This story first appeared in the Feb. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
It’s finally a “Bill Maher election.” And by that I mean it’s a year of new rules — to borrow from Real Time — largely rewritten by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. No one thought a politician could survive, much less stay in the lead for as long as Trump has, based on a campaign of braggadocio and utter contempt for political correctness. But the younger generation is leading a movement to prize authenticity above all. Trump is a petulant child, but at least that’s real, they seem to be saying. Bernie, too, is as real as real gets. (So real he doesn’t even own a comb.)
Bernie tied in Iowa after starting 30 points down; as I write this, it looks like he’s going to win New Hampshire, and that’s not just, or even mainly, because Vermont is a neighbor state. [Sanders and Trump both coasted to easy victories in New Hampshire.] Rather it’s because he is putting on the table something we’ve never seen before: the idea that America could be more like a Western European democracy, quasi-socialist (we’re that already, of course, with Social Security, Medicare and farm subsidies) where you pay more in taxes, but you get more: free health care and free college. I call this his “New Deal,” and we haven’t really had one of those since FDR’s.
But that’s what it is — a platform that says the old deal just hasn’t been working for a long time, and we need something else for the half of America that is desperate. We haven’t seen a true leftist since FDR, so many millions are coming out of the woodwork to vote for Bernie Sanders; he is the Occupy movement now come to life in the political arena. These are people who have sat out for a long time because the Democrats became a corporatist, center-right party and the Republicans became radically right (and, of course, just plain nuts in many ways).
There’s been enough “no one thought it could ever happen” stuff this year — Trump! — that until anyone proves otherwise, Bernie has earned the right to be considered absolutely viable. Will a conservative state like Indiana vote for a socialist? Probably not, but then again, as I say, this stuff has never been on the table, and these voters have never been activated. They’re like a sleeper cell: Let’s see if they can assassinate the old way of doing things.
And poor, poor Hillary Clinton. I mean she just is such a Charlie Brown figure. I could see the nomination slipping away from her again. I don’t know why everyone just wants to beat up on her. If you are threatened by Hillary Clinton, you were molested by a real estate lady, I used to say. There is no other explanation because she is just not that threatening. I actually like Hillary. I think she is unfairly demonized and has been for her entire career. I personally don’t think she is dishonest. And yet the hatred for her is just amazing — the hatred on the right and the abandonment on the left. She’s particularly hard to watch as a candidate. (That laugh.) Yes, the hard truth is that Hillary Clinton is a terrible campaigner who is living in a different era.
“Hillary Clinton unfortunately is a terrible candidate. I like her. I think she’s unfairly demonized. But she’s a terrible campaigner living in a different era,” says Maher, 60, photographed Feb. 2 at Line 204 in Hollywood.
I’ve told my audience, who are overwhelmingly for Bernie: If you’re on a plane and they don’t have your first choice — the fish — eat the chicken! That’s Hillary; no one is exactly excited, but that’s not all her fault. She’s been around forever, so people tend to take her good points — her accomplishments, her deep knowledge of policy — for granted, and she’s been demonized more than anyone ever by the right wing. If Bernie doesn’t get the nomination, really, eat the chicken. Look, I’m all for a woman president. I love Elizabeth Warren. Warren is very close to Bernie on a lot of this stuff. If he got the nomination, what an awesome vice president pick to really double down on those ideas. Joe Biden, on the other hand, no — that’s just more of the same. He’s a nice guy, but his time has passed. And if Michael Bloomberg decides to run as an independent, he’d just split the sane vote and wind up electing President Cruz or Trump. I don’t see that as helping. No, what we need is something new and radical.
As long as I’ve lived out here in Hollywood, which is more than 30 years, I’ve found that at any party with grown-ups in attendance, there will be a lot of talk about politics. The show business community in Los Angeles has always been very engaged, no matter the year or who’s running. Hillary has her fans out here, but there’s no doubt that the sentiment and energy are for Bernie. Key Hillary endorsements — like David Geffen’s — are MIA. It’s definitely cooler to be for Bernie; all the kids are doing it. But it’s also true that Hollywood is no different than anywhere else: For every informed person, there are legions of lazy dopes who just know which team to cheer for. They don’t delve into the issues too deeply; they just go with the flow. These are the people who say, “Obama didn’t live up to his promises.” To which I always say: “Are you sure about that? Maybe they just didn’t cover it on TMZ.”
