Below is the full text of our interview with Scott Carter, exclusive to to Banter Members:
Jeremy Fassler: Whose idea was it to bring Steve Bannon on to the show?
Bannon had appeared on Real Time when he produced a documentary on Sarah Palin called The Undefeated, before many people knew about him. Any time somebody has been on, we generally keep in touch with them. This is the 16year of the show, so we have had over 2000 guests, and we try to keep tabs on different people and utilize them when it looks like their profile might be shifting, like KellyAnn Conway, who I first knew when she was a pollster for Republican Senator and who we had on the show in 2016 after Trump named her to his campaign.
When you decided to invite him, was there any pushback from your staff?
There was no second-guessing whether or not we should make this offer. The mandate of our show is to cast as wide of a net as possible for opinions, and then trust our viewers to be persuaded by the person who makes the strongest argument.
Who came up with the questions for him?
I work with whatever writers are assigned to the particular one-on-one guests at the beginning of the show, the people who book them will often have input, and Bill will have a couple of things that he wants to get to.
I think was a good interview, and I give Bill a lot of credit with being tough on Bannon. But is there a reason that before this crucial midterm, we should hear from people like him and not, for example, people working the grassroots and trying to help the Democrats?
Well, the goal of our show is not the goal that you are positing, which is to be more partisan, more tribal. What we want is to go to the truth, and if that truth leads us to indict liberals, so be it. If that truth indicts conservatives, so be it. Look, we’re not a political party. We have a consistent mandate, independent of whether or not there’s an impending election, and we’re obligated to be entertaining. Years ago, when Bill was hosting Politically Incorrect, we did focus groups that showed us that only 14% of people who were regular fans of the show said they agreed with Bill most of the time. A lot of people come to this not to see their tribe re-enforced, but to hear an issue that may not have had the time throughout the week or throughout that day to have read as much as we have. That attests to the fairness of our forum.
I think there’s a romantic notion where we think if we can trip up someone like Bannon in a debate, our side has “won” over him. Do you think approaching him, or anyone in that way is the wrong way to go into it? Is it better to hoist him on his own petard and let the viewer decide whether he’s right or wrong?
We believe in bringing people out, as though people are back in the forest and there’s a clearing. We want everybody to come into the clearing with their ideas, and we trust our viewers to make a correct assessment of who those people are.
Your audience isn’t entirely liberal, but the show tends to slant towards the liberal point of view… What can liberals take away from listening to Bill Maher engage Steve Bannon?
Scott Carter: I think that the purpose of our show is to give a stress test to the strength of our principles. And if we just have people on with whom we agree, as Malcolm Gladwell tweeted when Bannon was disinvited from the New Yorker festival, “that’s not a festival of ideas, that’s a dinner party.” We don’t do a dinner party. In fact, one of the things I tell guests when they’re on the show for the first time is, “imagine that this is a dinner party where you’re seated next to someone with whom you do not always agree, but neither do you throw your drink in their face nor hit them over the head with a chair.”
Yes, but freedom of speech is not freedom from consequence, and several guests on the New Yorker Festival’s lineup threatened to bolt because of Bannon’s presence. It also received a great deal of blowback in the public forum.
People like Jim Carrey and John Mulaney have the right to withdraw from appearing, and I think his dis-invitation had to do with that, and not [the public response.] The First Amendment is very important to us and we’ve been dismayed by instances in the last several years where people with unpopular opinions have been prevented from speaking, and we don’t believe in that. When Dr. Charles Murray [author of The Bell Curve] goes to speak at colleges now, people have got up in the audience and shouted so that he could not be heard. In more than one instance, they’ve followed him and other people after he leaves the auditorium, and have harassed him to the point of physical danger in restaurants as he has tried to eat.
But if a university invites someone whose views are harmful or detrimental to students of color, or female students, it feels like the university is saying their opinion doesn’t matter.
Then the easiest way to deny the strength of a forum would be to not show up and have no one attend. I think what people implicitly do when they prohibit someone from talking is they are saying, “this person’s ideas are so strong that if they were allowed to talk, they would become persuasive.” That underestimates the intelligence of the average viewer, listener, or audience member. We have a different philosophy on this show. We believe that if we are right, we will persuade people and that if we are not persuasive, we don’t think we should be sided with. The notion of stopping people from talking says that people on our side are so stupid that they will believe whatever they hear, so if there is an idea we do not agree with, we must stop it from being voiced.
We’ve seen this anger on the left a number of times this year, such as when The New York Times hired and fired Quinn Norton after discovering she had used insensitive language, and when the Atlantic did the same to Kevin Williamson after they learned he would punish women for having abortions. What is the lesson for those publications, and to a similar extent, Real Time? Is it that you should think about who you hire to represent your brand? Or does rejecting them stifle free speech, even if their speech harms marginalized people?
