There’s More Olympic Conversation, Plus Ben Shapiro, on a New “Real Time”

Topics ranged from trans athletes to authoritarianism

Bill Maher
Bill Maher on the August 6 episode of "Real Time With Bill Maher."

One of the running themes throughout this year’s run of Real Time With Bill Maher episodes has been its host’s search for a new foil with Donald Trump out of office and off of Twitter. By and large, that’s led Maher to clash with the American left, particularly its younger and more social media-focused elements. It’s led to some dissonant moments — including one in last night’s episode, where Maher essentially made the case for why inveighing against cancel culture hasn’t had the same force as his arguments against Trump.

Maher’s opening monologue for this episode didn’t lack for subjects — he covered everything from Disneyland’s COVID protocols to the gubernatorial woes of Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom. At times, though, some of the wordplay felt a little flat — as when Maher, speaking of the Delta Plus variant, said that “apparently, this sh*t gets passed around like a Netflix password.”

Donna de Varona, founder of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, was the first guest of the night. The conversation was Olympic-themed; specifically, it was about trans athletes. The WSPWG has been under a lot of scrutiny for its policy stances regarding trans athletes and women’s sports. De Varona characterized that position as a relatively centrist one, nominally looking to bring the two sides of the issue together for dialogue.

Maher noted that the WSPWG’s recommendations would bar trans women from competing in certain sports, something he seemed critical about. Even so, he quickly returned to the ages-old “why not just have the discussion” line of argument. This, in turn, led to a dissonant couple of minutes as two cisgender people discussed the future of trans athletes — with a bonus invocation of Bari Weiss’s Substack newsletter thrown into the mix.

It was the latest variation on a familiar theme for Maher — namely, that “the kids” were ruining everything. And, like several of his interviews with people with whom he’s ideologically simpatico, the conversation itself felt uninteresting. As with last week’s interview with Eric Adams, it seemed less an interview and more a way for Maher to summarize news stories that frustrated him. That may be cathartic for Maher, but it’s not terribly interesting to watch.

Comprising this episode’s panel were national security expert Malcolm Nance, author of The Plot to Destroy America, and conservative podcaster Ben Shapiro, author of The Authoritarian Moment.”This could get to be quite a brawl,” Maher noted when introducing the two panelists – and stated that he considered both friends.

Maher opened by asking both about Tucker Carlson’s recent visit to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. And while he acknowledged that he agreed with some of the thesis of Shapiro’s book (subtitled “How the Left Weaponized America’s Institutions Against Dissent”), he asked why he wasn’t as critical of authoritarian tendencies on the right. “I just find it perverse that you find that less alarming than the old-school kind of authoritarianism that Trump and his ilk are going for,” Maher said.

Shapiro’s argument centered around last summer’s protests responding to police violence and, more recently, Joe Biden’s rationale for extending the eviction moratorium. This, Maher argued, was “soft power” as opposed to “the guys who actually want to subvert the election.” 

Cue Nance, who was more overt in his criticism of Shapiro. “It’s a nice title for his book!” Nance said. “And I think a lot of people who would assume that he’s talking about real authoritarians could be trapped into giving you $28.99.” And things escalated quickly from there, with Nance arguing (convincingly) that authoritarian dangers came from other areas and Shapiro criticizing Nance for comments he’d made on social media.

The second half of the panel discussion found the subject turning to critical race theory. Shapiro mentioned that he’d read a fair amount of it when he was in law school, but seemed unconvinced by his conclusions. 

Nance was unconvinced by his argument, and made an impassioned case for learning more about the bleaker parts of American history — and then invoked an ancestor of his who had escaped from slavery to fight for the Union in the Civil War. “Critical race theory is a subject because the Republican right has made it a subject,” he said.

For New Rules, Maher touched on a couple of evergreen subjects, including very expensive french fries and QR code menus. The bulk of the segment found Maher pondering why Republicans in Congress have, by and large, embraced the theory that the last Presidential election was “stolen.” His argument? That being elected to Congress doesn’t require a “defined skill set” and thus, it was very easy to do the job. “All you need is a smile and a tie,” said Maher.

“Unremarkable people can have a remarkable life in Congress,” he added. And with incumbents being re-elected in safe districts all the time, Maher argued, the easy path to keeping a well-paying job with few down sides is telling voters what they want to hear. He cited the case of Rep. Nancy Mace, who was critical of Donald Trump in the wake of the Capitol breach but has since left that position behind.

“A lot of people in America think she’s a patriot,” Maher said. “But she looks to me like a traitor for the corner office.” It was a bold note to end on — and a case of Maher targeting people in power, which made the point even more emphatic.

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