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Transcript: Discussion of "Harrison Bergeron," by Kurt Vonnegut
Walter Kirn and Matt Taibbi on the 1961 story and its relationship to the Kennedy Assassination, Trump, and digital censorship
From “America This Week,” the free transcript of this week’s story discussion. This week, “Harrison Bergeron” by the great Kurt Vonnegut:
Matt Taibbi: This week’s story is Harrison Bergeron, by Kurt Vonnegut, which has a lot of predictive power about a couple of things in modern society.
Vonnegut was always one of my favorites. I liked him as a kid, among other things, because he was easy to read. The paragraphs were small and separated. He drew pictures that were funny. He openly didn’t take literature seriously. He had a great sense of humor, and the message was, I always thought gentle, humanistic, encouraging, and optimistic, and the stories were great. But his short stories are not something that I ever really got into. So, this was interesting for me. What are your thoughts about Kurt Vonnegut?
Walter Kirn: I mean, to reintroduce him to maybe younger listeners or to people who weren’t fans, Kurt Vonnegut is an American novelist whose major works were produced in the sixties and seventies and the eighties to some extent, who was a World War II veteran, whose formative experience in life was being on the ground at the firebombing of Dresden in World War II. And so he experienced war at a level of horrific industrial incineration that was unique. And he came back to the United States. He’s originally from Indiana. He was from a commercial family in Indianapolis. They had a department or maybe a hardware store chain.
He went to work in upstate New York, maybe for General Electric or some big post-war company. And in this way he was like Joseph Heller. Heller and Vonnegut lived in some ways parallel lives. They both came back from terrifying experiences in World War II to try to join normie corporate America in the fifties. And they in some ways failed to bond and became satirical novelists whose target was what we might call the organization. The person who doesn’t ask questions whose identity is subsumed by some absurd either army or company or social scene. And for me, Vonnegut, you say he had a sense of humor. He almost had nothing but a sense of humor.
Matt Taibbi: I was going to say, he was also less vicious than Joseph Heller was in his caricatures.
Walter Kirn: Yes, and that probably has to do with temperament, but also may have to do with the fact that Kurt Vonnegut’s World War II was approximately 10,000 times more horrifying than Heller's. He saw a major European city reduced to rubble and its population to body parts and scavenging animals almost, in the wake of this. And he was held prisoner there. In any case, his greatest book is probably his account of that bombing interspliced with a weird science fiction story called Slaughterhouse-Five.
Matt Taibbi: With a character named Montana Wildhack. I always thought that was a great name.
Walter Kirn: Montana Wildhack. So in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut takes a character who was a fellow soldier of his, who he names Billy Pilgrim, who’s an American everyman. A simple, innocent American everyman. And in the spliced part of the novel, he imagines Billy Pilgrim becoming “unstuck in time” and becoming a zoo creature on another planet.
Matt Taibbi: Tralfamadore, that’s the name of the planet.
Walter Kirn: On a planet called Tralfamadore, where he’s caged with a porn star, an incredibly well-endowed porn star named Montana Wildhack. And the extra-terrestrials watch them cavort in the cage. And we understand this fantasy, high absurd Swiftian cartoon drama as the necessary psychic escape from the horrors of the Dresden bombing. He, in the book, enacts a psychic break in which the horrors of reality are poised against the weirdness of this notion that you can move around “unstuck in time” to other planets and become a zoo animal for the entertainment of other beings and so on.
But the thing that I think is important about Kurt Vonnegut vis-a-vis this story, Harrison Bergeron, is that he was a Midwesterner, and he came from a world that I know well because I grew up in it too, where everybody’s supposed to be nice to each other. And in the words of Garrison Keillor, “All the children are above average,” as he said, of Lake Wobegon. And it is not nice to be better than someone else, to put on airs, and to be stuck up. That’s the word we used to use in high school back in Minnesota. And this story is about a society in the future in which everybody is equal because everybody who exceeds the norm, whether it be in intelligence or beauty or athleticism, is handicapped such that they can’t stand out.