It’s funny that both the left and the right could not agree more that the country needs radical change. It’s no longer this endeavor where you have to watch every word you say. Bernie said in early February, “I’m not involved in organized religion.” Not a deal-breaker. “I’m a socialist.” The world didn’t fall apart. Donald Trump, on the other hand, obviously says whatever flies into his head — there are Tourette’s patients with more control — and people like it. Americans have been choking on political correctness and overly careful politicians for the last generation or two and are sick of it. Remember Mitt Romney? He used to say in stump speeches that he loves Michigan because “the trees are the right height.” The trees are the right height?
Hillary Clinton is still playing that kind of politician, the one who never upsets anybody, who always says the thing that no one can quite attack, so she comes off in this new era as inauthentic and just unappetizing to watch. I think all the enthusiasm that people wanted to have for Hillary Clinton — the first woman president! — they’re having trouble mustering because of the way she campaigns and because Bernie is more exciting.
“Everyone thought it was a publicity stunt — but I always said that Trump was serious,” says Maher. “Nobody with an ego that big is kidding about being president. What’s surprising is how good he is at it. He’s a natural. He has a sense of what his audience wants like nobody I’ve seen in a long time in politics.”
“Sanders, Trump, they have changed politics,” he adds. “It’s no longer this endeavor where you have to watch every word you say.”
Which isn’t to say Hillary isn’t extraordinarily capable and accomplished. I don’t think she’d blow up the world, the way probably most of the Republicans would. The Democrats are wonks — and I say that as a compliment. This idea that the Republicans have been playing since Reagan — that government is always the problem, that it only makes things worse — has been so detrimental to America for so long. Republicans hate government, but they want to be in it. Right away, that’s not a good formula for success. It’s one of the reasons I have never become a priest. They love, love, love America — it’s the greatest country in the world and I will kill anyone who dares say different! — except when a Democrat is in office, and then it’s an unlivable shithole.
Yet somehow Obama, even with the Republicans saying no to everything he proposed (including things that used to be their own ideas), still managed to get a lot done. He stopped the country from falling into a depression when it easily could have. “No Drama” Obama was exactly what the country needed in that nervous time right after the banks collapsed in 2008. And he is the first black president. I always called him the Jackie Robinson of American politics because Jackie Robinson, as the first black baseball player, had to be perfect. Obama never took the bait, not once. His personal life, private life — always above reproach. And you know they were looking for something.
America is in so much of a better place than it was when Obama took office, and history will record that. If it was in a worse place or he had been caught in a scandal, all those people who were — whether they admitted it or not — not thrilled about a black person being president would have ammunition. He gave them none. As far as his second term, he looked more like a free bird than a lame duck to me, just going down the list of stupid things: Gay marriage? Let’s cross that off our list. And let’s open up Cuba. He visited a prison and started talking about ending the drug war. This is important stuff and will be remembered as such.
After Maher joked in 2012 that Trump was “the love child of a human woman and an orangutan,” Trump sued for $5 million.
Rubio joked about his heeled boots on the Jan. 21 episode of ‘The Tonight Show.’
Now he’s trying to address guns, and obviously it’s something he feels deeply. I guess it was after the last attack — there are so many I can’t even remember which one — Obama got teary and said in an interview that he would not support any candidate who did not support gun control. Personally, if I was going to pick one issue on which to lay down the law, it wouldn’t be guns. It would be the environment. I wish I didn’t live in the gun country, but I do. It’s not going to change in my lifetime. When Democrats talk about guns, they should understand that they don’t actually belong to a party that’s anti-gun. They belong to a party that wants to get rid of a couple of hundred out of more than 3,000 guns available in this country. There would still be nuts who go out and shoot places up — they just would have to reload a little more. I own guns. I just don’t love them. We live in a country where people love guns. I call them “ammosexuals”: the people who polish them and take pictures with them and go on dates with them to Chipotle. This is sick. Do you know in the last five years, people have been giving their babies gun names? Like Trigger, Pistol, Shooter and Remington? I’m not joking about this. Liberals don’t do this. They don’t name their kids Prius and Juicer. “This is my son, Kale.”
Both parties basically support guns. The Democrats remember that Al Gore lost Tennessee in 2000 because he came out for some limited gun control. Hillary has gone after Bernie for his gun record, but as he frequently points out, “I have a D-minus rating with the NRA! I come from a rural state! People live in isolation out in the woods! They perhaps need a gun! But don’t ask me about Jews and guns! I won’t even use a salad shooter!”
