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"She's done an amazing job potty training him"

Bill Maher on Trump's new campaign manager (and other things).

A left-leaning libertarian, Bill Maher has politics that don’t fit neatly into partisan boxes. Part of his appeal is that he’s intellectually honest. He’s a liberal to be sure, but his ire is directed at Democrats as much as it is Republicans.

He’s carved out an enduring niche for himself on television. In 1993, he launched his show Politically Incorrect on Comedy Central (it moved to ABC in 1997). Among the first of its kind, the program pitted celebrities and pundits against each other with reliably entertaining results.

When Politically Incorrect was canceled in 2002, Maher found a new home at HBO, a much better fit for his brand of political humor. Fourteen years later, Real Time With Bill Maher remains one of the most interesting — and provocative — shows on late-night television.

I spoke with Maher last week about Donald Trump, the politics of late-night TV, the credulity of American voters, and his criticisms of liberals. Our conversation, edited for clarity and length, follows.

Sean Illing

There’s been a steady drip of think pieces about who or what is responsible for Donald Trump. What’s your take?

Bill Maher

Well, they keep saying the people voting for him are angry. I keep saying I'm angry at the people who are angry, because they're the ones who have elevated this vile nincompoop to the place where he is. So I think when the Republicans keep talking about whether they support Trump or not, they need to look a little deeper and realize that the problem is their voters.

I don't care how many turnovers he has in his campaign staff, I don't care how many times he comes out there and pretends to act presidential — the problem begins and ends with the Republican base.

Obviously, a political party doesn't want to alienate its base, but the truth is that a lot of that base is deplorable. So it's only logical that, at some point, a deplorable candidate would rise from it.

Sean Illing

How much blame do you lay at the media’s doorstep?

Bill Maher

A lot. They cover him like he's already president. The minute he opens his mouth, they cut to him. Even MSNBC, which is supposed to be the liberal network, cuts to him like he's the Japanese emperor before World War II. As we know, he's gotten more free media than anybody.

Then of course there's the horrible problem of false equivalency. The fact that the media, willingly or not, always wants a horse race. I don't think it's necessarily nefarious. I just think they're not that bright. What they think is fair and balanced means you give equal time to the sins of each candidate, which leaves the public with the impression that those sins are equal, and they're not.

Sean Illing

It’s comforting to believe that Americans are playing a game of chicken with Trump but that, in the end, there’s no way they’ll put this guy into office. Do you believe that?

Bill Maher

I never believed that, and I always screamed it at anyone on my show that didn't believe he could win. I've said it before: The American people appear to be playing a game of chicken. They're fed up with the system. If you talk to Trump supporters, a lot of them have misgivings about things he says and does, but at the end of the day they say, "He's gonna shake things up." How serious are they? I have no idea, but we have to assume the worst.

Things are so bad that we have millions of people who simply want to flip the table over. Trump is like a Great Dane released at a toddler's birthday party: He's just gonna fuck things up, and they love it!

Sean Illing

You said recently in an interview that "the American people are stupid." Does the Trump campaign feel like a Rubicon-crossing moment for the country? Sarah Palin scared the hell out of me, but this feels … different.

Bill Maher

Yes, he's a blonder, dumber Sarah Palin. Many of the things he's said would have been scandals had Palin uttered them. Everyone pounced on Palin for all the stupid things she's said, but Trump's no better.

He didn't know what Brexit was. He didn't know what the nuclear triad was. He doesn't know anything, either. He just fakes his way through them better, and because he's a blusterer and a showman, people don't care. He could take a shit in a shopping cart, and some of these people who interview him would hand him a wipey and go on to the next question.

Sean Illing

It’s easy to criticize Trump, but we really do have a demand-side problem here. Candidate Trump exists because enough Americans want him to. He’s a mirror in that way, no?

Bill Maher

Absolutely. This is why I say it's about the voters. These are people who live on internet chat rooms and Fox News, just the way Trump does. My big fear in this election is that Hillary is basically fighting the last war. Trump is much more savvy about where people get their information these days, and gets it from the same places.

Sean Illing

Well, he certainly knows his customers.

Bill Maher

Yeah, he understands that when you look scripted, they turn off. It's better to be outrageous and spontaneous than correct and scripted. It's why he doesn't use a teleprompter — he doesn't want to alienate his base by reading. They love that about him.

Sean Illing

What do you think about his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway?

Bill Maher

She's done an amazing job trying to potty train Trump, and she has potty trained him a little more than the others have. But he still calls Elizabeth Warren Pocahontas every day, and he still says at least three things every week that would get any other candidate in any other election thrown out of the race.

Sean Illing

Yeah, it’s all par for the course this year. I think we’ve been drifting into a new post-ideological space for a long time, but this election seems to have accelerated that transition. Do words like "conservative" or "liberal" mean anything anymore?

Bill Maher

That's a great point. I think you're right. I don't think people even know what liberal or conservative means. They've done surveys on this, and people are mostly confused about what they believe or what terms to use.

A lot of these people don't want to self-identify as a liberal because that must mean you're a fuzzy-thinking tax-and-spend person with no practical grasp of reality. But then you go down the list of issues and it turns out these same people are fairly liberal. They not only want their Social Security and Medicare, they want more of it!

Sean Illing

What do you think about the idea that Trump can just "pivot" after a year of campaigning? Everyone assumes he can read from a new script and somehow his supporters will fail to notice what that implies about everything he’s said and done.

Bill Maher

His assessments of our nation and its problems were fact-free to begin with, so you can really go anywhere from there. I mean, what do you do about a guy whose solution to health care is, "Let's repeal Obamacare and replace it with something terrific"? What do you say to that? Something terrific? Gee, why didn't Obama think of that?

