An unusual episode of Bill Maher’s comedy show aired this Friday before election day. The famously pot-smoking host apparently also felt the need for a few shots of Jack Black before the show, because, he explained, he was “shitting in his pants” that Donald Trump might win the election. Maher said electing Trump would be tantamount to electing a “a sexually assaulting psychopath … an orange haired Hitler.”
“Everyone’s nervous,” he said. “There are amoeba under the ice on Mars, saying, ‘Oh, this could be bad.’” “It’s not fucking funny,” he said. “There is a slow-moving, right wing coup going on.” He was apoplectic over how important it was get the vote out for Hillary. As a nation, he said, “we are unravelling.”
Republican writer David Frum, who just wrote a piece in the Atlantic entitled, “The Conservative Case for Voting for Clinton,” was a panelist, and so were former democratic Michigan Governor Jennifer Grantholm, who’ll lead Hillary’s transition team if she wins, and Canadian entertainer Martin Short, who is now a U.S. citizen and a Clinton supporter.
Three Hillary supporters. Not much controversy there. The republican, Frum, had just early-voted for Clinton and published an article explaining why. But, there is a very insidious change that is happening in our country, Frum said, and the Trump supporters aren’t the only ones to blame. Bernie-progressives that short-change our institutions are also at fault. “Don’t join them,” Frum entreated Maher.
Maher would have none of it. In an increasingly higher pitched voice, he challenged Frum: Who is calling the election rigged? The politicians crooked? The Trump supporters! Who’s promising to jail his political opponent without due process? Trump! Who’s threatening to delegitimize Clinton’s presidency with endless investigations and hold up a ninth Justice on the Supreme Court? The Republicans!
Maher seemed to be saying, “What’s the matter with you, Frum? Don’t you get it?”
But, of course, Frum got it. He just voted for Hillary and has been trying to get other Republicans to do the same thing. It was Maher that didn’t get Frum.
The problem, Frum said, is not a “right-wing coup.” It’s the systematic discrediting of American institutions, which comes from all kinds of trajectories. The notion that you can’t trust the mainstream, corporate media. The lack of respect for the importance of expertise and loss of trust for institutions of the State and of politics. People are skeptical of the norms of institutions and policy and don’t believe in politics and think there’s something grubby about what they suspiciously regard as Washington wheeling-dealing. Someone said something about the voting machines being hacked and Frum said, “Stop that! You’re burning down the fences that protect us.”
In Frum’s view, the necessary elements of professionals, people ordinarily trusted to be gatekeepers and policymakers, a network of politicians—what he referred to as the “elite, but in a non-pejorative sense”— form coalitions and share power in such a way that prevents a Donald Trump from emerging as a leader. He theorized that the republican leadership failed in 2009 to properly understand what the membership really wanted.
When Frum had finished Maher shot back, “You’re wrong about everything, so far.”
These people don’t abide by the rule of law, Maher said. They are a cult of personality and fascists, the kind of people who decide that you’re a criminal first and then find the crime later. Trump is out there saying Hillary is under criminal investigation, but that’s just a “big lie”!
For some reason, Maher wasn’t able to accept “yes” from Mr. Frum. After all, if you’re a Hillary support, what’s your beef with someone who already voted for Hillary?
In fact, Frum’s point went way past whether Trump should or shouldn’t be president, a detour Maher wouldn’t, or couldn’t, indulge. That was too bad. News-watchers don’t need to be told about the parade of the Trump horribles. Yet again reminding us that Trump mocked a disabled reporter, or disrespected the Kahns, or is Putin’s “useful idiot,” or any of the other various indicia of the man’s character and fitness for office, was entirely beside the point.
Because Frum’s question was far deeper than whether to vote for Hillary or Trump. It was this: How is it even possible that we have arrived at the state we now find ourselves in?
Frum is a Republican strategist, by habit or obligation or both he largely blames Trump’s candidacy on a dysfunction he had diagnosed in the GOP power structure. But, at best, that’s only a secondary, or even tertiary effect of his first, and very important, observation: our republic cannot function without a common, broadly-based respect and appreciation for institutional norms and the political process. We ignore at our peril Frum’s warning that there are also many on the left who consider themselves progressives or libertarians and who in their own way also help to discredit and delegitimize American institutions, corporate media, and the political process.
Unfortunately, all this seemed to be a bridge too far for Mr. Maher. Or else he just didn’t get it.
Our first president, I have been led to believe, was incapable of telling a lie. We teach that story to our children for what it says about the values of our country and its institutions and what made us successful as a nation. It is not by accident that we have the world’s most open and efficient financial markets, most transparent government processes, most sophisticated judicial system, largest and most accessible economy, most advanced libraries, laboratories, and universities, and the greatest quantum of data, information, innovation and creativity to be found anywhere. It can all be traced back to our preference for truth over falsity, evidence over suspicion, accountability over scapegoating, disclosure over concealment, and honest institutions over corrupt ones and our trust in courts, legislatures, politicians, the press, the marketplace, the Supervisor of Elections, the police, the military, and, yes, Mr. Trump, even the White House.
Loose these values, Frum is saying, and the great American experiment is over.