Last Tuesday night, "The Late Show" host Stephen Colbert opened his show with a call from a blonde bewigged device known as the "Trump phone." On the other line was, of course, the caricature-like egomaniac himself, "The Donald," busy campaigning in South Carolina, that state's primary a mere four days away. Colbert proceeded to engage in a bit of light reverie with the candidate, even going so far as to say, "I'm going to help you out here" before getting Trump to, good-naturedly, echo the line "Please vote for me, y'all!"
While Trump was waxing on about this ludicrous plan that deals in no way with reality, Colbert simply said "Uh-huh" several times, then added at the end, "OK. Well, that would be good, that would be good, that would be good."
It would be? Really, sir?
Colbert has granted interviews to other candidates, including Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzMeet the billionaire donor behind Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Party chairs see reversal of fortune McConnell: Trump White House will have ‘constraints’ MORE (R-Texas), former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonJohnson faces tough crowd at Libertarian debate Sanders: Clinton shouldn't pick VP from Wall Street McAfee on chances of Libertarian win: 'We're not that stupid' MORE (D) and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders: Clinton shouldn't pick VP from Wall Street Sanders: Primary isn't 'rigged,' just 'dumb' Dick Van Dyke introduces Sanders at rally MORE (I-Vt.). But if you watch the Clinton interview, you get a completely different sense than when watching the Trump interview. With Clinton, Colbert actually asked reasonable questions that required answers. With Kasich, Colbert pressed him on marijuana and made him account for his record. Sanders was asked to address he'd pay for the programs he's proposing and was accused of waging class warfare. When Cruz appeared, Colbert made him answer whether Ronald Reagan could be nominated as a Republican today, pressed him on his inability to compromise and addressed his opposition to gay marriage.
Only Trump seemed to get a pass.
Despite his condemnation of Trump in several skits, when Colbert has actually had the chance to confront the over-the-top bigot, he's done what just about everyone else in the media has done: He's cowered down. He's been the ultimate hypocrite, selling out for ratings while helping to carve out an image for Trump as a larger-than-life figure; an honest guy with a great sense of humor.
The problem with this, of course, is that Trump is none of those things. His proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country is not a cute little aspect of his tremendous personality; it's a dangerous prospect from a dangerous man, and it should be treated as so. The same can be said for his misogyny, his take on Mexicans, and his threat to violate the Geneva Convention by supporting torture and suggesting we murder children who happen to be related to terrorists.
What people like Colbert have to understand is that narcissists and psychopaths don't commit horrendous acts alone: they have help from the willing. Trump, with his "yuge" personality, has managed to trick some in the media into believing that he's "actually a nice guy," despite his public proclamations. Or perhaps it's just greed that motivates them.
Not long before Colbert's interview, "Tonight Show" host Jimmy Fallon did a bit in which Trump appeared opposite of his doppelganger (Fallon) to conduct an interview with himself. It was humorous, self-aggrandizing and another opportunity for Trump to show what a "great guy" he is. Trump followed that with a hosting gig on "Saturday Night Live" in November, giving him yet another chance — in front of a national audience — to come off as likeable and non-extremist.
A month later, he called for the banning of all Muslims to the United States.
Shortly afterward, Trump joined another late-night host, Jimmy Kimmel, despite the proclamation. Kimmel did ask Trump about his anti-Muslim stance, but largely gave him a pass on his bigoted answers before going on to stroke Trump's ego by reading a mock children's book entitled, "Winners Aren't Losers." Again, the audience was left with the impression that Trump is a reasonable, likeable guy.
If you keep presenting the abnormal as normal, pretty soon people start to take it as so. In Trump's case, the media are acting as accomplices by pretending that he is not a dangerous extremist. When people see him joking around with Colbert, they start to think, "Well, if Colbert's OK with him, maybe Trump's not so crazy after all."
Even on MSNBC, Trump receives special treatment. He's a frequent guest on "Morning Joe," where he has an open invitation to appear. Banter replaces any real form of an interview, and co-host Mika Brzezinski treats him more like a loveable child who occasionally says something raucous rather than a deranged sycophant who is currently leading the GOP field.
"Hardball" host Chris Matthews, another supposed liberal on MSNBC, was so enamored by Trump in a recent interview that he looked like a high school cheerleader twirling her hair for the captain of the football team. He was practically giggling, his eyes glazed over by the phenomenon that is Trump. I've seen tougher questions from Big Bird on Sesame Street. MSNBC also agreed to give Trump an "exclusive town hall," which aired Wednesday night. Nice of them to help.
And there is one more liberal who deserves some condemnation for helping push the Trump train: our president, Barack ObamaBarack ObamaObama: 'Stop to reflect' on Memorial Day John Bolton slams Obama’s ‘shameful apology tour’ Miss. governor to join lawsuit against Obama transgender policy MORE.
I have great respect for Obama, and most of the time, when he speaks, he does so with great tact and foresight. But his recent comments about Trump will only serve to propel Trump further. Unlike Fallon, who should be poking fun at Trump without improving his image, Obama would be better off saying nothing.
Of course, there are those who say that the Democrats want Trump to win: that he would be easily defeated in a general election. It's true that the demographics don't add up for Trump.
But, as a student of history, this idea worries me. Things happen. What if the Democratic candidate dies? What if there's a terrorist attack that frightens people into choosing an extremist like Trump? What if people just plain make the wrong decision? After all, we’re the same country that elected James Buchanan, Warren Harding, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush as president.
Rosenfeld is an educator and historian who has done work for Scribner, Macmillan and Newsweek.