'Daily Show's' Hasan Minhaj on Donald Trump: "He's Peddling Fear"

Hasan Minhaj Getty H 2016
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Hasan Minhaj Getty H 2016

"I believe if he’s given the nuclear codes we’re looking at a bleak picture of the world. It could be just the end of American civilization," says the 'Daily Show' comedian.

As a correspondent for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, comedian Hasan Minhaj covered both the Democratic and Republican conventions. At the former, he found himself face-to-face with Donald Trump supporters who shouted him down, telling him to "go home" to India, his parents' ancestral home. "This is my home," he told them.

Minhaj, who described himself in a previous interview as an "angry optimist," will soon set off on tour for his one-man show, Homecoming King, which centers on tales from his own experience as an Indian-American. Diving into what he calls "the New Brown America," the show aims to showcase "his family's quest to achieve the elusive American Dream."

Homecoming King will be coming to the Regent Theater in Los Angeles on Aug. 27th. Below, Minhaj spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the prospect of a Trump presidency, the feeling of solidarity in an increasingly exposed Muslim-American community and his own feelings of pride and passion about being Muslim and American.  

You saw Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. What’d you think?

It was incredible to witness, like absolutely really beautiful. We’d seen that at Muhammad Ali’s death, when the country had to reckon with feelings about someone being black, being Muslim, a controversial champion. And we all stood there proud and we mourned his death. I felt that same feeling where, say what you will about the war with radical Islam, you couldn’t help but feel for this family and son who gave the ultimate sacrifice. It made me feel proud to be an American. 

And Donald Trump’s response? 

I was like, "Wow, really? You’re really going to go after the mother of a deceased soldier." It’s one thing to make fun of peoples' hands, or looks, but wow, okay, he went there. The comedian side of me started thinking, "Okay, so Mrs. Khan was just sitting in silence the same way Pence was sitting there. Do you silence your vice presidential nominee?" It only made Khan’s point ring true, that [Trump] is a person who hasn’t sacrificed anything. He should be embarrassed for himself. 

Why is Trump so Teflon? It’s as if nothing he says or does will alienate his supporters. What’s going on in America that this can happen?

It boils down to one thing that I witnessed live at the RNC, which I was covering that week. There was a clear distinction and it was fear. The thing that the GOP was peddling, from [Rudy] Giuliani and Trump on down was: we need to get our country back. I didn’t know if Giuliani was talking about the country or his glasses. He was like your old grandpa. I was like, "Someone give grandpa his glasses back." There was this idea of: it needs to return to its moment of greatness. When was America great? There have always been times when America was "great," but there was also a lot of room for social change.

What’s different now?

What’s missing by the GOP is that when liberals call for change, they’re not trying to radically change the good things. What they’re trying to do is, say we believe America is one of the greatest social experiments and what we’re asking is: live up to your advertisement. When it comes to immigrants and minorities and gays, what we’re asking for in terms of equality is a thing that lifts the tide of all votes. if Muslims are treated better, if immigrants are treated better, then everyone will be. It’s an all or nothing game. Equality in a rising tide that lifts all boats. A myriad of things will happen because of that. That dialogue was completely missing from the GOP rhetoric. What they’re peddling right now is fear. It’s also a complete 180-degree feeling from what I felt at DNC. When Michelle Obama spoke, it was about hope. We all contribute to this narrative that is the American dream. There is not just one voice that defines us, which is in stark contrast to Trump, which was straight up Fascism. 

Are we too far gone to bridge that fear?

