Within a few hours of this writing, the eighteenth season of Real Time with Bill Maher will begin, and while I have broken this promise in the past, this time I swear to become a regular viewer once again. Real Time is not the most prominent publisher of neoliberal agitprop, nor is Bill Maher the establishment’s most conspicuous mouthpiece, but I believe he and his program pose a remarkable threat to revolution. Unlike CNN and MSNBC, which are decomposing beneath their own caustic reputations, enough people are still gullible enough to see Bill Maher as an outsider to the corporate media, and so, they cleanly swallow his pap. By posing as a vanguard of “the counterculture”, he has won the confidence of the jaded pseudo-nihilists and pseudo-hedonists, even as he shepherds them into the clutches of fascists.
Bill Maher is not the most destructive bishop on the board, not when the right-wing radio airwaves are polluted with some truly bloodthirsty men. However, I have a personal hatred for Maher, and hatred it is: for several years, Maher profited by his interviews with Julian Assange, but when his supposed friend and brother was kidnapped by British police, Maher mocked his lethal plight and tragic suffering in a shameless, chummy chat with another propagandist named Seth Abramson. It took me six months before I could look at Maher’s face without fuming, although my blood likely simmers, even to this day, when I hear him speak about the freedom of the press. Still, I don’t have any choice: I have to suppress my bile and watch the new season of his show. He will have a large cast of war criminals, intelligence agents, bankers, and clowns to peddle, translate, and distribute corporate talking points, and we owe it to ourselves to know what, exactly, the neoliberal oligarchs want us to think.
In preparation for this miserable exercise, which we will perform on a weekly basis, I thought we might want to watch a surreally bad interview that Maher did with Joe Scarborough in September. We haven’t had cause to expect anything substantive from Morning Joe since the summer of 2016, when we learned that the then-chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee had excoriated the president of MSNBC for Morning Joe’s insufficiently bloodthirsty coverage of Bernie Sanders.
The title of our video, “This is the Democrats’ Race to Lose”, is ridiculous enough, and illustrates the absurdity of Maher’s cheerleading for the Democratic Party. However, Maher’s understanding of the political and economic climate in America is so shallow, and his contempt for the interview so overbearing, that it is clear he resented himself for taking this opportunity to make a quick buck, and even clearer that he neither cared nor noticed he was delivering the worst analysis I have ever heard from a mainstream figure.
Before Maher speaks a word about politics, though, Scarborough mentions something of which I was unaware: Maher holds partial ownership of the New York Mets. His net worth is $100 million, and with HBO handing him another $10 million yearly, his wholesale surrender to the neoliberal establishment makes all too much sense. Ditto his confessed fantasy of an economic recession, an event which would prove injurious to his audience, but one which he would welcome, for it might prevent Trump from being re-elected. Maher might be slightly more susceptible to the maladaptive influence of massive wealth than the average person, although this casts doubt upon his ability, to say nothing of his performance, as a cultural critic. Jimmy Dore actually touched on this in 2017, explaining that Maher “has been a millionaire for twenty fucking years and he’s out of touch”.
Try as he might to depict himself as an outspoken advocate of the middle class, Maher makes each decision with a view to his own fortune, in particular how best to expand it. Hence his outlandish claim that the Democrats need to focus on “strength … I think people vote, not on policy … I think they look for strength versus weakness … That, I think, is what they like about Trump. They see him as strong because he’s blustery and he never backs down and he looks like Henry VIII and he acts like it. So, for me, a Democrat who can project that [is] our best bet.” His premise presupposes that the living conditions of “the people” are stable enough that their first concern is the president’s tenor, or that their personal equanimity is incumbent on some foreign financier’s take on Trump’s decorum. These are priorities, matters of emotional importance, only for the pampered bourgeois who have bought into the soap opera staged in Washington. For everybody else, economic stability and affordable medicine tend to assume greater prominence.
For Maher, they are distractions. He dismisses the leftists who complain about the Affordable Care Act and Obama’s foreign policy as “a cancer on progressivism” before arguing moments later that health care and immigration “are issues that are easy to win”. Perhaps we use the term “neoliberal” to excess, especially in a critique of Bill Maher, but is there a way to describe more effectively his indignant insistence on Progressivism in Name Only? His disdain for everything even slightly left of center, and his incompatible contempt for everything associated with the Right, calls to memory the bland liberalism of Joe Biden, whose corporatist warmongering was indistinct from Trump’s, yet whose presidential program calls for a “restoration”. These are just words, as insignificant and flaccid as Biden himself, and they don’t become any more potent when they are uttered with sour impatience by Maher.
