It’s through this lens that Donald Trump’s appearance last night should be filtered. Colbert wasn’t as chummy and borderline-fawning the way that Jimmy Fallon was when Trump was on The Tonight Show last week (Fallon’s show is becoming so all-denominations-welcome-even/especially-the-lowest-common-one that it’s nearly content-free at this point; he is morphing into Jay Leno before our very eyes) but Colbert wasn’t an attack dog either. He had fun with Trump (how could you not?), but also showed him something that resembled respect—which turns out to be a core value of Colbert’s new show. It’s about sharp satiric wit and performative exuberance, but it’s also about civility. And for a night, Trump embraced this. With Colbert, Trump actually seemed civil—an impressive accomplishment.
As Politico pointed out, Trump was subdued, but it wasn’t because he was cowed, or just tired. (Trump is usually only subdued when he’s tired.) He just didn’t quite seem to know what to do with Colbert, and therefore defaulted into simply being a person. Trump is usually attacking, or is self-consciously absurd, but with Colbert, who tried to engage him as a human, Trump the political performer seemed to recede, something one would imagine impossible. And it sort of worked. Trump didn’t come across as normal, exactly, but there were brief moments—particularly when he meta-commented on his persona, telling Colbert he “works hard at it.”