W. Kamau Bell in "United Shades of America" (CNN)

W. Kamau Bell on what unifies the right: "Christianity, capitalism and white supremacy"

The CNN host breaks down right wing "bitter gumbo" and why Democrats need big ideas and tools like impeachment


Chauncey DeVega
June 11, 2019 7:00PM (UTC)

Americans are in a political cold war against one another. In the age of Trump this conflict all too often feels as though it will inevitably turn hot. Americans increasingly do not talk to one another across divides of political party and values; they live in information bubbles that are self-confirming, where prior ideas and beliefs — however incorrect — are nurtured as inexorable unassailable permanent truths. This is especially true of conservatives. Donald Trump has simply taken the status quo ante of anti-intellectualism, ignorance and simple binary thinking which typifies the modern American conservative moment and amplified it for the world to see and without any shame or apologies for doing so.

For example, PRRI's recent survey "American Democracy in Crisis: The Fate of Pluralism in a Divided Nation" details how, "A substantial minority of Americans, however, report less frequent interactions with people who are different than they are. About one in five Americans say they seldom or never interact with someone who does not share their race or ethnicity (21%) or religion (22%), nearly one quarter (23%) say they seldom or never interact with someone who does not share their political party, and nearly one third (31%) say they seldom or never interact with someone who does not share their sexual orientation. Slightly smaller numbers of Americans fall between the two extremes, saying they interact with people who do not share their sexual orientation (23%), religion (16%), political party (16%), or race (14%) at least a few times a year."

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Pew's recent "Race in America 2019" survey shows Trump's impact on perceptions of the color line and racial conflict: "Most Americans (65%) — including majorities across racial and ethnic groups — say it has become more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views since Trump was elected president. A smaller but substantial share (45%) say this has become more acceptable".

In the four seasons of his ongoing Emmy Award-winning television documentary series "United Shades of America" on CNN, his previous show "Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell" on FXX, and his work as a stand-up comedian, writer, podcast host, and author, W. Kamau Bell has been traveling across this divided America in an effort to better understand real people's concerns and lives, as opposed to simply believing the stereotypical narratives about their lives as offered by the news headlines.

How has Bell navigated the age of Trump? What is the obligation of comedians and other artists in a time of trouble and confusion? What is Bell's approach when interviewing and spending other time with people such as Nazis and KKK members who hate him and other nonwhites? How can reporters, journalists and other members of the news media do a better job of covering the diversity of people and experiences in the country? Why are big ideas so important for fighting back against Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and their movement? Should Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Party impeach Donald Trump?

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. You can hear our full conversation on my podcast, "The Chauncey DeVega Show."

America in the Age of Trump feels like we have all become unmoored from time. Is this the 1950s and Jim Crow? The Gilded Age? An alternate reality? How have you figured this out for yourself?

In the lead up to the last election I was at one of my kid's friend's birthday parties with a bunch of other parents in somebody's backyard. This was when people were believing that there's no way Trump would be president. At that party was an older white man who likely had some hippie tendencies back in the day. He said, "You know, we thought the idea of Reagan being president was crazy too." And at that moment I said to myself, "Oh no." That moment was when I realized that anything can happen in America if we don't take Trump seriously.

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For me, Donald Trump is not the problem, he's the answer to the America equation. When you add up all the things about America and all the divisions and all the multiplications it is almost like a  long math problem and the result is Donald Trump. So then the question is how do we change the equation? Focusing on Trump is fine, but with everything going on in Alabama and other parts of the country with abortion rights for example, we have to change the equation. 2020 is going to come and I will vote for the Democratic candidate. But I live in California and the Electoral College tells me that my vote doesn't count that much. Therefore we need to take down the electoral college. So for me it's about all of these concerns leading to big ideas. Adding more justices to the Supreme Court is a big idea, taking down the electoral college is a big idea. As a black man in America, black people wouldn't still be here unless we had some big ideas about freedom and democracy.

Black folks are the conscience of the nation. We are the miner's canary and that comes with a great deal of emotional stress, physical stress, and financial stress. Yet, for so many people — especially white conservatives — black people are viewed as being antithetical to what it means to be a "real American."

I kept trying to tell people in my writing and interviews that Trump was going to win in 2016. Many people thought I was crazy. I would tell them that if you know anything about America, how can a professional wrestler, con man reality TV show candidate who cuts heel promos not win? Trump is too entertaining to not win. He's everything wrong with America. As George Carlin observed, "Look at the president. He's exactly what the American people deserve."

You can't take anything for granted. This is why I keep returning back to the Electoral College. The presidential election is not a  popularity contest. It's literally set up to not be a popularity contest. The Electoral College protected the slave-owning South. When you know that there's a big old white man slave-owning thumb on the scale, we can't take our elections for granted. I think that Obama understood that which is why he motivated a bunch of people to vote who maybe wouldn't normally vote. Hillary did not have that same connection.

