Trevor Noah Finds His Late-Night Voice

Tomi Lahren, the 24-year-old host of Tomi on the conservative cable network TheBlaze, feels like a pundit created by a computer algorithm, someone who primarily exists to say something provocative enough to jump to the top of a Facebook feed. She’s called the Black Lives Matter movement “the new KKK,” partly blamed the 2015 Chattanooga shootings on President Obama’s “Muslim sensitivity,” and declared Colin Kaepernick a “whiny, indulgent, attention-seeking cry-baby.” At a time when such charged political rhetoric feels increasingly like the norm, Lahren stands at one end of a widening gulf—which made her appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah Wednesday night all the more fascinating.

In his first year at The Daily Show, Noah has struggled to distinguish himself in an outrage-driven late-night universe. He has sometimes seemed too flip about the failures of the country’s news media, something his predecessor Jon Stewart made a perennial target. Noah’s 26-minute conversation with Lahren, though, posted in its entirety online, set the kind of tone that Stewart frequently called for throughout his tenure. The segment never turned into a screaming match, but it also avoided platitudes and small-talk. Lahren was unapologetic about her online bombast and leaned into arguments that drew gasps and boos from Noah’s audience, but the host remained steadfastly evenhanded throughout. If Noah was looking for a specific episodethat would help him break out in his crowded field, he may have finally found it.

Lahren first made a name for herself in 2015 with her commentary on the Chattanooga shootings for the network OAN. At the age of 22, she seemed poised to become a star who could appeal to young conservatives online, the kind of firebrand who could stick out in a social-media feed. “I care that our commander-in-chief is more concerned with Muslim sensitivity than the honor and sacrifice made by these Marines,” she said. In the same segment, she also somehow implicated President Obama’s actions on issues like climate change and universal healthcare in an act committed by a man diagnosed with bipolar disorder who was seemingly radicalized by online propaganda.

“Why are you so angry?” Noah asked Lahren as she sat down, referring to the biting tone she often uses in her broadcast. He seemed to be getting at other questions, too:Does anger like Lahren’s, delivered in bite-size, shareable video clips eagerly devoured by a certain segment of the population, exist only to grab their attention? Is it a more extreme example of the “Samantha Bee problem” that Ross Douthat claimed hurt the Clinton campaign—that overt activism was getting injected into previously mainstream areas of the media like late-night comedy? Noah has largely steered clear of giving lectures straight to the camera, perhaps because hosts like Seth Meyers and John Oliver have staked out that territory so well. In talking with Lahren, he seemed interested in going a more conciliatory, diplomatic route.

Still, Noah wasn’t afraid to challenge his guest, including on her widely criticized comment that the Black Lives Matter movement was the “next KKK” because of some violent anti-police rhetoric from isolated members of the movement. “Just because you say the thing doesn’t mean that’s what it stands for,” Noah said exasperatedly. “You’ve argued on your show, just because Donald Trump has KKK supporters doesn’t mean he’s in the KKK.” Indeed, minutes later she angrily refuted the idea that she or Trump belonged to the white supremacist alt-right, just because that group supported him.

In the wake of the 2016 election, even a bare minimum of respectful discourse stands out.

“Surely you understand the incendiary feeling of your comments, surely?” Noah pleaded. “It’s controversial, but I think there are some things that need to be said,” Lahren countered. Her point, it seems, is the foundation for so much in the factionalized world of social media-driven news. If something is controversial, is it defensible simply because it “needed” to be said? Her argument is rooted in the First Amendment, which Lahren kept referencing, but Noah remarked on some inconsistencies in her views on free speech. Lahren has criticized the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for his kneeling protest during the national anthem—but Noah noted the parallels between Lahren’s professed right to criticize Kaepernick and Kaepernick’s right to not kneel.

Toward the end, Noah crystallized his point without having to yell it at the audience like some of his late-night peers: He tried to get a genuine answer from Lahren on a much more nuanced query relating to Kaepernick’s protest. “Here’s a black man who says, ‘I don’t know how to get this message across. If I march in the streets people say I’m a thug. If I go out and protest, people say it’s a riot. If I go down on one knee, it’s wrong,’” Noah said. What is the right way, I’ve always wanted to know, what is the right way for a black person to get attention in America?” Lahren didn’t give a full answer, but Noah kept coming around to the same idea, trying to untangle the baffling contradictions he’s noticed in the country’s political discourse.

The interview was frustrating in that it produced few answers to the questions Noah and Lahren lobbed at each other. Every topic of conversation, from Black Lives Matter to immigration reform, ended with the pair politely agreeing to disagree. But in the wake of the 2016 election, even that bare minimum of respectful discourse stands out—as Lahren later said on Twitter, neither side resorted to name-calling, but on social media afterward, the personal insults began flying between each of their supporters. Noah’s approach was memorable both for how measured it felt and for how quickly it moved to more complicated topics. Even if the interview didn’t find much common ground, it was an encouraging, intelligent step forward for Noah as he charts a course for his show in the coming year.

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