Matt Taibbi: I think the two big themes that he really nails in this story are the ideology of equity, and then there’s a lot about the internet and the mechanisms of evening things out that he approximates here. But he writes,
The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
Matt Taibbi: Of course, it’s amusing that that word would no longer be allowed if you were writing today, but that’s pretty much the story. It goes on from there and we’ll get into the specific plot points, but the idea is they were mandating that everybody no longer be better than anybody else in any way. The people who were had to walk around with weights around their necks. They had internal mechanisms that made their brains blast really unpleasant noises if they were smarter than other people and were tempted to have thoughts that raced them ahead of others. One of them described it as listening to a ball-peen hammer hitting a Coke bottle.
By the way: Vonnegut had, I always thought, a really great gift for capturing images in a sentence. He was very original in that way. He got you from A to B in a very creative way, but it wasn’t flashy. He always came up with something that was both simple and really, really creative.
Walter Kirn: Matt, I see a lot of Vonnegut in your writing. I really do.
Matt Taibbi: I wish! But thank you.
Walter Kirn: I think you absorbed and digested him and made him your own in some fashion. But back to the story.
Matt Taibbi: So, this is about a family, and it’s George and Hazel Bergeron, and these names, as you say, he’s a Midwesterner. A lot of his characters come from places like where was it? Ili New York? Was that one of them?
Walter Kirn: Which is a take on Troy, New York.
Matt Taibbi: Then a lot of them were from Indiana or Indianapolis. I think his best book, the one I enjoyed the most was Breakfast of Champions, which was, if I remember correctly, set in Indiana.
Walter Kirn: It’s about a car dealer from Indiana. Dwayne Hoover. Yeah. And his adventures in Holiday Inn ballrooms and car dealer offices and the most banal American settings imaginable.
Matt Taibbi: His unique trick as a satirist was, and the thing that he did really brilliantly through this character who reappeared in a lot of his books, Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer who was a stand-in for Vonnegut himself, was he would describe the way people acted as if you were having to explain it to an alien civilization that had never heard of it before. And of course, if you do that, inevitably we sound like the most ridiculous people, the most ridiculous animals who have ever been created. And he was always very good at that.
And I thought Breakfast of Champions was terrific in the way it used that technique to take this totally banal part of America that you would never even want to visit and make it seem like the wildest, weirdest place in the world.
But anyway, once again, it seems like he’s taking Midwestern characters as this George and Hazel Bergeron, and George is smart, and he has to wear what they call a little mental handicap radio in his ear where, “Every 20 seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.”
While he’s hearing stuff in his head, Hazel is apparently not hearing this, but they’re in the same place because the government has successfully evened things out. And then there is a plot that develops about their son, Harrison. I think he’s 14.
Walter Kirn: I can’t remember his age. But I think that the reason this is apropos of what we were talking about before is that the story here occurs on television as the couple watches their son appear on a variety show. And on this variety show, there are ballet dancers, and the beautiful ones have to wear ugly masks. And the ones who are light on their feet have to wear extra heavy bags of lead shot or whatever to keep them earthbound. And onto the stage comes their son. They didn’t know he was coming because they live in a state of induced idiocy due to these ear devices they’re forced to wear.
They get about 20 seconds of consciousness, at which point they reset constantly. They’re like TikTok videos. And here comes their son onto the stage, they’re not expecting it. And he performs marvels of eloquence. He proclaims himself a great person, a great man. He takes one of the ballerinas in hand, and they dance in an extraordinary fashion. He so exceeds the median he so overcomes the average that he has to be actually killed on the air. So, the Handicapper in Chief or the Handicapper General, I forget her name, but it’s another great Vonnegut name...
Matt Taibbi: Diana Moon Glampers.
