Stephen Colbert, the CBS late-night comedian, got himself in hot water the other night for saying bad things about President Trump. Correction: It was really just lukewarm water, and very little will happen to him as a result—or to his network. After all, his rant against the president only included such comments as that Trump is a “prick-tator” (ha-ha; clever) and the observation, addressing Trump as he looked into the camera, that “the only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s [bleep] holster” (ha-ha-ha-ha; what sophisticated hilarity).
Some say Colbert should be fired; others say CBS should be sanctioned by the Federal Communications Commission. I say Colbert should be commended for revealing to the American people one important reason why Trump managed to rise to the presidency—namely, the degradation of American culture to such a low level that a vulgarian such as Trump could triumph.
In an earlier era, nobody with Trump’s crudity could ever become president. The people, in their collective sensibility on such matters, wanted presidents who conducted themselves with dignity and propriety, at least in public. They liked Ike, who, sure, played golf too much and seemed sometimes confused about matters at hand (turns out that was just a ruse to avoid pronouncements he didn’t want to make). But he never degraded the office or expressed himself in undignified ways. Adlai Stevenson, on the other hand, had been divorced, and that was a big negative in those days of social propriety. Nelson Rockefeller, the New York governor, took a hit in the presidential game when, in 1963, he dumped his wife of 30 years and married a woman 18 years younger—just a month after her own divorce.
He lost a lot of votes in the process. That’s because people cared about such things then. Now, not so much. What changed? The coarsening of American society. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the intellectual and longtime U.S. senator from New York, called it “defining deviancy down.”
A pioneer of all this was Lenny Bruce, the raunchy comedian of the 1950s and ’60s who pushed the envelope of propriety—and then kept pushing. Wikipedia says he “integrated satire, politics, religion, sex, and vulgarity.” Mostly he panned everything people held dear, assaulting their most delicate sensibilities and ignoring every societal no-no. Thus did he develop a following that expanded year by year. The time was ripe for his visionary schtick, and his audiences ate it up. They ate it up all the more when they saw that other people, the ordinary and unsophisticated folks, were offended.
Society, in behalf of those ordinary and unsophisticated folks, pushed back. But ultimately society gave way.
Bruce was arrested in 1961 in San Francisco and prosecuted for obscenity. Part of the brief against him was his use of the word “cocksucker.” Another part was his riff on the word “come,” which he declared so commonly used that anyone offended by it “probably can’t come.” He was acquitted by a jury. Later that year he was arrested again, for drug possession. Further obscenity charges followed in 1962 in Chicago and 1964 in New York. He was found guilty in New York and sentenced to four months in a workhouse, but died while awaiting appeal. His codefendant, who owned the nightclub where Bruce had uttered his offending remarks, had his conviction overturned. Bruce himself received a posthumous pardon from a Republican New York governor in 2003.
Clearly, America didn’t know what to do with Lenny Bruce, which is why he stands today as a pioneering comedian who broke down barriers, tested the scope of the First Amendment, and set in motion the ongoing process of free, hard-hitting comedic expression. As Wikipedia says, “He paved the way for future outspoken counterculture-era comedians, and his trial … is seen as a landmark for freedom of speech in the United States.”
In the beginning, Bruce’s defenders were the sophisticates of society—Bob Dylan, Norman Mailer, William Styron, even the New York journalist and television personality Dorothy Kilgallen. But eventually all of society embraced his brand of humor as Moynihan’s process of defining deviancy down gained force and momentum. Eventually Bruce’s bawdy and nasty pugilism against societal sensibilities became so commonplace that nobody even bothered to take notice. Raunchy language lost its sting. Porn became so widespread that teenagers across the land had access to it, some of it casually produced by themselves. Barriers of civility came tumbling down.
But as all of this became more and more widespread, comedians had to push further and dig deeper to offend the sensibilities of enough people that other people would derive humor in it. In that sense it was like the drugs that eventually claimed Lenny Bruce’s life: the more there was of it, the greater the need for even more.
Which brings us back to Stephen Colbert. He’s no Lenny Bruce, of course, just a poor schmuck (a word, by the way, that got Bruce in trouble) who’s trying to make a living in the Lenny Bruce mold. But it’s difficult these days because Bruce and his early comedic heirs gobbled up so much of the fodder that can be marshalled in the effort to offend people with stick-in-the-eye jokes.
But, oh, there’s Donald Trump. He’s an easy mark because so many people of the sophisticated variety despise him. And, besides, he’s a vulgarian.
But then so is Colbert. In fact, his brand of vulgarian humor helped pave the way for Trump’s ascent into the presidency. The vulgarians unleashed by Lenny Bruce, Colbert included, ended up deadening America’s societal sensibilities to such an extent that even Trump seemed acceptable to masses of people, formerly the enforcers of propriety, who felt themselves beleaguered by the elites that Trump attacked in his campaign—and that Colbert caters to.
The lesson is clear. A society that cheapens itself eventually will cheapen its politics, as reflected in President Trump—and reflected also in Stephen Colbert’s juvenile, puerile, and desperate effort at political humor.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, is due out from Simon & Schuster in September.