When he first took his seat at The Daily Show on September 28, 2015, Trevor Noah seemed like an awkward, ill-suited substitute for Jon Stewart. Over the course of 16 years, Stewart sparked with indignation. He demanded that his leaders be smarter, more honorable, more humane. His rumpled cynicism was a singular saving grace for many left-leaning folks (or, you know, people who appreciate facts) during the Bush years’ spectacular pageant of jingoistic mendacity. I’d hoped his replacement might be someone like Larry Wilmore or Samantha Bee, comedians who wielded an eviscerating wit but had a kind of wry relatability—particularly because Stewart’s abdicating the desk would come on the cusp of one of the most consequential elections in American history. Instead, we got Noah, who felt more like that super-hot guy in your poli-sci class, whose periodic moments of “wokeness” were punctuated with dumb, frat boy jokes about Jewish people and fat chicks.
Noah’s initial performance bore out my suspicions. Writing for The Atlantic, James Parker observed that he was “a sweet naif … a very able lightweight,” and on the cusp of Noah’s 100th episode, Forbes magazine’s Hayley Cuccinello dug into The Daily Show’s ratings and found that they’d declined by 37 percent since Stewart’s departure. Though Comedy Central touts Noah’s appeal with us Millennials, Cuccinello smartly mentioned that, “Yes, the fresh-faced host does well among his peers, but he’s hardly the only game in town,” pointing to Bee’s new show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, as a chief competitor. Bee made a name for herself as the nasty woman’s go-to gal for election coverage—and her fantasy sequence in which Hillary Clinton wins the election is a bittersweet elegy for an America that will never be. Then, of course, there’s John Oliver, who delivered so many thunderous take-downs of Drumpf and the MAGA crowd’s white-bred fascism that he single-handedly spawned a new category of headline in “John Oliver Absolutely Destroys [insert your social ill here].” It’s been fair to ask: was there a need for Noah, whose most savage observation to date was that new President-Elect has the mentality of a toddler?
Then, last night, Noah sat across from Tomi Lahren, a kewpie-doll firebrand for the conservative channel The Blaze and die-hard Trump supporter—a woman who has called protestors “misfit babies” and “the largest group of whiners the nation has ever seen”—and asked her, point-blank, “Why are you so angry?” This opening salvo was so remarkable not only because it is the most overtly confrontational Noah has been—or even because he sustained this direct line of inquiry over the course of the 26-minute conversation that covered everything from the infamous “grab ‘em by the pussy” video to Black Lives Matter to the mainstream media to Lahren’s actual expectations for a Trump administration—but because he was, in essence, having the conversation that many people wish they could have with their Trump-voting relatives. And ironically enough, everything about Noah that has caused the skeptics to cast a side-eye on him—his handsomeness, youth, and overall sweet, sunny disposition—somehow magnified the calm and grace with which he interrogated Lahren about her irrational anger. “You can’t say you’re not angry, it’s what you’re known for,” he told her. “It’s like Ellen saying, ‘I don’t like dancing.’ You are angry, about everything, it seems.”
Here, Noah seemed to be acknowledging the cultural ballyhoo about the anger of the white working class—an anger that has been stoked, in large part, by gadflies like Lahren—and, if not dismissing it, then interrogating it in ways that are sadly missing. If one thing became abundantly clear by the end of Noah’s interview with Lahren, it was that white anger does not eliminate white privilege. When Lahren gave the standard Trump fan’s defense that she is not a racist because, “To me true diversity is diversity of thought, not diversity of color—I don't see color” Noah responded with a simple: “What do you do at a traffic light?” When Lahren ranted about the protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, he parried back by mentioning the college kids who have set stadiums ablaze because their teams have won. It was enough to make me ask, “Who is this Trevor Noah and where has he been for the better part of a year?”
The power of this exchange is enhanced by the knowledge that the South African-born Noah grew up under apartheid; and that, while pundits like Lahren (who, in a more telling moment, resisted Noah’s assertion that, like it or not, she is part of the “mainstream media”) get to rail about the stubbed toes of their hurt feelings when they’re accused of racism, he dealt with the very brutal realities of violent, state-sanctioned racism. In his new memoir, Born a Crime, he reveals that, as the child of a white father and a black mother, his very existence was enough to condemn his mother to routine imprisonment. “If the police showed up, she’d have to drop me and pretend I wasn’t hers,” he writes. Even without the added pathos of Noah’s personal history, his exchange with Lahren deftly skewered white entitlement and conservative paranoia. But also, given all that he has overcome, he made Lahren look like one of the insufferable cry-babies she wails about.
Critics like Kara Brown argue that, by having her on his show, Noah was giving Lahren a broader bully pulpit. She does have a point: I hadn’t heard of Lahren until the interview, and I’m sure her site traffic and page views will get a substantial spike. And if mainstream media has committed one cardinal sin this election cycle, it is normalizing abhorrent, myopic views like Lahren’s. But on the contrary, Noah refused to normalize Lahren. He expected her to defend her views, and, yes, “destroyed” her when she couldn’t—because there was nothing defensible about them. He has held the pretty, normal-seeming, “Ivanka voter” up to the masses and exposed her inner ugliness and stupidity. I’m not sure where this Noah has been, but I hope he’s here to stay.