and Slate, for instance, take Colbert to task for going easy on candidate Trump, and both make fair points.
As his critics have pointed out, Colbert was noticeably “low energy” throughout the interview. He didn’t seem too interested in getting into it with Trump—at least not in the same way that he challenged Ted Cruz on several points a night prior, and certainly not with the outright provocation of his Colbert Report character’s digs at the tycoon-turned-reality star-turned-politician.
Colbert asked Trump to address questions about whether he’s a Barack Obama “birther,” and when Trump refused, the host appeared content to just move on. Colbert certainly could have been more outwardly critical of Trump’s ridiculous political stances, but he chose not to.
This was entirely intentional, and it’s smart. Colbert knows that if you play Trump’s game, Trump wins. The man has no shame, he is impervious to embarrassment, and he can’t “lose” arguments because he doesn’t allow someone else to dictate the conversation.
For that reason, Trump’s Republican rivals have been, for the most part, unable to crack him, if they’re even willing to go after him at all. He’s like an internet troll, except there he is on the stage, running for president of the United States—and even apparently leading the pack, despite a post-debate dip. Carly Fiorina has come the closest to knocking Trump down a peg—she has leveraged her strong debate performances into a bump in the polls. But those waiting for Trump’s campaign to implode are still waiting.
Colbert’s shrewd move was to just let Trump be Trump. He let the crazy speak for itself. Case in point: the “Trump or Colbert?” game.
Having Trump play this game forces him to tacitly acknowledge how disturbing his comments are. Call it “being a good sport” if you want, but it made Trump look about as weak as he’s ever looked throughout this presidential campaign. The fact that Trump aced Colbert’s test shows that he’s well aware of all the outrageous things he says—that they aren’t just innocuous throwaway remarks, but rather actual beliefs that he holds strongly. Colbert has abandoned his bombastic fictional conservative persona, but here he uses it to make a savvy point: He places it right next to the real Trump, and the two look eerily similar.
Colbert later got Trump going on his US-Mexico border wall idea, making the scheme feel more like a bad comedy routine than an actual political plan:
“People love the wall,” Colbert said, mocking the idea.
“We’re going to have a beautiful, big, fat door,” so that immigrants “can come into the country legally,” Trump said, seriously, before audience laughter cut him off.
Colbert then asked Trump to do some role-playing—Colbert played the president of Mexico, and Trump had to convince him to pay for the proposed border wall between the two countries. This bit was perhaps closer to Colbert’s comedic style on Colbert Report than anything else he’s done on CBS thus far. He turned Trump into a comedian.
After the role play was over, Colbert suggested that instead of a wall, they build a moat filled with fire and fire-proof crocodiles.
“Two thousand years ago, you have the Great Wall of China,” Trump said. “Thirteen thousand miles long.”
“Jesus helped build that,” Colbert replied.
This interview is unlikely to change many Americans’ minds about Trump. By this point, you either love him or you hate him. It won’t prove to be the moment of Trump’s demise that pundits are looking for. Nor will it lead to a drop in the polls for him. But it appropriately puts Trump in the context where he belongs. And in that place, he has never looked less presidential.
You can watch the entire interview here.