Trevor Noah, Tomi Lahren and Donald Trump: How The Liberal Commentariat Needs to Understand Its Multiple Functions

Speaking to the other side isn't necessarily "normalizing" it.

There’ve been a variety of reactions to Trevor Noah’s attempt at a diplomatic discussion with vitriolic right wing commentator/Facebook personality Tomi Lahren on The Daily Show from earlier this week. Some commenters celebrated Noah’s “destruction” of Lahren, a view that seemed tone-deaf in this case, given Noah’s measured tone. Others suggested that Noah’s discursive calm was exactly what’s required for such discussions. And then came the backlash: arguments that Noah was giving airtime to someone who shouldn’t be “normalized.”

In response, Noah wrote a New York Times op-ed piece about the importance of moderation. “We should give no quarter to intolerance and injustice in this world, but we can be steadfast on the subject of Mr. Trump’s unfitness for office while still reaching out to reason with his supporters,” he wrote. Towards the end of his op-ed, Noah says “very often the truth is [in the middle]”; I firmly disagree with this particular aspect of the piece, and I’m not even sure, based on the rest of the article, that Noah agrees with it either. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently emphasized in an excellent piece in the New Yorker, “now is the time to burn false equivalencies forever.”

But, for the most part, the one place where liberals still have a vast majority is in the media — and particularly within mainstream think-piece media. Instead of pushing for fewer instances like the Noah conversation with Lahren, it might be good to assess how the liberal power within media (as compared to our current sense of powerlessness beyond it) can be honed to appear less monolithic (while simultaneously maintaining the ideological firmness Adichie discusses, and making fewer dangerous false equivalencies in reportage) to prevent contributions to the further radicalization of the right.

A video of Tomi Lahren screaming on Facebook, shared only among millions 0f vehement Trump supporters, is far more powerful in a climate when it’s literally the only “news” those supporters think they can get. When it exists without challenge or alternative, it exists on a plane where bigotry can amplify and accelerate without pushback.

The best example of how dangerous this phenomenon is how the likes of Breitbart rose to prominence as a news source for the right. The media is so lacking in a platform for any member of the more moderate right — for people who may have once considered John McCain, for instance — that an extremist, white supremacist news group was able to become one of the leading voices of conservatism, simply by presenting themselves as, quite literally, the alternative to the established right wing… the “alt-right.”

More than figures like Lahren appearing on shows like Noah’s “normalizing” them, it’s the void in the middle of right-wing American politics in the media that seems like it’s helped drive much of the center-right towards extremism: they’re seeking vindication, and a twisted idea of normalcy, and the only place for them to find it today is in media alternatives that are founded on hate. Much like ISIS, the alt-right seeks support by radicalizing people with feelings of voicelessness; these people actually, of course, have a frightening amount of political power, but because of the nature of the media, they can still feel like they’re rendered somehow marginal, despite being an oppressive majority.

It’s important, then, that the media consider how it approaches Trump, the far right, and similar subjects. As Noah explains in the Times, moderation in the media has all but been eradicated. Part of the reason for this is the capitalist desperation of news publishing, where news headlines are reduced to clickbait double-speak in the hope of a few extra page views. But even so, media can — and does — do more than just sensationalization. It’s crucial that we begin to understand the uses, limits, and particularly the audiences, that each different mediatized approach can have, and to realize that different approaches are not mutually exclusive. Just because one approach can be openly talking about wanting “demolish/eviscerate/feed too many laxatives to” the cis white male patriarchy doesn’t mean that somewhere, someone else who has the remarkable patience to talk calmly to vehement Trump supporters shouldn’t take the chance to do so. The former can mobilize someone who already believes these things, the latter can show audiences who wouldn’t normally gravitate towards the “liberal media” the juxtaposition between truths and untruths. Though Noah himself faltered in moments, this strategy isn’t overall “normalizing” the far right — it’s interrogating it.

Now, more than ever, there’s a need for some discursive spaces that acknowledge the other side — in all their toxicity — with an air of strategic, even counterintuitive, cordiality, as an invitation for people on the fence. Reiterating moral superiority among ourselves might help rally enthusiasm within our spheres, but it shouldn’t be the only mode by which political commentary functions. Surely, given that viewership has become so stratified along liberal-vs-conservative lines, few people who watch Trevor Noah’s show needed him to yell “Racist!” at Lahren to understand that the overtones, undertones, every-tones of much of what she was saying were, indeed, deeply racist. Noah’s resistance to labeling Lahren’s words doesn’t validate her racism, but rather creates a less antagonistic environment for the now seemingly rare breed of moderate, liberal-curious viewer, for someone who might — down the line, if the mediascape were to become less wholly dichotimized — come for Lahren and stay for Noah.

Within media, there’s a need for a multiplicity rather than a polarity — not for the purposes of amplifying the more insidious voices of the Right, but for ensuring that they’re not getting amplified only in their own spaces, spaces where they go unchecked, where they can be one of two “truths” operating ever-separately. As the Adichie piece stated, it’s certainly fallacious and unjust to treat these sociopolitical poles — where the Right is thriving off oppressive threats to the wellbeing of the already-oppressed — like an equal-sided debate. But how is it that Lahren was such a widely known figure in one world — and up until now, most liberals (such as myself) hadn’t heard of her, or known the kinds of threats she poses? Just because one side of the country may be post-truth doesn’t mean that in order to fight it, we need to match it with our own abridgments.

Meeting in an ideological middle certainly isn’t the solution, as these are not equal opposites, and because in speaking to a regime set on oppressions, that’d mean capitulating ideologically to half oppressions, which sounds, well, ludicrous. But creating spaces that are less antagonistic and inward-looking feels key to not falling into the same self-satisfyingly sensationalist traps that make the Trump regime so threatening. If the liberal commentariat wants to be useful, it needs to also make room for spaces that do not allow for two separate, cloistered “truths,” but rather bring those “truths” together to shed light on how Trumpian “truth” is a series of falsehoods run amok — and not just for the people who already know it. Having a couple of spaces for tonal moderateness isn’t a threat to normalizing anything; normalizing comes from allowing truth and falsehood to coexist, separately, until the only option left is a flat out civil war between the two.