Walter Kirn: Diana Moon Glampers. The Handicapper General comes out with a shotgun and blows them away, blows away Harrison Bergeron and blows away the dancer that he’s cavorting with. Meanwhile, back on the couch in Indiana or whatever presumed middle American spot the parents live in, they struggle to take in what they’re seeing because the moment they start reacting to it, they get this tone in their ear that resets their consciousness. And the real horror of this story is not that the Handicapper in General is blowing people away on TV for showing extraordinary abilities. It’s that the parents of the guy who gets blown away are incapable of being upset or even registering what has happened. Toward the end of the story, they’re like, “What just happened on TV? I think it was upsetting.” And he’s like, “Don’t be upset. Don’t pay attention to sad things.” They just watched their son be killed, but the numbing agents and the diversionary technologies that are universal now don’t allow them to take in the worst event of their lives.
Matt Taibbi: As Harrison is killed, and by the way, the way they introduce him is hilarious. It’s very early sixties variety show like dialogue.
Walter Kirn: Read what he says, Matt, because he’s very much like Trump. He comes on making these extraordinary claims for himself, right?
He’s a big egotist, because in this world, you’re not allowed to have an ego. When it really comes down to it, what the Handicapper General is stamping out in society is any arrogance, ego, or self-love. You can’t be stronger. You can’t be smarter, and you certainly can’t proclaim that you are. But he comes on stage committing the ultimate sin, which is proclaiming his extraordinary nature.
Matt Taibbi: They had to put a rubber ball on his face, because he is good-looking. He was seven feet tall, but they recalibrated the picture to make him look ordinary, but he throws off all of the weights and all of the hindrances. And then he screams:
“I am the emperor. Do you hear? I am the emperor. Everybody must do what I say at once.” And he stamps his feet. “Even as I stand here, crippled, hobbled, sickened, I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived. Now watch me become what I can become.”
Walter Kirn: Could this not be a Trump speech?
Matt Taibbi: It totally could be a Trump speech. It didn’t even occur to me. It’s so embarrassing I missed that, but it’s true.
Walter Kirn: Then here comes Erin Burnett, the Handicapper General.
Matt Taibbi: Exactly. And he starts dancing with the ballerina, and he plucks the mental handicap from her ear, and they start dancing beautifully, and it’s awesome, it’s a spectacle. And of course, Diana Moon Glampers, who is Erin Burnett, or God knows who else, Rachel Maddow, any of them, comes in with a double-barreled, 10-gauge shotgun. Fires twice, and the new emperor and empress were “dead before they hit the floor.”
And George, the father, who is genetically responsible for this, because apparently it’s his brains that are passed down to Harrison, he’s away at this moment. He’s getting a beer when this is happening. He comes back and he finds his wife crying.
“You been crying” he said to Hazel.
“Yup,” she said.
“What about?” he said.
“I forget,” she said. “Something real sad on television.”
“What was it?” he said.
“It's all kind of mixed up in my mind,” said Hazel.
“Forget sad things,” said George.
“I always do,” said Hazel.
“That's my girl,” said George. He winced. There was the sound of a rivetting gun in his head.
“Gee - I could tell that one was a doozy,” said Hazel.
“You can say that again,” said George.
“Gee-” said Hazel, “I could tell that one was a doozy.”
That’s straight out of the Three Stooges. That’s another thing I like about Vonnegut, is that he was never afraid to go for the corniest conceivable joke and be proud of it. But yeah, I mean, there’s so much in this, the weight system, the signal system. How exactly like all of the tools that we have on the internet is that? The de-amplification, the warnings, everything.
Walter Kirn: And so the question is, what was Vonnegut talking about? What is this an allegory for? Now, conservatives love this story. Anti-socialists love this story because, to them, it represents Vonnegut’s critique of a world in which everybody is made equal through a bureaucratic adjustment that resembles socialism. And so right-wingers love Harrison Bergeron, okay? They see it as a miniature Ayn Rand-ian Fountainhead about how the extraordinary individual will be leveled by the state. I, as a Midwesterner, don’t quite see it that way. And I don’t imagine that Vonnegut thought that way because Vonnegut was a leftist. He was a leading antiwar Vietnam critic, and he wasn’t usually a critic of society except of vanilla capitalism as a soul-deadening force in nature.