I've said this for years: Politicians can say anything because the people don't know anything. That's the problem, and it's not new.

Sean Illing

I want to switch gears and ask you about the collision on your show last year between Ben Affleck and Sam Harris. Harris was there to promote a nonpolitical book, but the interview turned into a debate about the failure of liberals to criticize illiberal values prevalent in the Muslim world.

If I recall, Harris was discussing support for specific Islamic doctrines (like martyrdom and jihad) in Muslim-majority countries and citing poll numbers to buttress his points. Affleck, for his part, kept insisting Harris was a racist. The whole exchange seemed to encapsulate your criticisms of the left.

Bill Maher

There's a difference between being politically incorrect and saying things which are true but people don't want to hear, and just saying stupid shit. When I criticize liberals for being confused about where they should place their famous compassion on this issue, I think there's a valid point there. Liberals are supposed to support people who are oppressed, or at least that's how I was brought up.

I just don't understand how people can look upon some of the things that are going on in the Muslim world and not speak out. Look, Americans, including liberals, are myopic. What they see are American Muslims, but American Muslims are lucky because they can do things that many Muslims around the world can't, like marry outside the religion or leave their faith or come out of the closet or write a secular blog. These are privileges a large number of Muslims around the world don't enjoy.

Some of the liberals I argue with say to me, "Yeah, but it's not everywhere." Of course, I get that. I never said it's everywhere or that it's every Muslim country. But it's true in way too many places.

Host Bill Maher, center, talks with actor Ben Affleck, left, and Sam Harris, author of Waking Up, during an episode of Real Time With Bill Maher.
Janet Van Ham / Associated Press

Sean Illing

So you think liberals are inconsistent in terms of the stands they take or the things they get excited about?

Bill Maher

Absolutely. But it's certainly not all liberals. I've been hammering this issue for a long time, and a lot of people are on my side now. As long as you frame it in terms of liberals standing up for liberal principles, it's the right argument. I'm not against Muslims or Islam — I'm against bad ideas.

Sean Illing

Ross Douthat published an interesting piece in the New York Times last week arguing that there’s an "ascendant social liberalism" personified by people like Samantha Bee and John Oliver and Trevor Noah. And it’s not just late-night TV — it’s seeped into awards shows and college campuses and the broader culture. In Douthat’s view, the liberal echo chamber has gotten louder, but it’s only insulated the left from the political realities outside the bubble. Do you see it that way?

Bill Maher

I definitely think there's a liberal bubble. It's not as bad or as impenetrable as the conservative bubble, but it's there. I think both liberals and conservatives, especially younger people, get their news in ways that only reinforce what they already believe. There's not a lot of cross-pollination going on in America.

Sean Illing

In an interview a few years ago, you said, "I’m glad MSNBC emerged as a counterweight … But if I watch it for a whole day, I want to marry Ann Coulter and join the Tea Party." Do you have a similar reaction to late-night TV now, or is this something different?

Bill Maher

I really don't see late-night TV apart from my show. I don't even know how it survives in this age. The idea that people are going to sit through commercials at 11:30 at night is just insane. I mean, who's doing this?

I will say, though, that what little I have seen is mostly mindless. Some of the shows are different, and some of them are more news-oriented, but even the newsy ones are not that intellectually nutritious, to be honest.

Sean Illing

You launched Politically Incorrect in 1993 as a response to the political correctness craze. Do you think it’s worse now?

Bill Maher

I do think it's worse, and I think it's because of the internet, which feeds on anonymity. in the old days, you had to actually leave your house. You had to march. You had to protest. Now you just pound on your keyboard and fancy yourself a virtual avenger of justice.

Today, it's a bunch of people who lie in wait for the person who stumbles upon one of those politically correct land mines and then pounce. It's all about being able to pat yourself on the back and signal what a great person you are by pointing out what a bad person someone else is.

Sean Illing

I think Trump’s rise is partly a reaction against political correctness, however dangerous and misguided that reaction may be.

Bill Maher

Yes, and that's the one thing that's understandable about Trump's appeal. We've been choking on political correctness for a long time now. Trump is a breath of fresh air in that respect. No matter how wrong or full of shit he is, when you confront him, he says, "Fuck you, I'm doubling down." Even if you don't agree with what he said, there's something cathartic about his attitude.

Sean Illing

Assuming Clinton wins in November, what do you think becomes of the movement Trump has started? Where do his supporters turn?

Bill Maher

That's a great question. Of course, he's already raised the specter that the whole thing is rigged. That's one thing I love about Trump: The election is rigged, the primaries are rigged, the debates are rigged, everything is rigged. I mean, shit, when are white men born to great wealth going to catch a break in this country?!

I think the reason he gets away with what he gets away with is that he's always playing the part of someone who's aggrieved like that. And that's exactly the way his followers feel.

Sean Illing

If nothing else, Trump is very good at cultivating persecution mania.

Bill Maher

Absolutely. They're the victims. Their precious jobs were stolen from them. I'm so tired of that bullshit. Get a different fucking job. If you love America so much, you have to love Darwinian capitalism. There's nothing more quintessentially American than that.

When the car came in, the horse jobs went away, and there's a reason there's not a Blockbuster on the corner anymore. So, yeah, fighting for coal jobs, the worst job in the fucking world? Get over it. We figured out something better than digging up a toxic black rock and burning it. But no, they'd rather sit at the end of the bar and nurse their Johnny Walker Black and bitch about their lives, and that's exactly who Donald Trump is. He channels that rage.

So, yes, if they lose this election, they will not go quietly. I very much worry about what happens with these people, because they already think the fix is in.

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