No one thought that Stephen Colbert, the character, would last this long. His right-wing, self-regarding, bloviating pundit was a shtick, a bit, good for a year or two, tops.
As Colbert said Monday of the soon-to-retire Michele Bachmann, “Godspeed, Michele, Godspeed. I cannot believe you kept up that crazy conservative character for eight years.”
But for nine years now Colbert has been reminding us that politics, and the right-wing shtick in particular, is a performance.* For his last show, tonight, the Grim Reaper will reportedly be taking him out. But we can thank his longevity in part to the still longer reigns of his sources of inspiration—“Papa Bear” Bill O’Reilly, of course, but also Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Steve Doocy, and the Fox News mindset itself.
We can also thank these last nine years to the very thing that made them seem improbable: as a character, and not merely a critic, of the right, Colbert held a unique key to the riddle of modern conservatism: How do they keep getting away with it? Why have so many conservatives turned into such small-minded haters and deniers of science, of reality? Voters tend to disagree with their actual policies, so why do they keep voting for them?
We liberals keep banging our heads against the wall of their illogic, and in frustration sputter the only explanation we can think of: “They’re… they’re… they’re INSANE!”
Instead of trying the key from the outside, as most critics of the right must, Colbert jiggled it from the inside, counterfeit though his key was. By inhabiting their heads via a character, Colbert could demonstrate, four nights a week, how right-wing psychology works.
And so in his last “Formidable Opponent” segment, the rabid-right Stephen said that America would never torture. The more moderate Stephen countered that the Senate report proves it does. To which the first Stephen replies, “Oh, I’m not talking about the actual country. I’m talking about the idea of America. The idea of America would never torture….And that, my friend, is why I choose to live in the idea of America.”
You can’t stick with that kind of truthiness-based character (and play him in public appearances off the show) without some sympathy for him, and even for conservatism itself.
Colbert expressed that sympathy by showing that beneath his character’s assertion of omnipotence and certitude, there’s a fragility, one that’s also buried in most of the real-life blowhards and their dittoheads.