Fallon is the first to say he’s not the person anyone should turn to for a razor sharp take on politics. Even before the infamous moment when he tousled Donald Trump’s hair — a moment that many continue to use as a symbol for how The Media failed to take his candidacy seriously — the “Tonight Show” host made a point of skittering around the edges of the political turmoil his late-night peers feast on night after night. So even though Fallon has revisited that hair muss before, it was always with palpable confusion that he was being accused of smoothing Trump’s rough edges off, because showing his guests at their most relaxed is exactly what his “Tonight Show” loves to do.
Fallon’s latest take on the interview is his most frustrated yet. Though he admitted he would “do [the interview] differently” now, he also said that those who criticized him “made him feel bad,” so what else did they want him to do, “kill myself?”
This, of course, misses the point of the initial criticism entirely. Most of Fallon’s critics simply wanted to point out that interviewing Donald Trump — who was running a racist campaign based on inciting fear — shouldn’t have been like interviewing any other political candidate. Even if Fallon feels badly that he made people feel badly, he still doesn’t seem to understand why.
Given the level of defiance Fallon shows in this interview towards his critics, it’s frankly bizarre that Trump is using it to lash out at him now for “whimpering.” But as he showed on “The Apprentice” years before he hit the campaign trail, Trump thrives on petty fights no matter what the context. He doesn’t care about accuracy. He just cares about finding and exploiting a target, and if he can insult their masculinity (as he did by telling Fallon to “be a man!” via Twitter), all the better.
Still, it’s jarring to see Trump target the stubbornly apolitical Fallon when he usually reserves his ire for someone like Michelle Wolf or Fallon’s ratings rival Stephen Colbert, who make a point of eviscerating his administration. Colbert in particular has found creative and ratings success in actively baiting the president’s outrage on “The Late Show.” In fact, the first time Trump lashed out at Colbert since taking office, the “Late Show” host took to the stage with a giddy grin and declared that Trump taking his bait meant Colbert had “won.” (What exactly he won besides proving yet again that Trump has thin skin remains unclear.)
If Trump had targeted Colbert with the same “be a man!” tweet he aimed in Fallon’s direction this week, the entire next “Late Show” monologue would have been a splashy, scathing response. But in yet another sharp show of contrasts between Fallon and Colbert’s approaches, Fallon chose to try and brush off the president’s barbs rather than fight fire with fire. He tweeted that he would be donating to RAICES in Trump’s name, and his monologue briefly chided Trump by wondering why the president was even bothering to care. “Shouldn’t he have more important things to do?!” Fallon asked, before moving right along. Someone like Colbert would have made a triumphant meal of that moment; Fallon reluctantly turned it into an amuse bouche.
Neither approach is particularly satisfying. On the one hand, comedians finding a thrill at provoking the president’s outrage wears thin as Trump continues to use outrage as a weapon. On the other, Fallon’s attempts to downplay political toxicity in the interest of maintaining neutrality — or “civility,” if you will — is outdated. In fact, as he unwittingly proved this week, it may be just about impossible. So when even the mildest of rebukes can provoke a presidential tantrum, you might as well take a stand.