He seemed to be far more concerned about the stupid-ification of America through consumerism and et cetera, than a critique of a looming socialist order. I see this as Vonnegut’s critique of Midwesternism, of a world in which no one is allowed to brag. No one is allowed to stand out. And it’s almost like an earlier Midwestern writer, Sinclair Lewis, who also made fun of the boosters and chamber of commerce types in the Midwest. And so, I think that the conservatives who point to this story as a veiled attack on socialism don’t understand the culture out of which it arose in plain middle America, Indianapolis.
But like most great pieces of literature, it transcends whatever might seem to be its literal decoding. And it really just is a story about two things, to me: Induced stupidity of the audience and the country, we’re to presume - not just this couple - is in a state of eternal stupefaction in which every last thought they have is then forgotten. Every last spectacle is supplanted by a new spectacle. We’re to understand that people get blown away on TV every night maybe. This is probably a variety show, which ends with the death almost every night of whoever came out and was stupid enough to pretend they were better. And so, it’s about stupefaction. And on the part of the people like Harrison Bergeron, I think it’s about the tragedy of being an artist as a Midwesterner. Vonnegut left this state. He became a New Yorker ultimately, and he was the toast of America at some point.
The fame Kurt Vonnegut had among his fans is hard to imagine nowadays. I don’t think there’s any equal to it. He was an avuncular beloved guy who appeared on TV. Did you know he appeared on TV on 9/11 [Editor’s Note: He wrote this shortly after 9/11], I think that’s true, as someone who had to interpret this event for America? I will stand corrected by our audience if I’m wrong, but I think it’s true. So, he had this role as a sage commentator, as a Mark Twain, a Mark Twain stand-in, really, and he looked like Twain.
He cultivated the same big hair and the mustache and the professional Mid-Westerner identity and the sardonic refusal to recognize pretentiousness, though, I think what we really have is a story that predicted two things: technological stupefaction and an envy society, in which to break out of whatever the standard model is in terms of opinions or abilities, is to invite scorn. I’m not saying that’s what we got with Lara Logan, but we’re seeing the media more and more act like the Handicapper General, aren’t we? It’s not so much that they’re policing superior abilities, but they’re certainly policing…
Matt Taibbi: Difference.
Walter Kirn: The individual.
Matt Taibbi: This story was written probably a couple of years after Invasion of the Body Snatchers [from 1956]. I didn’t read this story really as an anti-Marxist critique, although I know some people have. But I saw it much more as criticism of the movement towards mass conformity that was really the abiding concern of a lot of people in intellectual life in America, such as it was at the time.
Walter Kirn: It was published in 1961.
Matt Taibbi: Then there was The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and this whole worry that beneath the joyous conformism of the ‘50s there lurked something dangerous and anti-intellectual.
Matt Taibbi: I think that was probably more of what he was getting at. But we have Invasion of the Body Snatchers on — I hate to use that term, “On steroids,” but it’s way worse now. Now, we have these algorithmic technologies that in advance detect the people who are likely to turn out to be different in some way, and we deamplify them. We put them in denylists, and they can be identified as potential dangers. They can end up interrogated in an airport in London like Kit Klarenberg, or you start making lists of people who deviate from the mean, and that’s really what this is. It’s we’ve identified the mean, and the mean is good.
For anyone else, we’re going to put up roadblocks for you. The other thing that I think was so prescient was this assault on family bonds, which is a consistent feature of all totalitarian, dystopian literature, which he had to have been reading a lot of at that time. But he nailed it in a way that was particularly interesting because it wasn’t just, “We’re going to separate you at birth by the way they did in Brave New World,” or “have you bred in pods.” They made it so that this otherwise loving normal family just couldn’t remember what they just saw because of these new technologies, which are probably on their way to happening. Already are. We are living in a society that doesn’t remember what happened 10 minutes ago, and the people who try to remember increasingly are becoming dissidents, whether they like it or not, they’re all being defined in the same way.
