Welcome to the Decade From Hell, our look back at an arbitrary 10-year period that began with a great outpouring of hope and ended in a cavalcade of despair.
Appearing at a San Francisco comedy festival last year, Jon Stewart looked back at his legacy. When a clip of him “eviscerating” a politician on The Daily Show went viral, Stewart said he would think, “Great. What happens next?” While liberals were cheering on comedians for humiliating the right, the Tea Party was “off the highway by Stuckey’s taking over school boards.”
Stewart turned The Daily Show, which he hosted from 1999 to 2015, into a satirical juggernaut. But nine years ago, on October 20, 2010, he tried to go beyond satire to answer the “What happens next?” question. The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, which he hosted with his then–Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert, was an attempt to shame a media industry addicted to theatrical conflict and shallow analysis. It was also meant to showcase common ground typically lacking in political coverage. “This is not a political rally in any way, shape, or form,” Stewart told CNN’s Larry King. “It is a visceral expression of a people fed up with the reflection that they are shown of themselves as a divided people.”
The rally was a huge success: 200,000 people crowded the Mall in Washington, D.C., to watch Stewart and Colbert do their bits on stage, accompanied by musicians like John Legend and Kid Rock. But it hasn’t aged well. Stewart’s call for Americans to transcend party lines and concentrate on their shared aspirations is embarrassing to watch in 2019. Though largely forgotten for good reason—it is, aside from Rosewater, probably the least funny thing Stewart has done—it serves as a milestone in recent political history: a nadir in the left’s years-long refusal to reckon with the extremist right.
The rally was initially conceived as a parody of Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally on August 28, 2010, itself a version of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, but for angry white people. Right-wingers across the country had turned town halls into shouting matches about the deficit and the Affordable Care Act that were really thinly veiled attacks against the first black American president. That energy had turned into the loosely connected Tea Party movement, and Beck’s event was a grace note to the Tea Party–fueled GOP takeover in the midterm elections later that year.
In response to the growing hysteria, which was fanned by figures like Beck and Sarah Palin, Stewart concocted a different kind of event with a very Obama-esque message. “Maybe we would do a ‘March of the Reasonable,’ on a date of no particular significance,” Stewart said in the summer of 2010, according to New York. In a 2010 post for The Awl, Maria Bustillos wrote that the rally was meant to “present to the public a more truthful reflection of itself as a diverse, friendly, reasonable people who can agree to live and work and endure hardship peaceably and graciously.”
Stewart’s audience picked up on the message, carrying signs with messages like “I disagree with you but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler,” and “Things are pretty OK,” and “What do we want? Moderation!!! When do we want it? In a reasonable time frame.”
The decision to make this an ostensibly nonpartisan affair led to a number of weird incongruities. Republicans were welcomed, but there were probably more conservatives on stage (thank you, Kid Rock) than in the audience. Stewart was campaigning against polarization and extremism, but instead of launching a biting critique of the party that has accelerated those trends, he spent much of his time on stage attacking the media. At one point, Stewart and Colbert gave out awards for “Reasonableness” and “Fear,” with a number of news outlets receiving the latter. A lengthy video was played mashing up irate commentary from the likes of Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Keith Olbermann, who solemnly pledged to be less of a jerk after being roasted by Stewart.
In a moment of “sincerity,” Stewart compared American voters to cars entering a tunnel. “Sure, at some point there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in,” he said. That person, however, “is rare and scorned. We know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into light we have to work together.… We work together to get things done every damn day! The only place we don’t is here,” he said, pointing at the Capitol, “or on cable TV.”
“Most Americans don’t live their lives as only Democrats or Republicans or liberals or conservatives,” he continued. “There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned, you must have the résumé.”
Even in those innocent times, all of this was a little much. With this speech, Janet Malcolm wrote in The New York Review of Books, “Stewart confirmed that we had all come to Washington in order to congratulate ourselves on our decency and rationality. We were at a giant preen-in.”
But from our darker vantage point, what really sticks out is Stewart’s denialism. The backlash to Obama was a terrifying expression of the anxieties—both racial and otherwise—gripping America’s increasingly unhinged conservatives. Bill Maher, of all people, got this. “When Jon announced his rally, he said the national conversation was dominated by people on the right who believe Obama’s a socialist and people on the left who believe 9/11’s an inside job,” Maher said on his show. “But I can’t name any Democratic leaders who think 9/11’s an inside job. But Republican leaders who think Obama’s a socialist? All of them.”
This kind of thinking was not limited to Stewart and Colbert or the people holding signs about how political moderation is sexy. It was shared by Democratic leadership, most prominently by Obama himself, who spent the first precious years of his administration mistakenly convinced that he could find common ground with the right. The myth of unity remains a trope in much of the legacy media, while at least two leading candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary are selling themselves as uniters, not dividers.
The idea that the left has enemies who must be roundly defeated remains too gauche for many Democrats. That disdain for political combat is all on display at the Rally to Restore Sanity, but coated with smug condescension: It’s elaborate political theater that nominally appeals to better angels but really signals that liberals are smarter and gentler than conservatives and that, deep down, the rest of the country agrees with them.
That it came from Stewart and Colbert, who were otherwise in the midst of a decade-long hot streak, should have been the real warning. Facing growing right-wing hostility, the best they could offer was patting the backs of 200,000 people who probably would have been better off knocking on doors. But it’s hard to blame them, still. The idea that we’ll all wake up from this nightmare is too tempting to pass up.