Well, when people say they believe in the First Amendment theoretically, but actually deny people First Amendment rights, I’d say you don’t believe in the First Amendment. I think that your framing of this question in terms of playing to one’s tribe is a smaller consideration than the ones that we need in this era. For example, I’m sure a lot of the unruly demonstrations this last weekend against Kavanaugh made all the protestors feel good about themselves, but did they persuade one independent to their cause?
Well, Tom Nichols, who previously identified as a Republican, wrote an essay in The Atlantic this week saying the Kavanaugh debacle made him become an independent.
But I don’t know if that was from the protesting mob. Mitch McConnell and others have cited the nature of the protests as being animating for Republicans to register to vote in the midterms, which would seem counterproductive from a liberal’s point of view.
But the Republicans denied liberals the chance to debate this in a fair way, like limiting the questioning time in the Dr. Ford hearings, not releasing all the documents, and the sham FBI investigation. If you take all that away, then what other options does the left have other than to scream and take to the streets?
The persistent framing of this for liberals is limiting to the actual goal. For instance, liberals don’t vote in midterms, so in 2010, they didn’t vote to back up Obama. They voted when he was on the ballot, but not when he wasn’t, so they gave him Republican congresses that allowed Merrick Garland’s nomination to be ignored. That’s the plight of liberals, and for them to make each other feel better by whining or crying to each other, it does not win extra votes from the middle, which is what one needs in order to win an election.
This is not to discredit the efforts of organizations like Women’s March and March for Our Lives, who have both protested and increased voter registration.
No, and one of the main organizers in both of those instances is someone who works on the Real Time staff. And let’s also look at Madonna speaking at the Women’s March, and talking about the White House blowing up. That’s something that makes liberals feel really good, solidifies people on the right, and alienates independents.
It was a dumb thing for her to say, but it’s the only time I’ve seen the left engage in this kind of rhetoric, at least in a public way. The alt-right has more of a propensity to use violent language and threaten the safety and well-being of liberals and marginalized people.
Still, the point of that action is to produce the results you want. Bill and I began working together for the first time on Politically Incorrect in January of 1993, the week Bill Clinton was inaugurated. At that time, political correctness was a movement on campuses to squash opinions that were disagreed with. If an article in the school paper was objectionable, student activists would go to the kiosk where that newspaper appeared and get rid of them, because contrary opinions could not be heard. A few years ago, one campus that was going to do a production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues and it had to be canceled because of a movement on campus saying describing women only by those who have vaginas was too limiting. We were against political correctness then, and now it’s come back and its return has made the political climate more hospitable to a demagogue like Trump.
But I feel that the rise of political correctness on campuses is very associated with the rise of things like MeToo and Black Lives Matter, which say, “I matter, my story matters.” Look at the women who came to Washington to share their stories about surviving sexual assault. I don’t think that the epidemic of political correctness is as responsible for this climate; I think it’s that older white people feel threatened when marginalized people assert their humanity.
I’m not limiting the effectiveness of political correctness in mobilizing the right to one generation or another. I think that if your father or mother or maybe people in your family worked in for three generations, and that it’s closed, and then people in the left are not addressing your plight, but seem to be addressing more “boutique” concerns, when a demagogue comes along on the right telling you that he’ll reopen that factory and renegotiate trade deals for your profit, I cannot then…who are you going to vote for?
Well, that is a factor behind the rise of Donald Trump. He made aggrieved whites not only feel victimized but listened to.
But many of them have been victimized by the decisions of different corporations to move their factories offshore where they can pay workers a nickel an hour. The appalling lameness of liberals has been the inability to make the case to people who should be on their side, and whose causes they have historically championed. So for example, FDR would have gotten the votes of 90% of the people who voted for Trump. When he got polio and had to go to Warm Springs, Georgia, this New York patriarch had to rub shoulders with poor black and white people, and he saw the world through their eyes. That gave him a unique outlook on America so that when the Depression came, he became a unique voice for all Americans. Contrast that with Hillary Clinton giving speeches to Goldman Sachs.
Not to knock the political genius of FDR, but while the New Deal was great for America, it left out African-Americans and other POC. The difference between then and now is that the Democratic Party is much more ethnically diverse, and their issues have to be addressed. A simple appeal to the white working-class may not be enough, especially since the working class is growing more diverse.
You’re looking at it again in tribal terms. I would say there is no reason not to be including all workers of all ages, genders, and races, and the white blue-collar worker who has lost his or her job. The goal for this era, for me, should be to transcend tribal truths. The tribal truth is always limited. Trump is the most tribal person in America right now, and he’s calling to his white army to say POC and strong women are “the other.” When liberals are tribal, that’s counter-productive and it alienates the increasingly large population that now declares themselves to be independent and belonging to neither political party.
Last question: would you have Steve Bannon on again?
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.