Walter Kirn: They’re forced into dissidence by the fact as they are pushed out of so-called mainstream outlets, and they start communicating on Signal and they start writing on Substack and they do these other things in the spaces that are allotted to them, and then the fact that they’ve been marginalized becomes proof of their radicalism in a self-reinforcing way like, “We’re going to make you an outsider. Then once you are, we’re going to portray you as an extremist. We’ll push you to the edge, and then once you’re on the edge, we’ll say that’s where you want to be. That’s where you chose to be, and that’s where you plan to mount an attack on the middle from,” when in fact, “We’re the people who made you retreat. We were the ones who wouldn’t let you be here in the center, and now you’re an extremist because the center rejected you.”
I would like nothing more than to be on CBS or be called that by CNN to be on a panel. At this point, I know how it would go, that you would see my dead body afterwards or skeleton on the table as Van Jones took his last scoop of my flesh. But to come back to the story, let’s talk about a couple of historical parameters. It was published in October 1961, and it was published in a science fiction magazine, not in The New Yorker, not in Harper’s, not in some mainstream publication because Vonnegut at this point was really not famous and not well known and was considered a science fiction writer because his first few novels had these strange hybrid science fiction plots.
Matt Taibbi: He was Kilgore Trout at that point.
Walter Kirn: He was Kilgore Trout. Now October 1961, when it’s published means that it was written probably in the spring. Where are we then? What happened in 1960? What extraordinary person and his beautiful wife were at the center of television? John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy. I look at this and there should always be a five-minute weirdo Walter clip in every America this week, I look at this story as terribly prophetic about something you would never guess, the Kennedy assassination.
Harrison Bergeron who comes out as the emperor of America with his queen, the beautiful ballet, the person who stands out before Middle America and offends against every 1950s style code of moderation and normalcy.
Matt Taibbi: They were rich too.
Walter Kirn: In this little microcosmic science fiction published story, he basically tells us what’s going to happen to the couple that had to have been in his mind as the premier American-
Matt Taibbi: God, I didn’t think of that either.
Walter Kirn: Only I think this horribly about the relationship between literature and reality because I happen to have a mystical theory, the underpinnings of which I won’t go into lest they Lara Loganize me, that the real prophets of society are not CNN and not Wolf Blitzer and so on, but people like Kurt Vonnegut who go into some state of unrewarded, hypnotic zeitgeist meditation and come up with things that only in retrospect do we realize were inevitable. Seeing this extraordinary couple get blown away on TV by the Handicapper General, it’s pretty much the Zapruder film.
There they are extraordinary. There they are, America’s King and Queen and the forces of Great Plains normalcy, or whatever it was that killed him come out in Dallas that day just as they came for Harrison Bergeron.
Matt Taibbi: Kennedy was young too.
Walter Kirn: He was young, his wife was beautiful, and to update all this, whether or not Donald Trump is Harrison, I think he sees himself as Harrison. He definitely feels that he is this extraordinary being who is beset by inferiors or not just inferiors, bureaucrats, because remember, the agent of the leveling in this story is this Diana Glampers bureaucrat. I think we should start referring to some of these disinformation people as Handicappers General.
We say things like, “On CNN today, the Handicapper General weighed in on the 17th Trump arraignment.” The theme of forgetting in the story is also appropriate to what we’re talking about because we are to every night tune in to a new Trump arraignment, impeachment, whatever it may be, warning about extremism with fresh and absolute 11-level horror. Then we’re to forget about it the next day so that we can be aroused again the next day.