Trump has leveraged the gun issue to his benefit. When it comes to campaigning, he’s a natural. He has a sense of what his audience wants and what works for them like nobody I’ve seen in a long time in politics. He also has a talent for smiting his foes that is very rare, literally anyone who crosses his path. Ben Carson rose in the polls for a while — bam, dead. Ted Cruz, he went right for the jugular: “You’re a Canadian, Ted.” Hillary? Who even thought to bring back Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky? Everybody thought that was old news; Bill Clinton is an elder statesman now. “Nope, your husband is a rapist, first woman president, and you’ve been enabling him.” Next! Like many people, I would have thought he would have been out after the first outrageous thing he said, which was probably the John McCain POW comment: “I like people that weren’t captured, OK?” Everyone thought, well, that’s an ultimate third rail. And the base was like, “F— it, that’s what he believes. We like him, he’s a winner, he’s going to make great deals, he’s going to make America great again. It says it right on his hat so obviously that must be true.” Carly Fiorina: “You’re too ugly to be president.” “Hey, wanna see my impression of a guy with cerebral palsy?” What does this guy have to do to get people to turn against him? Fart in Jesus’ face or call Reagan a fag?
But then Cruz goes and wins Iowa, which is a completely evangelical primary. (That’s super f—ed up to begin with — that you get the most religious nuts out there to set the course of the election.) Not that I really think Ted Cruz is an evangelical, but he certainly speaks their language better than Trump does. Given that Trump plainly is not a religious person, he did pretty well. And remember, this is not secret-ballot stuff — this is people going to each other’s living rooms. Maybe Trump’s supporters withered a little when someone said, “Hey, are you going to actually vote for this Spam-colored parade balloon?” As for Hillary, I’m not sure what she was so excited about — she won by about three people. The way these guys get up there. Rubio: “They said I couldn’t do it!” You didn’t. “They said it was impossible!” It was. You lost, you came in third. Then he thanks his “Lord and Savior” for picking him third?
Says Maher: “It’s hysterical when Ted Cruz plays the shitkicker card. ‘New York values,’ says the guy who went to Princeton, Harvard Law, clerked for the Supreme Court.”
Sanders waved to the crowd Feb. 8 at a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H.
Now the playing board is poised for another shake-up in New Hampshire and a Donald Trump comeback. Trump has gone as far as he has because he has street smarts. He’s not a reader, I don’t think. He’s not an intellectual in the traditional sense. I think he tweets at night instead of reading. Everybody gets it at 3 a.m. from this guy. When does he sleep? Remember Hillary had that ad in ’08: “Who do you want answering the phone at 3 a.m.?” Well, it won’t be Donald Trump — he’s busy in a Twitter war with Demi Lovato.
Then there’s his plan to ban all Muslims. Let’s get clear on something: I absolutely don’t believe that we should ban all Muslims coming into this country. One, we need Muslims in the fight against Islamic terrorism. Two, it’s not American. It’s just un-American to do that, and it sacrifices who we are, and we can’t do that. But let’s not kid ourselves: A certain percentage of them will be radicalized. The more Muslims in your country, the more that is a possibility. America has the best record of any country as far as assimilating Muslims. American Muslims can leave the religion if they want, come out of the closet if they are gay, marry outside of their religion. If you’re a Muslim woman in America, you can choose to wear a headscarf or not. You can argue with your husband.
But these are not privileges that the majority of the world’s Muslims have. Forty countries in the world have some version of Sharia law. I just don’t understand how liberals who fought the battle for civil rights in the ’60s, fought against apartheid in the ’80s, can then just simply ignore Sharia law in 40 countries. Apartheid was only in one. I am not anti-Muslim and never have been: I am anti-bad ideas. Killing cartoonists and apostates, these are terrible ideas and practices, and it would be lovely to think that they were confined only to terrorists. They unfortunately are not.
“Trump is a starf—er. One White House dinner with Leonardo DiCaprio, the big celebrity environmentalist, is all it would take,” says Maher.
