Colbert on Trump’s Family Separation Policy

A classic demonstration of the old maxim, "the medium is the message."

Stephen Colbert on “Late Night” via CBS News

So I found this Daily Beast story, under the photo above, while scanning the news this morning:

Stephen Colbert admittedly spends an inordinate amount of time going after President Trump. But he rarely gets as worked up as he did on Tuesday after the president’s blatant lie that his predecessor Barack Obama was the one who separated immigrant families at the border.

“President Obama separated the children,” Trump told reporters unprompted earlier in the day. “Those cages that were shown, I think they were very inappropriate. They were built by President Obama’s administration. Not by Trump.” He added, “I’m the one that stopped it. President Obama had child separation. I was the one that changed it.”

“No, you didn’t!” Colbert shot back. “Obama didn’t have a family separation policy.” The host reminded Trump that the policy was announced by his former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who called it “zero tolerance, as in your feelings toward Mexicans.”

“It was the brainchild of Stephen Miller and John Kelly,” Colbert said, “who told Kirstjen Nielsen to implement it, and now she’ll be scraping that hot black tar off her soul for the rest of eternity.”

“It didn’t stop people from coming, it was a monstrous act of cruelty and ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge,” he continued, “but for some reason you are now pushing to reinstate broader family separation policies and today you publicly defended it in the same meeting where you claimed it was all Obama’s fault.”

Daily Beast, “Colbert Unloads on Trump for Saying Obama Separated Families”

While that’s all true my first though was: That’s not funny. While Colbert is a left-leaning political commentator and has been for some time, he’s first and foremost an entertainer and a comedian. While his audience fully expects him to attack Trump, it’s supposed to be funny.

So, I went to watch the actual performance:

Now, frankly, it’s still not funny. It may just be that even a comic with Colbert’s enormous talents just can’t make this topic funny or even offer a light-hearted take on it.

Still, neither the photo nor the written description do justice to Colbert’s delivery. In written form, it comes across as an angry rant. With Colbert’s facial expressions and body language, it comes across as exasperation that this crazy man is leading our country.

To some extent, this just illustrates the old maxim “the medium is the message.” Things just convey differently in different forms of delivery. Although, oddly, this part meshes will with the video:

In response to Trump’s argument that without family separation migrants would try to cross the border just to go to Disneyland, Colbert imagined a parent saying, “My kids love not being terrorized by a narco-syndicate, but my favorite part has got to be the Tea Cups.”

Finally, the host admitted that Obama was “no angel,” pointing to “ample evidence of Barack taking kids from their parents.” As adorable images of Obama entertaining kids in the Oval Office appeared on screen, Colbert accused him of subjecting them to “harsh interrogations” and “confiscating all of their hugs.”

“I miss you,” he whispered into the camera.  

Colbert’s deliberately is funnier and warmer than the recounting. But it’s obvious from the write-up that Colbert intended to be warm and funny.

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    While Colbert is a left-leaning political commentator and has been for some time, he’s first and foremost an entertainer and a comedian.

    But his job is to keep his ratings high and bring in the advertiser bucks.

    I don’t have TV and haven’t watched Colbert in quite some time (for the express purpose of avoiding any *trump videos*), so I can’t judge how entertaining he is of late. But the # of links to his latest shows I pass over when online implies he still gets the eyeballs, so I suspect he is doing his job quite well.

    ** I will be sooooooo happy when I can once again watch clips from late night TV sans jokes at trump’s demonstrated idiocy, with obligatory video, because nobody cares anymore.

  2. MarkedMan says:

    I regularly watch Colbert the next day and so am used to his style. 60% of his monologues are biting and funny political jokes with the remainder focusing on News of the Day subjects such as the college admissions scandal. But every once in a while the news is filled with something he finds truly horrific and I think he feels like his audience expects him to say something, but he just can’t bring himself to make jokes. It usually doesn’t go on for long. And this isn’t the first time he has jumped to a joke referencing Obama, which is a pretty safe way out given his audience.

  3. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    With Colbert’s facial expressions and body language, it comes across as exasperation that this crazy man is leading our country.

    You know what…good. Maybe we need some good old fashioned exasperation.
    Dennison is dragging this country deeper down the shitter every fuqing day and everyone is just like ¯_(ツ)_/¯
    A lot of the stuff he is doing…there is no coming back from.
    Anyone who loves this country ought to be fuqing exasperated, goddammit.