Matt Taibbi: The videos that Matt Orfalea makes for our site, which are compilations of things that people said on television that apparently we were supposed to forget because they’re insane when taken in context. All he does is string them together and show you how ridiculous it is if you try to remember all the things that people say on TV and try to make sense of it as one contiguous message. But we don’t do that. The imperative that comes from television is, “You live in the moment, we are only in the now. The things we said five minutes ago are not relevant. The things we’re going to say in five minutes aren’t relevant. The only thing that matters is right at this one second, and we reserve the right to completely change our minds about whatever in a few minutes.”
I think that’s pretty accurate. What he describes in the story is pretty close to what we’re living right now. The other thing about this story, and I know this is going to out me as not being a Midwestern, I didn’t recognize those themes, but what it did remind me of: Harrison Bergeron is seven feet tall, crazy looking, beautiful, sticks out. Because of that, he evokes all this horror in this audience that is used to conformity. Whether they love it or not, they expect it.
That reminded me a lot of the first chapter of Master and Margarita, where Satan appears in the middle of Moscow, and he’s dressed outlandishly. He’s seven feet tall. He has a glass eye. He is marvelous looking in lots of different ways, and this arouses instant suspicion in people just because he’s different in a world where to be different is to die.
Matt Taibbi: This was written in 1937 in Moscow, when somebody parading around in a weird suit and speaking in something like an accent that they can’t identify and being seven feet tall and not ashamed of it was in itself an act of defiance. I think that a universal theme with repressive societies is that if you’re openly different and are unashamed of it, bad things will happen to you.
Walter Kirn: The oldest human religion, and I’ve studied this, or the oldest human superstition anthropology tells us surrounds the evil eye, an almost universal fear that to attract envy is to attract disaster. The evil eye mindset is the reason that if someone comes into your house and says, “What a beautiful house,” You will usually say, “Yeah, but I’m sorry it’s so dirty,” or if they look at a baby and say, “Oh, it’s the perfect baby.” “Oh, but it just burped and it’s made a mess.”
One of our greatest fears and most universal anxieties as humans is that we may attract the jealousy of others, and that means an attack by others. I think one of the reasons that Trump has been such a transfixing figure in America is that he throws all that to the wind.
Trump is someone, people have said, who is a poor man’s version of a rich man. He, in some ways, appeals to people because he does with his money what they imagine they would do if they won the lottery, “I want a solid gold car.” So, in that sense, there is something primal about all people’s response to Donald Trump. On the one hand, I think a lot of people secretly go, as they do when rappers have three models on their arms and are drinking Cristal from the bottle, they’re going like, “Yeah, man, go.” But the other part of them is, “If I behaved that way, I’d get what was coming to me.” We saw this in that coverage of Trump eating dinner at his country club. Look at him. Doesn’t he realize the hatred and anger that he’s attracting? Isn’t anybody advising him not to laugh and smile and be seen having a good time the night before his arraignment?
It really had that horrible feeling of a mob attacking someone who’s just standing out, who’s made the mistake of being too colorful. I don’t speak to Donald Trump’s actual sins in this case. You know why? ‘Cause he hasn’t gone on trial yet.
So, when he goes on trial and we see the evidence and we know what the charges are, and the presumption of innocence is still in place, but we’re starting to adjudicate it ourselves, I will discuss it as a trial. But at this point, it’s a spectacle.
What it is a spectacle of is a strange homeostatic mechanism in society by which the exception to the norms is clawed down. I don’t want to be Donald Trump. I don’t want a solid gold car. But in everyone, I think there is an Id, and Donald Trump has spoken directly to that id for years and years, and here comes the super ego as it were.
Matt Taibbi: We’ve also lied to the public about this forever. We always present the president as this ordinary, plain-spoken, often Midwestern figure, from Harry Truman to Ike to Nixon.
Walter Kirn: Silent Cal. Silent Cal Coolidge, or the Ohio presidents.
Matt Taibbi: George W. Bush, who was really a rich coke-snorting libertine, he’s now repackaged as a Christian who likes to clear brush with a chainsaw like an everyman.