I don’t think so. But i don’t think so because I’m an angry optimist. I’m upset with the state of the country, but optimistic in our ability to change things. We have incredible potential for change, but are we taking advantage of it? I don’t know. I feel it all the time. I feel the people who feel disenfranchised, that there’s room for them to understand. I did this piece, called "Hasan’s Farewell Tour," and I had to ask delegates to their face: Do you think it will be better for Muslims under Trump? They had to look at me, while wearing their "All Lives Matter" pins and go: Wow, I never thought about that. That’s a part of the dialogue that’s missing. Maybe they don’t have a Muslim neighbor that they’re close to, a black neighbor, or gay friends or family. These are issues that I’m humanizing and saying this to you, face-to-face. An old lady delegate was like, "I like you, you’re one of the good ones." Her accidental racism was adorable, but it was the beginning of a conversation. If we can have these conversations in a real way, outside social media, then it’s possible. 

How does that happen? 

The people who are actually openly bigoted are few and far between. Very small. But a lot of people were ignorant, and that’s what made me sad. You can legislate against bigotry, but you can’t legislate against ignorance or stupidity. The only way to combat ignorance is exposure and that means people have to desire change, a desire to step outside your comfort zone, your own circle of influence. I do believe in the American people, otherwise i wouldn’t be here. I’d be in Canada kicking it with Justin Trudeau. He’s accepting Syrian refugees, so they may be accepting American refugees soon as well. 

How has the Muslim-American community been shaped by the election? 

There has been a clear line that has been drawn in the sand. When Trump said "we need to build a wall," or ban these people, or "I’m going to reestablish law and order," there’s been this clear delineation: this is where we stand on the issue. These communities have been called out by name. We have no choice but to stand up and say: this is not right. Do you understand the ramifications of what could happen if we don’t say anything? Think beyond the 4-5 million Muslim-Americans who call this home. It’s more important for the other 300 million Americans to deem this rhetoric unacceptable. There’s not going to be a predominant Muslim vote for Trump. But I am most interested in seeing Americans saying collectively: hey, we’re inclusive of all people. Therefore we will not vote for you, because it’s an insult to our American values. 

What’s the most comedic component of this for you?  

What isn’t? I never thought I’d find someone as funny as Sarah Palin. Then I got Trump. Palin just didn’t know geography, this guy is like an actual maniac, truly out of his mind. As the weeks go on, there’s more evidence proving that. It was funny, then scary, then sad. I have to go to therapy to unbox all my emotions at any given time. 

Do you think he’s mentally ill? 

The guy who ghostwrote The Art of the Deal said that he’s sociopathic. I would imagine that [Trump] has only gotten more stubborn in his world view. I believe if he’s given the nuclear codes we’re looking at a bleak picture of the world. It could be just the end of American civilization. There’s always a corrupt leader or a particular voice that represented the end of civilization. That’s what I'm afraid of. 

How would the end of civilization happen? 

Two potential things. This would be really bad. When you understand America’s place in the world, there’s a great level of diplomacy, education and knowledge to deal and work with other countries economically, strategically. How are we going to engage with them? I don’t think Trump believes in diplomacy. Look at the way he way he treats people. I think he believes in his way as the only way. How is he going to deal with Iran, with North Korea, with other major players? You can’t just delete nuclear missiles the way you delete tweets. Secondly, look at what we do, you and I right here, the discussion, freedom of speech. As a Muslim, I’m incredible grateful to the freedoms in this country. I come from India and we feel incredibly restricted there in print and on TV, and it’s a democracy. This is the dystopian future, there will be repercussions, especially if he wants to limit freedom of expression.

Your parents came from…?

Aligarh, India. When crazy people at the RNC are like, "Go back to where you come from," I’m like, "No, I like it here." You couldn’t do something like The Daily Show in India. 

The whole American experiment is very fragile.

Very. And it’s incredibly nuanced. And if you start chipping away at it, you’ll still have the shell of a democracy but it’s not the same. I’m proud that we can have this conversation and both go to bed and know that tomorrow no one is going to knock on our door and say we’re being sued, that we have to go to trial. I’m proud of that. That’s one thing I’ve learned from my travels, one thing we take for granted is that safety is assumed. We can say what we want, and we feel safe. Donald Trump, with his 5,000 lawsuits, is going to put that safety and freedom in jeopardy, I feel that’s safe to assume, given his track record.