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  4. MarkedMan says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    You know what…good. Maybe we need some good old fashioned exasperation.

    Yes. Nazi comparisons are considered losers on the ol’ intertubes, but I think we are at such a moment here in the US, at least with respect to the general public. The average German may not have been a Nazi, but they pretended they didn’t know what was going on. Not normal ignorance, but willful ignorance. The Trump administration stole thousands of children form their parents, some mere infants, with no intention of returning them. They were given over to orphanages and strangers to be raised without every seeing their parents again. Well over a thousand remain separated despite court orders that they be rejoined. This was/is official policy and it was carried out in our name. The Republican congress critters have showed they have no moral standing whatsoever. A few have made pathetic mewling noises about how they don’t like it but… (waves hands futilely in the air). The Republicans effectively block any over site and refuse to use any of their constitutional powers to put a stop to it. They are the watchdogs and they deliberately refuse to watch, but also refuse to give up their offices to someone who would exercise their responsibilities. And what about the Trump supporters in the general population? They don’t want to hear. They don’t want to know. They eagerly lap up the most pathetic Trump lies (“Obama did it. I stopped it.”) just so they can pretend they knew nothing.

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  5. KM says:

    While that’s all true my first though was: That’s not funny. While Colbert is a left-leaning political commentator and has been for some time, he’s first and foremost an entertainer and a comedian. While his audience fully expects him to attack Trump, it’s supposed to be funny.

    Comedians often do things that aren’t funny because they are trying to make a point in their routines. George Carlin comes to mind. He’d often insert angry political statements or rants in his routines that were clearly not jokes but heartfelt statements. The rant would be framed by jokes or have one that tied back to it later but there was always at least one segment where the audience was silent while he made his point. It made it more impactful because the laughter dies off and you sit in the sorta-awkward silence and go, wow he really means that.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    @KM:

    Comedians often do things that aren’t funny because they are trying to make a point in their routines. George Carlin comes to mind.

    Sure. John Oliver is probably the best regular practitioner of that on television right now. But it might be easier to do that with a weekly format rather than nightly.

    Regardless, the point here is that the actual video is different than one would expect reading the description of it. Colbert is clearly trying to make a point. But it’s not an angry rant but rather a decent man reacting to horrible things.

  7. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Not normal ignorance, but willful ignorance.

    I’m of mixed mind on this.
    Certainly there is some willful ignorance…but I believe even that is grounded in abject ignorance.
    Look at the leaders of the Republican Party today.
    Lindsey Graham.
    Mitch McConnell.
    Devin “I’m suing a cow for defamation” Nunes.
    Gym Jordan.
    Chuck Grassley.
    Sean Hannity.
    These people are all dumb as fuq.
    The Republican Party is the party of stupid, and it is dragging us into an Idiocracy.
    Look…you have to be somewhat intelligent to see the big picture and understand the damage that is being done. Sure, let Dennison get away breaking the law a little bit. But smart people understand the damage that undermining the rule of law does. Sure, let Dennison ignore Congressional requests. But smart people understand the damage that undermining Constitutional Checks and Balances does.
    It’s a major problem for this country that there just aren’t any smart people left in the Republican Party.

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  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Look…you have to be somewhat intelligent to see the big picture and understand the damage that is being done.

    I’m pretty sure every single person you mentioned see it and they are all positioned to get rich off of it or they already are getting rich off it.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner:

    But it’s not an angry rant but rather a decent man reacting to horrible things.

    Colbert is an interesting person. In another era he would almost certainly have been a liberal Republican. Conservative by nature but not by label, and profoundly religious. He is a Catholic and that comes up fairly regularly on the show, but not in a preachy or sackcloth-and-ashes way that one unfortunately associates with public displays of religion. And he is one of the few religious people who I’ve come across that is primarily (although not exclusively) concerned with his own moral state. Put another way he recognizes that the warning about casting stones definitely was aimed at him and is not worried about whether it also applies to others.

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  10. Kathy says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    You know what…good. Maybe we need some good old fashioned exasperation.

    We have that, in about half the country.

    That’s the real problem, that half the country, or slightly less than that, is not just ok but fully supportive.

    Look, in a rational world, Dennison wouldn’t have gotten the nomination. How many times have you heard this? also, in a rational world, he would have lost in all 50 states, and I’m sure you’ve heard this a lot, too.

