Bill Maher, Killer Mike and Robert Costa Deconstruct Politics on a New “Real Time”

Plus: an unsettling prediction of the near future

Bill Maher
Bill Maher on the October 8, 2021 episode of "Real Time."

Standing before a full studio audience, Bill Maher had good news and bad news to deliver. The bad news? An oil spill has added to the list of issues California is dealing with right now. The good? COVID-19 cases appear to be on the decline. “Come December, airline passengers might be back to punching each other over the armrest,” he said. It was par for the course for Real Time With Bill Maher — ups and downs, along with a couple of digs thrown at social media.

Also up for grabs in the opening monologue? Squid Game, which Maher suggested that Mitch McConnell might be keeping an eye on for policy ideas. It was a more rapid-fire array of bits than usual, with Maher also covering everything from the release of No Time to Die to the protestors who recently followed Kyrsten Sinema into a bathroom. 

Steven Pinker, author — most recently — of Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, was up first. Pinker brought up a few statistics to illustrate his point that, overall, living conditions had improved around the globe for the vast majority of people over the last few centuries. Maher’s first question arose from that: why does it seem like so many people won’t acknowledge progress? Pinker’s argument was multifaceted, and included pointing out that news can often make things look worse than they are — after all, a war not happening is considered a good thing, but isn’t necessarily the stuff from which headlines are made.

Pinker also argued that there was a tendency to overlook progress by some on both the political right and left, for varying reasons. But he also made a case against nostalgia for the past. “Often, the best explanation for the ‘good old days’ is a bad memory,” he told Maher. And then the conversation took a surreal detour when Maher asked Pinker about why people see ghosts.

Joining Maher for the panel were Killer Mike of Run the Jewels and political reporter Robert Costa, most recently the co-author of Peril. Costa’s work with Bob Woodward on Peril and the efforts of the January 6 commission got the discussion off to an engaging start. Something that concerned all three participants was the tendency of some people to ignore subpoenas from the commission — something that, Maher observed, has an unfortunately long history. And, as Killer Mike pointed out, most people dealing with a subpoena don’t really have the option of just ignoring it.

Maher’s been arguing repeatedly that the nation is close to a civil war, and argued that starting to jail people for not responding to the subpoena of a congressional commission might set an alarming precedent, but the larger issue — and the lack of an easy solution — loomed over the proceedings. 

It didn’t hurt, though, that both panelists were both knowledgeable and engaging — and seemed genuinely interested in what one another had to say. Whether the topic of debate was reforming policing, the importance of investigative journalism or the infrastructure bill, it made for compelling viewing.

The second half of the panel discussion found all three men having an expansive conversation about the United States’ immigration policy — which, along the way, touched on everything from Congressional dysfunction to the differences between the U.S. and Canada in terms of their handling of immigration. There weren’t any definitive answers reached by the end of the conversation, but the points each panelist brought up lingered.

New Rules got off to an odd start, with Maher’s jokes about the concept of libraries not landing terribly well. Far better was Maher making the case for advertising-supported free weed and having a field day with the concept of someone unaware that their dog was blind. But the conclusion of the segment turned far more somber.

“I was a young man of 59 when I started using the phrase ‘slow-moving coup,’” Maher said — and warned that such an event is growing even closer now. At one point, the audience applauded an observation he made about the heightened stakes and likelihood of election results being overturned; he paused and asked that they not, in fact, applaud that. 

Maher observed that, since leaving office, Donald Trump “has been quietly purging the Republican Party” of his opponents since the 2020 election. The points he brought up have been made before — but hearing it all in one place was fully sobering. Even more so was his outlining of how a disputed 2024 election might play out. And how did Maher bring the segment and the episode to a close? Saying, “I hope I scared the shit out of you.” It was unnerving. It was also a reminder of what Maher is capable of when he’s taking on a big enough target. — and the potential collapse of a nation is as grand a topic as they get.

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