After brilliantly mocking Donald Trump over the past two weeks and forcing Ted Cruz to admit he actually doesn’t agree with Ronald Reagan 100 percent of the time, Stephen Colbert was widely expected to skewer Trump in his Late Show appearance on Tuesday night. Thus, many were disappointed that Colbert allowed Trump to calmly ramble on about his well-known positions on immigration, veterans, and, of course, China. Upon further examination, Colbert was actually taking a subtle approach to eviscerating Trump, but the front-runner managed to get through relatively unscathed by responding with even less energy than Jeb Bush.
In his interviews with Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Bush, and even Cruz, who’s polling at about 6 percent, Colbert treated them like serious candidates whose policy proposals warranted discussion. While Colbert maintained a cordial, flattering tone with Trump, he was actually trolling him the entire time. Colbert acted like he was interviewing the idiotic character he played on the Colbert Report, and underscored his message by having Trump guess whether he was quoting him or the Comedy Central host. At one point Colbert told the candidate, “For years I played an over-the-top conservative character, not as long as you did.”
It’s unclear if Trump understood that he was being mocked, but he avoided taking Colbert’s bait by slipping into the straight-man role rather than trying to outdo Colbert’s zaniness. For instance, when Colbert invited him to set the record straight on one of his most notorious positions, saying, “Barack Obama, born in the United States?” Trump simply said, “I don’t talk about it anymore,” and pivoted to jobs and veterans. Of course, most of Trump’s basic positions are inherently outrageous, but it was interesting to see them related at a lower volume.