Norman Lear on Trump's "Painful" Military Forum: "Matt Lauer Got Taken for a Ride by This Demagogue" (Guest Column)

General Trump Illo - H 2016
Illustration by: Eric Palma

General Trump Illo - H 2016

The TV legend and World War II vet was there at NBC's commander-in-chief event as a "torrent of verifiably dishonest bullshittery" took over amid denigration of American leadership, praise for Putin and "the media's dangerous failure."

As a veteran of World War II, it was an honor to join with other, younger men and women who served their country in battle at the Sept. 7 presidential forum, hosted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and led by the very dynamic Paul Rieckhoff. As I sat in that audience, I was filled with patriotic pride at the idea that the two people vying to be our next commander in chief would answer questions from a room full of vets, with voters watching on television.

The warm feeling in my gut turned into something significantly less pleasant, however, when Donald Trump, answering very simple questions, fought tooth and nail to obscure any semblance of a meaningful answer. Every word out of his mouth was designed to insult our armed forces and our constitutional system. How else can you describe his denigration of our military leadership? His fawning adoration for a thuggish Russian strongman whose attacks on democracy and free expression are counter to everything our nation stands for? He couldn't even resist the opportunity to score some points by publicly describing his classified briefing by intelligence agencies.

It doesn't take chutzpah to talk like that; it takes a chilling contempt for the well-being of our nation and those who serve it. Or a shocking stupidity.

Worse, he was given the freedom to spout his insanity unchallenged. I was particularly saddened that in a room full of veterans, Trump wasn't asked about his own efforts to avoid military service. Nor was he challenged when he lied about his stance on the war in Iraq.

It was painful to watch NBC's Matt Lauer get taken for a ride by this demagogue. (And that's doubly true after watching him hound Hillary Clinton over her emails. Has there ever been so false an equivalence as the one being drawn between Clinton's mistakes around her email policy and Trump's endless torrent of verifiably dishonest bullshittery?)

Trump and Lauer at the presidential forum.

The story of this election is in part a story of the media's dangerous failure thus far to give Trump the scrutiny he deserves. There's a built-in incentive for the media to talk about the horse race. So instead of telling the simple truth that one candidate for president is qualified for the office and the other is not, they grade on a curve and talk about who's "exceeding expectations" or "looking presidential." Suddenly, the ability to read from a teleprompter — a practice that until recently was mocked by conservatives — is proof of Trump's newfound maturity. Instead of refusing to tolerate bigotry and hatred, we can grab some popcorn and wait to see what new depths the Republican nominee can sink to today. And even for the best journalists, Trump is hard to take on. It turns out, the bigger the lie, the harder it is, it seems, to call it out.

As I sat in the room filled with vets watching Trump settle a little lower into the muck (brushing off sexual assault in the military as something we should just get used to), I was surrounded by living, breathing evidence — in some cases, people who had suffered terrible injuries or were wheelchair-bound — that the decisions the president makes have real consequences.

I said some months ago that I saw Donald Trump as the middle finger of the American right hand. Voters were so disappointed, so angry, about the failures of leadership they've seen all around them — in politics, in business, in education — that they were seizing the opportunity to tell the establishment: Take this!! My faith in the American people tells me I could still be right about that. Voters may channel their rage through Trump, but in my heart of hearts, I don't believe they will ever elect him.

Between now and Election Day, I'm sure lots of us will work like hell to make sure of that.

Norman Lear is a renowned TV and film producer and founder of People for the American Way.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.