Where Maher differs with Biden, he only exposes how hopelessly removed both of them are from the real world. “This is the Democrats’ race to lose,” he says. “I think a formula for winning, put pot on the ballot, come out full-throatedly [sic] for full legalization of pot. You would get a lot of people who are voting on that issue alone.” While it’s possible that Biden truly believes the silliness he speaks about the dangers of pot, it’s far likelier that he is ensuring the thugs in the DEA that they will still have a job under his administration. Maher, on the other hand, is speaking from pure puerility: he honestly believes the Democrats are principled enough to take a stance like that. Even if they were, is access to pot really as important to Americans as job security and health care, especially in these precarious times? Maher sees his own lifestyle, one based on abnormal comfort and ease, as being somehow representative of the average American’s, even when socioeconomic suffering is becoming increasingly “average”.
Can we overstate the influence of his superficial wishes on his broader political philosophy? “Let the fatigue that people have with Trump … excite the base,” he orders. “If you’re not excited about Donald Trump, you’re not following politics at all.” Once again, his strategy is written exclusively for the bourgeoisie, who place a psychic premium on Trump’s indecent behavior. So deeply is he immersed in this elitist network, he believes those who comprise it is also comprise “the base” of the Democratic Party. “The base” is defined, not by economic standing or even shared values, but by an unwavering commitment to the Democratic Party, by the readiness to chant: “Blue no matter who!” Of course, the people who preach such dogma are not the base of the party, but its uppermost echelon. Maher’s view is inverted, a result of his having grown complacent and soft by luxurious living.
The discussion turns to another matter of elitist interest: the predatory form of political correctness on college campuses. Maher, to his credit, has been an outspoken critic of this behavior for as long as I can recall—although, in recent years, his criticism seems to have the dual effect of encouraging acceptance of the Democrats’ immorality and corruption. In any case, his professed concerns for the First Amendment are irreconcilable with his betrayal of Assange, wherein we may find the true solution to the problem of social justice warriors at the university: if we were to educate them with some of the material released by WikiLeaks, detailing our government’s opportunistic exploitation and obliteration of black and brown people all over the world, then perhaps they could direct their inexorable energies to a more productive and charitable end.
Unfortunately, Maher cannot acknowledge any of this because he is comprised by his relationships to powerful people who engineer precisely those tragic schemes that WikiLeaks exposes. With an inexhaustible cast of intelligence agents and state department mouthpieces showing up to chat with him on Friday nights, Maher must ensure his audience learns nothing about the sickening violence inflicted by our own government. He keeps them distracted with frivolous fears, especially the one he shares with Scarborough: “I don’t think [Trump] is leaving … I didn’t say forever. I’m just talking about and have been talking about the next election … I’m saying, if he loses the 2020 election, you try to get him out of there.” That, of course, is not what he told George Will during a conversation in the summer of 2018: “I think he leaves when he wants to leave.”
Regardless of the specific form of fearmongering, Maher has worked harder than anyone over the years to reduce all of our government’s meaningful faults to Trump. He understands that, without Trump, there would still be many problems, including corruption, but he believes they would also be tolerable, perhaps even negligible. Ahistorical and myopic analysis like this can be forgiven of a high school student who never thought of politics before the Trumpish Age, but it is lurid for a man in his sixties, who has been covering these subjects for decades, to be so sophomoric. Alas, he is playing to his inattentive audience, a group for whom CNN is a perfectly trustworthy source of information, and who share his simplicity that the moral decomposition of America began on the day that Trump announced his candidacy, and will end on the day he breathes his last.
Scarborough contests none of Maher’s hollow diagnoses and toothless prescriptions. Why would he, when he agrees with every one of them? And why would we be surprised to see an anchorman for an international news conglomerate endorse such ridiculous positions? We wouldn’t, of course, because we expect nothing better from a man in his position. Maher, on the other hand, is presented to us, and marketed to us, as a truly independent commentator, unfettered by corporate interference and manipulation. Accordingly, we are more inclined to trust his observations, even if they should give us pause, just as we would be discomfited to hear the same words emerge from Scarborough’s lips. It is this benefit of the doubt, and our willingness to award it to Maher, that makes him such a dangerous dispenser of propaganda, and why we must be wary of his growing cultural clout.