Not to be an “I told ya so,” but when the Syrian refugee crisis happened, I said, “Certainly our hearts go out to these refugees, but the answer can’t be to empty Syria and every other country in the Middle East where people live under repressive conditions and bring them all to Europe.” Now Sweden is sending 80,000 refugees back and German Chancellor Angela Merkel is saying, “Hey, when we said you could come here, we didn’t mean permanently.”
Rather than letting them settle in Germany, these millions of young Muslim men, how about let’s train them to go back and fight for their own country? That’s another one of my issues — the soft bigotry of low expectations. How come Saudi Arabia didn’t take in any Syrian refugees? I would think they’d fit in there a little more than in Cologne. Why don’t they fight their own battles? Why are Muslim armies so useless against ISIS? ISIS isn’t 10 feet tall. There are 20,000 or 30,000 of them. The countries surrounding ISIS have armies totaling 5 million people. So why do we have to be the ones leading the fight? Or be in the fight at all?
So no, Donald Trump is not right — but he will win the election if the American people have to choose between his demagoguery and a party that won’t even say the words “Islamic terrorism.” I think the Democrats could lose on that issue alone, especially if there’s another attack.
Trump sued me for $5 million in 2013, when Obama was running for re-election and Trump was all about his birth certificate. So he finally gets the birth certificate and Trump says, “Well, now I want to see his college records.” Which was so racist to begin with, the idea being, “Black guy … in college? Right.” So I offered Trump $5 million if he could prove that he was not the son of his mother and an orange-haired orangutan. And this idiot goes into court to get the $5 million from me. He brings his birth certificate in as if it was going to say “orangutan” on it or as if it’s even possible for a human and an orangutan to have a child. I had to pay legal bills to fight this thing, and lawyers are not cheap. Of course, once the judge looked at it, he went, “Get the f— out of my courtroom,” and that was the end of that.
Trump seems to think this “feud” started because we asked him to be on the show and he said no, but I could give a shit if he ever did my show. Now President Obama is a different story. I once made a $1 million donation to Obama. It was February 2012 — the first election since the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United paved the way for super PACs — and I thought the liberals had absolutely not gotten the memo that the game had changed. It was really a method to shame the richer liberals. To say, “This hurts me. I’m not that rich. So Silicon Valley billionaires, where are you?” Did my donation result in an invitation to the White House? No. It didn’t result in anything, really, and that’s fine. I didn’t expect it to, nor should it. That’s not why he should do my HBO show. He should do Real Time because it’s a large, underserved, under-respected audience.
As for Trump, I think he’d make a great guest, too — just obviously for very different reasons. I must admit there’s a little bit of the serial killer and the detective going on between us. “We’re not so different, you and I.” I am the first to say that political correctness is a curse — that’s why I called my old show Politically Incorrect — and so I harbor a hint of admiration for Trump, absolutely. I don’t think he’s the worst — I think Ted Cruz is the worst. Donald Trump can be talked to. The issue that bothers me the most with him is the environment. He’s on the standard Republican moron page of, “It’s a hoax, we don’t need to do anything about it.” But let’s face it — Trump is a starf—er. One White House dinner with Leonardo DiCaprio, the big celebrity environmentalist, is all it would take. Trump, Melania, Leo, whatever supermodel Leo’s with at the time. The two supermodel chicks can bond, and Melania will talk to Don that night. “Leo, he seem very smart, The Donald. Maybe you should listen to him.” And the next day, Trump will switch. He does it all the time, and no one seems to care.
All of this probably would not have been possible without Sarah Palin. She got the country used to someone on the level of a car show spokesmodel being presidential timber. John McCain is the one who opened the Book of the Dead and let the monsters out. Trump may be their savior, but she was the immaculate misconception. She is beyond parody and beneath contempt. I almost feel bad making fun of her because I think she’s on meth or something. I’m not kidding. It’s crazy, the way she acts. She looks just like the people we knew in the ’80s when they were on coke — just ranting, raving, not finishing sentences, way too overly energetic. That’s the guy you couldn’t get out of your apartment at 3 a.m. I was that guy a couple of times.
But that’s why we love politics, right? It’s all so crazy, fascinating and unpredictable. When that first debate got 24 million people, that should’ve been a wake-up call. What gets the best ratings on TV? Sports and reality TV — and now we found something that has both. And this isn’t just sport. This is blood sport.
As told to Seth Abramovitch
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“If you’re on a plane and they don’t have your first choice — the fish — eat the chicken! That’s Hillary,” says Maher.