We have reached the point in this campaign season where late-night talk show hosts negotiate presidential debates.
Why do you look so surprised? When you think about it, it kind of makes perfect sense.
Over the last two nights, Jimmy Kimmel, host of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” has seemingly been brokering a presidential debate between presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is still in the running against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
(To be clear, right now, the debate is little more than a twinkle in Kimmel’s eye — no network has agreed to host it and it hasn’t been sanctioned by the national parties.)
Nonetheless, Kimmel brought up a possible debate with Trump on Wednesday night, when the candidate was on his show. Kimmel introduced Trump as a “tangerine-tinted Godzilla” and a “fire-breathing billionaire,” before grilling the businessman over using aliases with journalists, previously praising his likely opponent Hillary Clinton, his stance on access to bathrooms for transgender people, and whether he’d choose a running mate in reality-show, The Apprentice fashion.
And then came the ask.
Kimmel said that Sanders had written in with a question, to be read by Kimmel to Trump, on Sanders’ behalf. “Hillary Clinton backed out of an agreement to debate me in California before the June 7 primary,” Kimmel read. “Are you prepared to debate the major issues facing our largest state and the country before the California primary? Yes or no?”
“Yes I am,” Trump responded. “How much is he going to pay me?” He went on, saying he’d agree to a debate if money raised went to charity.
By the next day, a dollar amount emerged. $10 million. At least. “What we’ll do is raise maybe for, maybe women’s health issues or something,” Trump said at a press conference Thursday, “if we can raise $10 million or $15 million for charity, which would be a very appropriate amount. I understand the television business very well.”
By Thursday night, Sanders was on the show talking to Kimmel about the potential debate.
“You saw the show last night,” Kimmel said. “You saw what I did for you.”
“You made it possible for us to have a very interesting debate about two guys who look at the world very, very differently,” Sanders replied.
Sanders said he and Clinton had previously reached an agreement for a certain amount of debates, but that Clinton reneged. “I think it’s kind of insulting to the people of the largest state in the United States of America not to come forward and talk about the issues, serious issues that impact this state, and impact the country.”
When Kimmel asked whether any networks had contacted Sanders about a debate, he said yes, but then, turned that into a joke. Before you knew it, Kimmel was offering himself up as Bernie Sanders running mate, saying that if he could unite Trump and Sanders, a Republican and a Democrat, he could do the same with Congress.
“I don’t build walls,” Kimmel riffed. “I build bridges.”
So what of this is true? And what of this is fake? Will Sanders and Trump actually debate? Is it possible that Trump could actually demand millions of dollars just to grace a debate stage? And, in an election where Mark Cuban, owner of a professional basketball team, was actually drafted to run for president, is a world with a talk-show V.P. candidate out of the ordinary?
You won’t find the answers to those questions here. But perhaps what we can know for sure, about the Trump/Sanders/Kimmel episode is what it says about this election season. A late-night TV show host brokering a presidential debate represents at least two major themes of this election: politics as entertainment, and the ongoing rise of the anti-establishment ethos.
Think about it. In a campaign where debates draw 90s sitcom-level ratings, where candidates are forced to dance awkwardly on Ellen, make parody videos for YouTube, and tweet like reality T.V. stars, it’s only fitting that some of the major nuts and bolts of this election would be hammered out on a variety show. Or that candidates would at least pretend to hammer them out on a variety show.
And to the second point, talking debates with Jimmy Kimmel makes perfect sense for both Trump and Sanders; it’s the ultimate anti-establishment move, even if it’s a joke. The two have been campaigning against the establishment for months now — the establishment of national politics, including the RNC and DNC who typically sanction debates, and the corporate media establishment as well. Circumventing those worlds to talk debates with Kimmel fits perfectly into those narratives.
But what’s difficult when you end up with Kimmel as negotiator, with a sound-stage as deal-brokering room, is that you can’t really tell what’s true or false. In the same interview with Kimmel where Trump seemed to agree to a debate, he also helped Kimmel read a parody children’s book mocking him. Just after Bernie Sanders thanked Kimmel for possibly securing the debate last night, Kimmel made a Batman vs. Superman joke about Democratic superdelegates.
This is where we are now. The serious bumping right up to the comedic, almost every day — and late night — leaving some entertained, but perhaps even more of us confused.