    Half the country is there, or perhaps more than that. it’s the other part that’s the problem.

    But let me say: anyone who believes Obama started family separations and Trump stopped them, is not just gullible but morally degenerate.

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  11. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    OT…
    I miss Doug’s posts…but particularly today.
    They photographed a Black Hole for the first time…and I know he would be jazzed about it and certainly he would post about it.
    Pretty fuqing cool.
    https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/10/world/black-hole-photo-scn/index.html
    Hope you are well, Doug.

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  12. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Kathy:

    But let me say: anyone who believes Obama started family separations and Trump stopped them, is not just gullible but morally degenerate.

    And that would be about 40% of the electorate…enough to elect Dennison again.

  13. gVOR08 says:

    @MarkedMan: Max Hastings wrote a history of the end of WWII, Armaggedon. I was struck by him quoting German civilians in the path of the Red Army bemoaning that they were going to lose their “freedom”. They were about to lose far more, but mostly, they were living in a military dictatorship, what freedom? But they were Aryan and still true believers in Hitler. As long as Hitler’s oppressions weren’t being visited on them, they were true to the faith. And twenty or thirty years later, it was all “crazy Adolph”, quoting more than one older German I met in Germany. The rest of them had all apparently been around the corner buying smokes the whole time.

    Republicans will fawn on Trump as long as they’re getting tax cuts and the right people are getting hurt. Once Trump is gone, it will all have been his fault and no Republican will remember having ever supported him.

  14. gVOR08 says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: Jordan is dumb as dirt, and I’m gonna steal “Gym Jordan”. Nunes seems more than a bit dull, as does Hannity. But the rest of that list, as Ozark notes, are not stupid. What they are is far worse.

    GOPus delendus est.

  15. Andrew says:

    Trump is ill. Trump cares little for anything or anyone that does not give him what he wants at that given time. Trump is a coward, and is at the head of a current cover up. Desperately trying to save his own ass, his family’s and the GOP’s.

    Colbert is correct to make it apparent how unhinged the POTUS is. How obscene this whole situation is. And the desensitization that has taken over the American populous, in which our entertainers have to step up and lead.
    MAGA!! Amirite?!?

  16. EddieInCA says:

    Dr.Joyner –

    I’m going to call BS on this post. It’s indicative of what’s happening currently in our culture. You’re worked up over Colbert’s delivery, yet burying the lede. This isn’t about Colbert of what/how he said what he said. It’s about TRUMP’S LYING AGAIN. The man has lied SO MUCH that we are all ignoring it, or minimizing it. He blatantly lied about Obama’s policy and his own. Who cares how Colbert delivered this information? Why not get worked up about the obvious, outrageous lies that Trump keeps delivering.

    He. Lies. Incessantly. Let’s not lose sight of that.

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  17. Kathy says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    To be perfectly honest, I thought we had pictures of black holes before.

  18. James Joyner says:

    @EddieInCA:

    You’re worked up over Colbert’s delivery, yet burying the lede. This isn’t about Colbert of what/how he said what he said. It’s about TRUMP’S LYING AGAIN.

    Trump and his supporters have lied about this particular thing many times in the past. It’s just baked in for me at this point that he’s a liar. I don’t typically find pointing that out yet again sufficiently interesting to bother posting about.

    Nor am I “worked up” over Colbert’s delivery. I read a story in a reputable, Colbert-friendly outlet that struck me as weird in that it didn’t comport with how I’ve generally perceived Colbert’s performance. I checked for myself and, sure enough, it didn’t.

    Every post isn’t about Trump. I don’t like it but he’s going to be President for another two years unless he keels over before then. I’m not interested in cranking out Known Idiot Says Something Stupid or Known Liar Lies Again posts on a daily basis.

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  19. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @James Joyner:
    I’m not interested in cranking out Known Idiot Says Something Stupid or Known Liar Lies Again posts on a daily basis.

    Respectfully, James that is a problem (not so much for you but the country). ‘Presidential Lying ‘is/has becoming normalized.

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  20. Kathy says:

    @James Joyner:

    This was a particularly insidious type of lie.

    If I recall correctly, in the opening pages of 1984 Winston hears the telescreen say the chocolate ration has been reduced to, say, 50 grams. Later in the day, the same telescreen triumphantly announces the chocolate ration has been increased to 50 grams.

