With his snarky, irreverent style, liberal comedian Bill Maher has a way of getting under conservatives' skin. To many, the host of HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” epitomizes the coastal elite who mock them mercilessly and belittle their values at every turn. Whether he is lambasting climate change deniers, attacking the war on drugs and the prison/industrial complex, or expounding on Western Europe's superiority to the United States, Maher’s ability to infuriate the right with facts, facts and more facts can be downright refreshing.
But Maher is also a contrarian who isn’t shy about getting into a shouting match with Cornel West over the merits of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, or asking Gloria Steinem why the treatment of women in Muslim countries isn’t more of a feminist cause (she replied, “Of course it is”).
In recent months, Maher’s contrarianism has taken the form of softball interviews and ill-fated media projects with some of the country's most poisonous reactionaries, from rocker Ted Nugent to Breitbart.com ally Milo Yiannopoulos. It’s one thing for Maher to have passionate debates with mainstream media figures like Kathleen Parker, S.E. Cupp and CNN’s Michael Smerconish. But Nugent et al. are not just conservatives; they’re dangerous extremists. Any effort to legitimize their political views can have the effect of normalizing the lunatic fringe.
Here are five wingnuts with whom Maher has found common ground.
1. Milo Yiannopoulos
When Milo Yiannopoulos, a former senior editor at Breitbart News and author of the book “Dangerous,” appeared on “Real Time” in February for a one-on-one interview, he painted himself as a poster child for “free speech and free expression," an openly gay British conservative/libertarian only too happy to mix it up with an opinioned liberal. Yiannopoulos maintained a jocular tone throughout, asserting, “Humor is what brings people together.”
But Yiannopoulos’ extremist views are no laughing matter. He has described Black Lives Matter as a “socially acceptable hate group” that is “actively looking for white targets,” and promotes a “war between black men and police." Yiannopoulos has also been one of the most prominent Islamophobic voices on the so-called alt-right. To Yiannopoulos, Islam is inherently violent; during a 2016 appearance on Breitbart Radio, he insisted “there is a structural problem with this religion that is preventing its followers from assimilating properly into Western culture. There is something profoundly antithetical to our values about this particular religion.” Yiannopoulos' bigoted claims ignore the far more dangerous threat posed by Christian fundamentalists and white nationalists in the U.S.
2. Ted Nugent
After gunman James T. Hodgkinson shot and seriously wounded House Majority Whip Steve Scalise in Alexandria, Virginia, on June 14, Maher and Ted Nugent announced that they would be joining forces in a campaign against violent rhetoric in political debate. According to Nugent, he has decided to “unite on no violence” with Maher and will “abandon the city slicker street slang.”
But Nugent’s newfound desire to give peace a chance is far too little too late, not to mention profoundly hypocritical. During Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008, Nugent invited Obama to “suck on my machine gun." And at an NRA gathering in 2012, Nugent declared that if Obama were reelected, “I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year,” a threatening statement that drew the attention of the Secret Service.
Nugent wasn’t calling for more polite discourse after Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot in the head in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011 or Dr. George Tiller was murdered by Christian fundamentalist Scott Roeder in 2009, and he wasn’t asking Tea Party Republican Sharron Angel to clean up her rhetoric when she called for “2nd Amendment remedies” during her campaign against Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada in 2010. But the minute Republicans become the target of a lone gunman, Nugent decides it’s time to “reach across the aisle” and find greater civility in political discourse. With friends like Nugent, prominent liberals certainly don’t need any enemies.
3. Alex Marlow
When National Review founder William F. Buckley debated Gore Vidal in 1968, it was billed as the ultimate showdown between conservatism and liberalism. Buckley, the king of right-wing media at the time, had no use for the extremists of the John Birch Society, which he considered a fringe group.
Fifty years later, Breitbart News is enjoying a level of exposure that the Birchers of the 1960s could only dream about. In 2016, Breitbart.com claimed to have 37 million unique visitors (according to the analytics firm ComScore, the number was closer to 19 million last year). Meanwhile Steve Bannon, former executive chairman of Breitbart.com, is now chief strategist in President Donald Trump’s administration. Just about the last thing this country needed was a conversation between Maher and Breitbart editor-in-chief Alex Marlow.
Marlow did not rant or rave during his recent one-on-one interview on “Real Time”; he tried to come across as reasonable, even going so far as to say that “watching the left fight effectively, fight tooth and nail for their values” was a major inspiration to the “anti-establishment conservatives” at Breitbart. Marlow asserted that “free speech advocates” on the left and right “need to come together and say (that) the corporations are not going to define the First Amendment and free speech in this country.”
But Marlow’s anti-corporate rhetoric is laughable in light of how vehemently the late Andrew Breitbart, founder of Breitbart News, detested the Occupy Wall Street movement. There is nothing moderate about a website whose inflammatory headlines have included “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy,” “Hoist It High and Proud: The Confederate Flag’s Glorious Heritage” and “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech: They Just Suck at Interviews," and that until a few months ago, featured a vertical called "Black Crime."
4. Ann Coulter
Ann Coulter has long been the unofficial spokeswoman of the far right, going out of her way to inflame liberals and progressives and then insisting she's being persecuted when they call her out. Coulter is a professional troll, and Bill Maher has been all too eager to accomodate her.
In October 2016, Maher featured her as a pre-election analyst, and he has frequently sought her conservative perspective. But Coulter has never been anything less than a hate-mongering extremist whose history includes calling Jews “incomplete Christians"; mocking 9/11 widows; cracking jokes about George Tiller’s murder; praising Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s witch hunt; and calling for the U.S. to invade Muslim countries, take their oil and violently force residents to convert to Christianity, to name just a few of her greatest hits.
5. Tomi Lahren
Marketed as a millennial voice for the conservative movement, this 24-year-old pundit found out just how authoritarian and doctrinaire the American right can be after declaring herself pro-choice during a March appearance on “The View." The far-right firebrand was promptly fired from Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, at least in part for departing from the movement conservative line.
But despite her brief stand for abortion, she is hardly a moderate. The race-baiting Lahren once compared Black Lives Matter to the Ku Klux Klan, and she was no less unhinged as a panelist on "Real Time." Lahren, a passionate Trump supporter, claimed that as president, Barack Obama “went to war against the coal industry, and they saw massive declines.” Even Rick Wilson, a right-wing Republican strategist and fellow “Real Time” guest, found Lahren’s statement ludicrous, stressing that it was the prominence of natural gas, not the Obama administration, that put so many coal miners out of work in the Rust Belt. When Lahren later claimed whites faced the same discrimination as blacks, Wilson countered, “That’s absurd. That’s f**king crazy.”