Cultural critics could spend decades researching the exact moment pop culture normalized Donald Trump, leading to him becoming the unlikely 45th president of the United States of America, and not settle on a satisfactory answer. Was it when he hosted SNL? Was it when the mainstream media didn’t do a good enough job of calling out his “alternative facts”? Was it The Apprentice? Was it Home Alone 2: Lost in New York? Was it, as Chelsea Handler contends, when the Kardashians turned the world into an entertainment-first reality show? Or was it the hair tousle seen ’round the world?
In the short-term, at least, critics have settled on blaming Jimmy Fallon.
On September 15, 2016, 10 days before his first presidential debate with Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. There are a few clips from that episode on YouTube, including “Donald Trump Talks Media Coverage, Polls and His Vocal Transformation,” “Donald Trump on Board Games, His Health, and Fast Food Habit,” and “Donald Trump Clarifies His Relationship with Vladimir Putin,” but the only one anyone remembers these days is “Donald Trump Lets Jimmy Fallon Mess Up His Hair.” It’s exactly what it sounds like — as Vulture‘s Matt Zoller Seitz put it, Fallon acted like the chuckling “Salacious Crumb to Trump’s Jabba the Hutt” — and the uproar was instantaneous. As our own Jason Tabrys wrote at the time:
Fallon should have at least recognized, as Trump’s people surely did, that through the power of his cotton candy-esque viral clips and his gigglefest of a show, he has the power to humanize and legitimize people to a crowd that maybe doesn’t pay close attention to politics or the divisiveness that Donald Trump has breathed life into.
Samantha Bee went even harder on the “race-baiting demagogue.”
But while Fallon was being criticized by comedians, bloggers, and other people who spend too much on the internet, the world at large shrugged at his giggly chumminess with Trump. The Tonight Show remained the king of the late-night crop (emphasis on “king”) — in fact, just about the only time Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show, the silver medal runner-up to The Tonight Show‘s gold, topped Fallon in total viewers was in September 2015, when Colbert made his hosting debut.
Until, that is, the week of January 30 to February 3, 2017, when, according to the New York Times, “Mr. Colbert averaged roughly 2.8 million viewers, eclipsing Mr. Fallon’s audience by a slim margin of 12,000 viewers.”