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What do you think Richard Pryor would do with Donald Trump? Because on one hand Trump is so utterly obvious, what's the joke? What is the punch line? But on the other hand one could only imagine what a genius like Pryor would do with the absurdity of this whole thing.

This feels like a Mudbone skit waiting to happen. Mudbone tells us he knew Trump from back in the day. I'm not here to write for Pryor, but I feel like Mudbone would have lot to say about how he's known Trump for a long time.

Trump's been around forever. I knew him in 1862.

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I knew that, boy. I used to babysit him.

As far as comedians go, hectic times challenge all comedians to be better. Those hectic times also bring out the best in the best comedians. And it also exposes us to new voices that we wouldn't necessarily have heard from because we are looking for new ways to process this moment. Now we have new voices that we wouldn't have had if Trump was elected 30 years ago.

What is your approach when you interview horrible people such as Nazis?

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Make sure you go in properly prepared. You do not just walk in off the street having not done the research on this person or what their ideas are. Forearmed is forewarned.

And also go in with an idea of what you think the big questions are. That way you don't get so caught up in the conversation that you miss asking that big question. But at the same time you have to be flexible and be willing to let it all go. But the number one thing I do is I shut up and listen. This is especially important when you are talking to somebody who knows you disagree with them and wants to see if they can throw you off track. The number one thing you can do to keep the conversation going is not be thrown off track. So when a person I am speaking with for the show says something very racist to me I just sit there and go "OK, what else ya got?" People lose a lot of steam if you don't take the bait.

I think we live in a society where everybody seems like they want to take the bait.  Eventually this means that people are just yelling at each other. This is a fine way to go if you want to do that. But it's not how I do it. I don't get anything out of that type of interaction. People say the things that they believe are the most incendiary to me. They are thinking, "Let's see how Kamau handles this!" If you just look at them and keep smiling and continue on that will automatically make them have to have a new conversation or a different conversation than they normally would.

They have all these stereotypes about black men. This is how they view the world. But then they meet you, a real human being who happens to be a black man. How do you manage that moment?

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I think that happens pretty often when you see them suddenly forget to hate you for a second. For example, the KKK members I spent time with. We had been together for several hours and at a certain point it was just a bunch of dudes who had been out in a hot day. Everyone started drinking beers with me and I'm like, "Whew, we did it. We lit that cross and you guys got the shot, right?" In that moment we were just a bunch of dudes who had a type of Outward Bound experience together.

Now, here's the thing, I don't know if that lasts after I leave. And I'm not going to go back every day to check in with them. But I do think that in the moment you interacted with me I was able to have an intelligent conversation with you. I also made you laugh about things that you normally would take very seriously. I also didn't show myself to be in any way afraid of you.

In your CNN show, other projects, and of course your comedy, you have traveled all over the United States. The corporate mainstream news media loves to present Trump Red State America as a caricature. You don't do this. At present there is a whole sub-genre of writing where they send an intrepid reporter out to Trumplandia to take the pulse of the natives so to speak. It is very flat and uninteresting and lazy. What can writers and journalists do to tell better stories about real people?

A lot of this is about the diversity of who you employ in newsrooms and other parts of the media. For me what helps is that my dad lives in Alabama and has so for most of my life. I've been going to Alabama since I was a baby, but while at the same time living mostly in Chicago, Boston, Indianapolis, and other northern and eastern big cities. I didn't know how big a deal that was until I became an adult and started to say things like "I'm going to go to Alabama for vacation" and other folks would be like, "Alabama for vacation?" This was especially true of black folks.

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When I was younger I hated Alabama because it was so different from what I was used to. But as an adult I think, oh thank god I went there. I'm not afraid of those places. And it doesn't mean that bad things don't happen there, and right now we're going through a moment in this country where the Alabama lawmakers are certainly doing some horrible things that make them look like the worst caricatures of the South. But there are hardworking people doing good work down there. It's just that even though these folks doing that good work have the numbers on their side many times the groups they represent and are trying to help have been disenfranchised by the system.

In these newsrooms that send out those intrepid reporters to Trumplandia there is not enough diversity of experience and background for a reporter to say, "if you're going to go to Appalachia, don't go to this place, go to this one." And even people who are from those places that may happen to be in those newsrooms have learned to think like the mainstream news media. So even if you happen to be the reporter who's from Alabama you've now been trained in these big city newsroom ways and may not be using your other skills and instincts.

I sit in a lot of meetings and many Hollywood rooms where I'm the only person of color in the room. I've seen a lot of meetings where there are no women in the room who are in decision-making positions. This is a problem across the upper echelons of America and not just the newsrooms. I think my job, in addition to everything else I'm doing, is to try to pull more people through the door and do my best to help them get into decision-making roles. Because there's too much groupthink in those places and this leads to the same stories over and over again.