    The gist is the same: 1) the authority screws you over, 2) the authority claims to have performed a service for you and wants applause and recognition.

    Unlike Oceania, information doesn’t (yet) vanish down the Memory Hole, and you won’t be prosecuted for disagreeing with el Cheeto (though they will be fired for that offense).

    This lie is so blatant, so self-serving, that I’m amazed the press in the room when he said it didn’t call out, loudly, “bullshit!”

  21. James Joyner says:

    @Bob@Youngstown:

    Respectfully, James that is a problem (not so much for you but the country). ‘Presidential Lying ‘is/has becoming normalized.

    I don’t disagree. I just don’t find it interesting to crank out lots of posts pointing out the obvious.

    I tend to write about things that I find either useful from a policy perspective or interesting intellectually.

    With respect to the former, I think it’s pretty clear that Trump isn’t going to be impeached. So, he’s going to continue to hold the office until he’s either defeated in 2020 or exhausts his two Constitutional terms. Once the election gets closer, I’ll do more contrast pieces. Now, though, I just find “and here’s another Trump lie” more evidence for what I already know.

    Now, the nature of some of his recent lies has been interesting in a different sort of way. They’re starting to add up to a pattern making more clear what I’ve long suspected: that he’s suffering dementia or some other mental illness. I’ll likely hold up on posts making that a central argument for a bit, for a variety of reasons.

  22. Mikey says:

    @James Joyner:

    They’re starting to add up to a pattern making more clear what I’ve long suspected: that he’s suffering dementia or some other mental illness.

    It’s impossible to diagnose from afar, of course. However, I can say Trump’s patterns of speech and apparent odd slips of memory (like where his father was born) are very, very reminiscent of my late father’s early stages of dementia. In fact, it was actually a while ago when I said to my wife, “wow, Trump sounds just like Dad did back when he started getting sick.”

  23. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @James Joyner:

    I just don’t find it interesting to crank out lots of posts pointing out the obvious.

    I understand your position, and didn’t mean my comment to be a broadside against you.

    Likewise, I appreciate that journalists have to be measured in their reaction , but I wish to God that occasionally someone would say ” Mr. President, that is Bullshit ! (h/t to Kathy)

  24. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner:

    I don’t disagree. I just don’t find it interesting to crank out lots of posts pointing out the obvious.

    I tend to write about things that I find either useful from a policy perspective or interesting intellectually

    Perhaps — and this really is just perhaps — you shouldn’t elide over the horrors of the Trump administration to comment on the coverage of a minor, interesting point. I think it’s normalizing the lying and the slow creep to fascism (if Trump were 50 years old, rather than in his 70s, I would be very worried, btw).

    There’s a balance, and I think you got it wrong here… and it ends up burying the minor, interesting point you were more interested in.

    Maybe start with a quick acknowledgement of Trump’s lies — this runs the risk of all comments being on Trump, the good Germans, etc.

    Maybe dash off the “Trump lies yet again about putting children in cages” post (really, totally half ass it, it writes itself), post that first, and then post the thing that caught your attention right after that, linking to the first post.

    Skipping over the Trump administration’s white nationalist infused decision to step up illegal and deliberately “law enforcement” activity at the border to discuss how Colbert comes across in print is a lot like “Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think about the play?” without even the customary “Other than that” at the beginning.

    (I would really like to think that the prevailing newspaper at the time ran an editorial the next day bemoaning the rudeness of audiences interrupting plays with their chatter, their candy wrappers, their coughing, their noises, and their assassinations. Perhaps making the bold moral stand of applauding the cast for refusing to continue the performance in the face of such provocative interruptions)

  25. Kathy says:

    @Bob@Youngstown:

    Thanks.

    I keep hoping for an Army McCarthy type of response to this pile of orange crap in human form, but I just don’t see it happening.

  26. An Interested Party says:

    “President Obama separated the children,” Trump told reporters unprompted earlier in the day. “Those cages that were shown, I think they were very inappropriate. They were built by President Obama’s administration. Not by Trump.” He added, “I’m the one that stopped it. President Obama had child separation. I was the one that changed it.”

    This jackass suffers from such a hard core case of projection, that if the “fake news” started praising him every day, he’d turn around and praise his political enemies, thereby causing his head to explode, with a different kind of projection happening–cotton candy and spray-tanned flabby flesh all over the floor…