Whiskey And Roman Philosophy: Jordan Klepper On Surviving A Year In The MAGAverse

Over the last few years, Jordan Klepper has made a habit of getting dangled from a hook at Trump rallies for The Daily Show. With a camera operator (and a growing number of security guards) in tow, he delivers, showcasing MAGAverse freaks and geeks who are all too willing to show their teeth and their whole ass. On January 6, however, Klepper and company captured a whole lot more. Nestled among what he memorably called the “Cabellas Street Team” in a subsequent Daily Show segment, Klepper observed and reported on the opening act of a violent and chaotic attempt to convert election lies into the death of democracy.

What was it like being on the front line of that and how has it felt to observe the velocity with which “politics as usual” has returned to knee cap the official response? In the lead up to a new Daily Show special (premiering tonight at 11 EST on Comedy Central) filled with unseen footage from that day and new interviews with MAGAs who were there, we spoke with Klepper about his experiences and whether the time has come to stop paying attention to Trump World. Most crucially, and interestingly (but hey, I might be biased), we also discuss the value of not losing hold of the human thread when watching people act in prideful defiance of logic, decency, and the constitution. Most amusingly, we also get the rundown from Klepper on what life is like now that he’s a sex symbol.

How is life post-Uproxx declaring you a thirst trap?

Well, let me tell you, my parents loved it. I think there’s not enough thought put into the effect of becoming a thirst trap on the parents of the thirst trap, you know? I think my parents always knew I was a man who was all about the work first, the intellectual weight second, and then the sexiness third, and so it definitely threw things into a tizzy where they were like, “You’re a sex symbol?” And I’m like, “Of course I’m a sex symbol. I’m a thirst trap.” And once we all Googled it and they understood what it was, and they refused to accept the tongue-in-cheek ribbing that the article had, then it really gave us stuff to talk about over our doomed Thanksgiving.

It must’ve been really exciting to do something that might be presented as evidence in a sedition trial at some point.

I think it really is. I think it’s always fun to be in a conversation with your editor and with the FBI at the same time.

Really don’t know if you’re joking.

There’s definitely a 30% chance I’m joking, but I can’t give you more information because it might be used against me in a court of law. You know, if you don’t want to talk to the FBI, then don’t go into comedy. I got to tell you. That’s just my one piece of advice.

So, you were obviously at the Capitol on January 6th. I assume this special is going to show more of that.

Yeah. The idea behind the special was, one, to kind of put in context this past year and to catch up with some of the people who we’d seen over the course of the past year who had experienced January 6th, and see where they were at now. And so the special is mostly new material. We did a few pieces from January 6th for The Daily Show, but we had a lot of this footage about what the actual experience was like to cover January 6th. And so we kind of want to give our viewers… there’s a chance here to show some of the aggressive actions that we saw, what it’s like when the cameras point away from me and people kind of go all in, and some of the other things that we’ve heard and found in the context of what January 6th meant to this country. I thought it was really interesting for us to kind of unpack some of that and tell the story of what it was like to be there and cover it on that day.

So, what was it like in the aftermath of that chaos on the 6th? Where was your head? Were you surprised? You couldn’t have been.

The phrase that got bandied about after January 6th was “shocking, but not surprising.” And I think that was very much how we felt. When I talked to people about my experience that day, there’s a real duality. It was both incredibly sad, heartbreaking, and scary to watch what unfolded at our nation’s capital, and it was also absurd and comical at the same time. I think of Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now surfing while napalm is exploding behind him. And that’s what it felt like in that there’s an attempt to overthrow our nation, to try to wipe out democratic processes, people were injured and died that day, and at the same time, I’m interviewing a person on a Segway. There are people who are wearing cosplay. We joked, the wardrobe was half camo and military fatigues and half the kinds of sweatshirts you buy at an airport before you get on the plane, but that’s America. It’s both earnestly frightening and absurd at the same time. And that, to me, was the feeling of January 6th, and sort of what has stayed with me since.

You’ve got a wife, you’ve got a kid. Talk to me a little about the push-pull for you personally when it comes to how far you go to get this story and cover this. The responsibility that you feel with a camera in hand but also personal safety. Where you find that line is fascinating to me. Because it’s a literal line. Here you’re safe, here you’re not!

[Laughs] The reality is going to those rallies early in the rally season were tense. And I often would have a security guard around me because things can get tense with people. It was important to have potentially that safety there. But I didn’t feel as if I was going to be mortally wounded. However, things did shift after the election. I went down to the Million MAGA March with three security guards, which felt… at the time, it felt absurd, but as we got in there, the anger, the vibe, three wasn’t enough. At one point, folks surrounded me, started screaming at me, yelling at me. We had to shut everything down, and it became a little bit of a mob scene. Security had to hold people back and take me down an alley to escape. And so when I went back on the 6th, I had even more security. We were more prepped than the Capitol Police at that point.