This is the lie that we’ve always sold to the middle of the country, that the president is just, “He’s just an ordinary person like you and me, with the same ordinary taste.”
One of the things that I think was really successful with him is that he said, “Screw that. I’m not going to present myself as being pretending to be humble,” and pretending to be an ordinary square person like all these other idiots like Jeb Bush and John Kasich and all these other bores that he was on stage with.
He exploded the idiocy, and really the cruelty of that myth. It’s really a cruel myth that these people lay on the public, this idea that, “We’re going to pretend to be ordinary like you, when actually we want awesome power and limitless wealth, and we’re pretty close to getting it.”
I think that illusion has never been a good one. Trump was different in that respect, and he represents a failure to pretend, which I guess, is frowned upon.
Walter Kirn: The other thing is, the week before this arraignment he went to a Waffle House. I don’t know if you saw that footage.
Walter Kirn: Instead of the Doral Country Club, he went to a Waffle House. He shook hands and hugged the workers and shot the breeze with the supposed customers or whoever the Secret Service allowed into that Waffle House and had the common touch as it were. To me, that is the even greater mythological sin of Donald Trump before the media, which is that besides being outlandish in this P.T. Barnum larger-than-life salesman, he goes around and he makes them turn their cameras on the people they assiduously avoid. The only time CNN will ever show footage of the people who work in a Waffle House is if Donald Trump goes to it. He has forced them through their fascination and loathing of him to show his voters in a way that they avoid at every other turn, except maybe at points during the Iowa primaries when they go to diners.
Matt Taibbi: Clinton was good at that too, to be fair. Bill Clinton, I mean.
Walter Kirn: Yes, he was, he was. But when you see Donald Trump ordering a waffle or a piece of pizza or fraternizing with short order cooks, it reminds America that there are a lot of poor people here. There are a lot of frustrated people here. There are a lot of people with minimum wage jobs. There are a lot of people for whom the future looks like a dead end, and he forces them to cover it. Whether it’s cynical or a political ploy or something even more dastardly than that, I think they hate him for that particularly, because there is a myth about America that this media is promoting, that everyone lives in a suburb of Washington D.C. or Downtown LA ... or I mean Silver Lake, LA, Santa Monica or all of these precincts. They banned the Roseanne show. They’ve taken off the air about the only shows that attempt to fictionally portray working-class America, and Donald Trump keeps forcing their cameras at it. The truth of America that I see when I take off these headphones every day and walk out into my town is of a struggling place.
Matt Taibbi: An angry place, too.
Walter Kirn: An angry place and a place that’s looking for a tribune, somebody to speak for them, a desperate place. I just think they want to ignore that. This guy, through his mastery of theater, has forced them to keep acknowledging it. So, in some ways, it’s not just that he’s so conspicuous, it’s that he uses his conspicuousness to illuminate people who would give lie to the regime propaganda that everything’s okay.
Matt Taibbi: All the more reason that this theatrical effort to chain him to a rock like Prometheus for all of his sins, I think this is going to backfire. The more they pour it on, the more accessible I think he’s going to become. That story ends up having a lot more relevance to this week than even I imagined. So we strongly recommend that you read Harrison Bergeron if you haven’t already.
Walter Kirn: I teased UFOs last week, and I’ll continue to tease them this week since it’s been a decades-long tease. I promise before the end of the year to disclose the real truth about the alien president. Let’s put it that way.
Matt Taibbi: We’ll get to that soon.
Walter Kirn: You’ll have to watch every episode, though. You’ll have to listen assiduously because you might miss it, America.
Matt Taibbi: We’re going to hide it from you until we need the ratings and the clicks. But thanks, everybody, for tuning in and we’ll see you again next week. You can look for the transcript on Substack this weekend.
Walter Kirn: Thanks, everyone. See you soon.
Matt Taibbi: Thank you.