You present a great amount of truth on "United Shades of America." Do you have moments where you have to back off because of the special and relatively unique position you are in with your TV show?  

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No. I focus on, how do we do this in a way that feels natural and not overly didactic? That is the only thing I'm trying to do. If I can figure out a way to make it funny or interesting then that is a plus. On "United Shades of America" we have a great graphics team who help the show to feel a little bit like "Sesame Street" for grown-ups.

This season is the season where we actually brought in outside consultants from the beginning such as Eve Ewing, Jamilah King, and Rembert Browne.

For this season I needed to bring in some very smart people who are way smarter than me at the very beginning. We need to check in with those people throughout the show when we're in the field or when we're in the first edits. We then send them the final edit for the show and let them make the intervention of "this part I would change, this part is good, this part is a little bit weird." We allow our experts to help us make the show better.

After the end of the show I also check in with them by asking, "are there other things you want to do in show business?" So now my mind is open to seeing where else I can figure out how to help. I can bring their names into the mix for other projects and not just my own. The only way we change any of these industries is by looking to people who are good at what they do but who aren't in the industry because the industry didn't invite them in.

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One of your recent episodes examined the fight for women's reproductive rights and reproductive freedoms in Mississippi and other parts of the South. In terms of these people who are trying to take away women's human rights, who are they in their own story? Do they think that they are heroes?

We had a couple interviews with anti-abortion people. These people's religious beliefs makes them feel like they are heroes. They interpret their religion to say that abortion is wrong and therefore this makes me a hero in the story. Everything that's associated with that doesn't matter because the heroic thing is to be anti-abortion. Even if we go through the facts which we did on that episode of "United Shades of America": Mississippi has a high infant mortality rate; Mississippi has bad sex education; Mississippi has a bad public school system. Why are we so focused on abortion and not focused on what happens after these kids are born? The people I spoke with would say things such as "Yes, we need to fix that too". But their number one priority is stopping abortion. If you could hold on to that number one priority then everything else you do is heroic and you'll get to the other issues later.

The one thing that the right has done effectively is that they have connected patriotism, god and capitalism. This means that any decision is made to be OK if you put god in it. So yeah, I learned, I was like, "Look, but your religion is supposed to be about your religion." The law is not always here to uphold people's religious beliefs. You can be a person who doesn't eat pork because your religious beliefs say don't eat pork but you can't make pork illegal. Because Christianity has an over-inflated presence in this country — even though most people are not going to church regularly — and even though there is separation of church and state, a particular version of Christianity become the law.

And it's not just Christian beliefs. We need to be specific. These are white right-wing Christian beliefs that are anti-democratic and laced with white supremacy.

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You're right. The right-wing is tied together by Republican politics, god, Christianity, capitalism, and white supremacy. It's a real bitter gumbo, and people are just sort of eating it and going, "This doesn't taste great, but god said so."

How would you rally people who are afraid to tell the truth in this political and social moment?

It starts with telling the truth in your community. It starts with telling the truth in your friend group. I think it starts with bringing up these conversations with people by saying, "Hey, should we do something about the fact that our public school teachers are underfunded, even if we don't have any kids? Is there something we can do here about abortion rights in this community? Even if we don't live in Alabama?" It's also about starting to tell the truth in your life. Then you can tell the truth in your community.

I grew up in a house where I heard truth-talking all the time. It was just the places I lived in. But I didn't start out as a comedian like this. It took me probably 10 years of doing comedy before I said to myself, "I think I want to do this differently."

You can't expect to end up at the goal, you have to start some place and then build on it. You have to get yourself moving, you got to do more today, you got to do more this week than you did last week, and you got to keep pushing yourself to do a little bit more.

Look at the politicians in Washington, D.C.. History is not kind to the people who say that, "We'll take care of it after the election." History is not kind to people who go, "Once I get re-elected we will then focus on that issue." However, history is kind to people who say, "I'm going to take a big swing here even though it doesn't make any sense." This is why people love Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They may not agree with all of her political ideas but she took a big swing and now she's in the halls of the power and she's still swinging. We have to go for big ideas that may go too far and for too much right now so we can settle for maybe "just OK." You have to take some big swings and not just be a politician who relies on the polling analytics to make decisions.

What would you tell Nancy Pelosi about impeaching Donald Trump?

I think we should have all the tools on the table. And let's make sure we always keep all the tools available at all times. So I think impeachment is certainly a tool. Nobody's going to look back kindly on the Democrats and say, "They didn't think the political will to impeach the guy who was destroying the American dream was ready." Impeachment is one of the tools. Some of these tools are harder to use or take longer to get started and working. At this point it's more likely that Trump wins in 2020 than not if all tools aren't on the table and some big ideas aren't embraced by the Democrats.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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