I always feel safe and taken care of because we have a great team, but we had to go in knowing that when you put up a camera and if people recognize that I’m that big lanky thirst trap that I’ve read about, then they come towards you and want to make a scene. And so we had to be very specific about, we need to stay safe, we need to stay legal, but also, I want to tell this story. I want to talk to people. I think it’s the one thing that I’m most proud of, what I got to do, my team got to do, our show got to do. We were there. And I think I want to go up to that line. I want to see what’s happening when we’re there. And so if you’re smart about it, you’re safe about it, and you read the tea leaves then you find yourself at the front of the Capitol when the barricades are being broken and you proceed with caution. But you follow the story and you follow your gut.

What’s the level of shock when it becomes evident in the days after that this was not the wake-up call, at least for the Republican establishment, that I think we kind of thought it might be on the 6th?

Again, I think that the level of shock is nil. Sadly, we snapped back to politics as usual.

With amazing velocity, I’ve got to say.

Yeah. It’s incredible. I mean, I do think the Trump administration has exposed with a lot of people in the Republican Party that the ideals that they use to get elected aren’t the ones that they stand by. And I think watching that happen to our democracy and our capitol and our police and seeing them go back to politics as usual, I think any hope I had that those ideals were important to many in that party have been dashed in these past four years. And so it wasn’t surprising, but it does make it deeply troubling and sad that that is where they are. I wish for better, but I don’t hold my breath.

Is it time to start starving these people (the MAGA people) of attention, in general?

Well, I mean, I’m going to say yes to that, because for God’s sakes… I think the answer is… my curiosity with all these people is, can you starve half of America of the attention, and/or block out the opinions of a very large part of our electorate? I mean, I think the media has a responsibility that they don’t need to do both-sidesrism. I think suddenly giving voice to an absurd side just because it’s the opposite of perhaps a fact-based side is irresponsible for the media. I think how I approach these pieces and talking to folks is literally I tend to hear where people are at, what they care about, and if they are open to change or where they are pointing, because I do think they feel like the fringiest part of the MAGA sphere, and/or the Republican Party, but they are still dictating policy.

That anger is shutting off voting opportunities in Georgia. And people are still begging Donald Trump, in Mar-a-Lago… to give him money for his approval so that they can be the next face of the party. I do think a curiosity of where are we as a country… There are still 70-plus million people who voted for Donald Trump, and I’m surprised that even after the event of January 6th, a lot of people haven’t changed their mind about where they’re at. Look at almost half of the Republican Party refusing to get vaccinated.

And so there’s somewhere in the middle where you shouldn’t be giving too much air to the crazy that pollutes our system, but at the same time, we can’t stick our heads in the sand when half of an entire party refuse to get vaccines because they listened to Tucker Carlson one night.

Does this special kind of represent… not an end, but a pause in this level of coverage for you of the MAGAverse?

Well, I’m always curious about… Donald Trump has moved on, but where this world goes is a curiosity to me. And so when we can gather again, I’m very curious to get out there and to see what this Republican Party becomes, what people care about, what happens in Georgia because of voting rights, what goes on with gun control legislation. Militias are still overtaking capitols because they feel their rights are being taken away.

And I think Americans have a deep hole, a need for a sense of belonging and a sense of moral purpose, and sometimes we fill it with QAnon groups, sometimes we fill that with militia buddies, sometimes we fill that with righteous, patriotic anger. And so I’m not exactly sure what that next form is going to be, but as that kind of takes shape, we’re keeping our eye on all of these stories. We’re looking to go there and chronicle them.

This unbreakable hold between the people that just dole out bullshit and con these people, and the people that give their money, energy, and lives over to it is fascinating. It seems obvious that that sense of belonging is the main reason why.

From an empathetic point of view, when I cover folks in the MAGAverse (but also when I’ve done pieces on gun control and militias), I do see something I relate to. People want to be a part of a team. They want to be a part of a family. And oftentimes a political group does that. A Trump rally makes it feel like not only an event, but a team that you’re on. And hell, I’m looking for, right now, a sense of meaning. And I mean, you have Tucker Carlson creating teams and meaning, and a sense that you have been wronged and hurt, which is the quickest way to give yourself righteous meaning. And I think that does bubble up, and when it’s exploited, it can lead to really dangerous, scary places. But I think deep down a lot of it comes from a very human place.

It’s not crazy to want to go to a really fun rally in your town where 10,000 people put on fun colors and cheer. I want to go to that. It often takes the form of college football for me. It’s not crazy to want to do something that helps your country. Some people give to causes that they care about, some people volunteer at food banks, but if somebody listens to Tucker Carlson and says you can do that by trolling somebody online who’s a lefty because the Democrats pose the biggest fear, that then becomes meaning to you. And so I think it’s the manipulators of the folks who are looking for those answers that are the true villains in a lot of this because I think deep down the need that is in many of the people that I get to talk to is one that is across the political spectrum. And that, I think, is what is more unifying about the us versus them argument.

It’s still somewhat startling though, because like you said, for you, it’s a college football game, but you know there’s a right and a wrong. You stay in the audience of the college football game. You don’t jump onto the field and charge at the players on the other team that you don’t like. There’s a line that is being willfully crossed.

I mean, I do think it’s also what happens when it’s this mob group mentality. I think there were a lot of people on January 6th who would’ve never have actually dreamed or alone charged into the Capitol, but people found themselves suddenly smack dab in the middle of it. There was a New York Times story about a former Olympian swimmer, gold medalist, who found himself in the Capitol and facing prosecution. Someone who broke down days after to his coach, kind of not believing where he had found himself. And I understand that. You get caught up. It seems like a game. It seems like entertainment. It’s the big, fun thing to do, when suddenly, this isn’t entertainment, it’s sedition. I’d like to think most people can keep themselves on the right side of that, but groupthink is a dangerous drug.

Has going to all these rallies and seeing these people get whooped up informed your empathy? Because, having not seen that stuff up close and only experienced it through reports, my thought about somebody crying about destroying the Capitol is that they fucked around and found out. Whatever, fuck them. I’m not feeling the empathy here, I gotta tell you.

[Laughs] Sure. I mean, I’m not some crazy wild empath. I have anger and frustration. And when people take actions that hurt other people, they should face consequences. And I get really angry at the people who manipulate that. But where I do find empathy, I will say… I caught back up with Edward, our quote-unquote debt collector, who went to 50 Trump rallies. And it’s really easy in a quick clip, and I wish we had hours to sit down and talk to a lot of these folks. In a quick clip, you’re like, “Oh, I don’t relate to that person. That person’s just crazy.” What have you. Well, when you sit down and talk to somebody like this, you might not agree with them, but a lot of things that take them towards this epic fandom and passion are relatable human things. And so I think you can have empathy and still believe in consequence, but the empathy is perhaps a muscle that does need flexing every now and then, and it’s hard to do that if you’re not out and about talking to folks.

It also feels hard to do that when you have to take the first step because it’s obviously not coming from their side.

I mean, I think that is a strong point. We often talk about empathy, but it doesn’t feel like people actually meet in the middle. And more often than not, when you talk about reaching out to other people, you’re reaching out to just talk louder to other people about your own point of view. And so I think that’s happening in most places, where it’s really not people actually wanting empathy, they just want the credit for potential empathy.

I mean, you’re right. I know you’re right. I understand that. But it does feel like vegetables that I’m having to throw down. I’ll just repeat that a few times. But also, man, I love my bubble sometimes.

[Laughs] Nothing wrong with a bubble! I’m not even saying that we all need to go kumbaya in the middle. I don’t have an answer. I’m not even preaching that that is a path. I think more often than not that’s only going to lead to frustration. I’m just sort of reflective of the experience I’ve had, it’s both infuriating in the actions that are taken. It’s also infuriating in talking to people over and over again, they become three-dimensional humans, and God bless Walt Whitman, “We contain multitudes,” and ain’t it a bitch to wrap your head around?

I mean, in all honesty, the experience that you’ve had, if you didn’t come out the other side with this angle, you’d be a psychopath if you came out of it in a different way. I mean, you could be a psychopath, I don’t know.

[Laughs] Oh God, get a couple of drinks in me. I will tell you, I’ve definitely found stoicism in the last year and a half, so I’ve got Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, Epictetus at home, who are sort of like, “Let go of the things you cannot control. You can control your own perspective on things, but let your emotions be connected to those things with which you have control over, and let go of those of which you do not.” And so for me, that’s a philosophy I’ve had to adapt pretty quickly over the last year and a half. So that rage is… I’m letting that rage go, or at least I’m attempting to. I got to tell you, a decent glass of whiskey and a Marcus Aurelius quote, it’s going to get you a little bit closer to that empathy.

‘The Daily Show with Trevor Noah Presents: Jordan Klepper Fingers The Pulse – Into The MAGAverse’ premieres Monday, April 19th at 11pm EST on Comedy Central