TV legend Norman Lear has a metaphor he likes to use when talking about Donald Trump.
“I think Donald Trump is the middle finger of the American right hand,” Lear tells me. For a segment of the population tired of leadership failing them, Trump is their antagonistic answer, their middle finger with a special message. “That means ‘fuck you,’” he clarifies. “‘Fuck you, leadership.’”
It’s been 45 years since Lear created Archie Bunker, Carroll O’Connor’s indelible bigot with a heart of gold on the legendary series All in the Family. As now-Republican nominee Donald Trump has made his rise—taking strong and inflammatory stances on immigration, race, women’s rights, and guns—pundits assessing the fire his comments kindled likened the presidential contender to a real-life Archie Bunker.
It’s a reductive comparison. Archie’s opinions often reflected an ingrained ignorance, which was typically undone thanks to his hidden empathy and grumpy willingness to see the world changing around him. And it’s a comparison that, though Lear certainly sees at first blush, he takes issue with, going so far as to assert that Archie’s conscience wouldn’t allow him even to vote for Trump.
“I think Donald Trump is shrewd in a way Archie never was,” Lear says. “Archie Bunker was far wiser of heart. Sure, the thoughts he held were antediluvian. But Donald Trump is a thorough fool, having nothing to do with the shrewdness that has allowed him to cheat and steal the way he has for his own good. Underneath that, he is a fool.”
Lear and I are speaking in Beverly Hills just days after he celebrated his 94th birthday.
He’s promoting his work as a correspondent in Epix’s upcoming America Divided, which he co-executive produced alongside Shonda Rhimes and Common. The docuseries features a host of celebrity correspondents, including America Ferrera, Amy Poehler, Zach Galifianakis, and Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams, who travel the country to spotlight the human repercussions of our inequality in education, health care, labor, criminal justice, and more.
The segment Lear leads, “A House Divided,” focuses on the heartbreaking effects of housing inequality. What’s one way to solve these issues? “The first thing we can do is make sure Trump doesn’t get near our problems,” he laughs. Another tactic: We can talk about it. And that’s what Lear has been doing in his five decades working in show business.
There has never been a run as impressive—or as important—from a single TV creator as Lear’s string of All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and One Day at a Time. These are series that “said something”—about racial bias, privilege, sexism, abortion, the plight of the single mother, the struggle of the working class—without sacrificing a single laugh or a minute of solid entertainment.
Decades later, on shows now labeled “in the Norman Lear tradition” like The Carmichael Show and black-ish—not to mention Lear’s own revival of One Day at a Time on Netflix—these issues still stoke cultural debate, provoke us to confront our own biases and judgments, and prove that pop culture can be responsible for sociopolitical change.
“Look what’s happening with Donald Trump,” Lear says, bringing the conversation full circle. “He’s the best example there is for how powerful pop culture is.”
With America Divided premiering this Friday, I talked to Lear about working on the housing crisis episode, his legacy, why he continues to challenge our culture long past an age when his contemporaries rest on their laurels, and, of course, Donald Trump.
You must be pleased that these America Divided stories are airing so well-timed with the election.
I couldn’t be more pleased. And I couldn’t be more surprised at how devastating the situation is in New York City [with the housing divide]. It’s amazing. I was just telling somebody that I was on the 53rd floor of a new building in a glorious apartment, 360-degree views. It had just been purchased for $120 million. When I asked who the owner was, I heard a sound but I didn’t recognize a name. So I said, “Could you repeat that so I understand?” And they showed me on a strip of paper who owned it, and it was a group of letters and numbers. Some foreign entity parked $120 million in a New York apartment. Then on a subsequent day, the next day, I’m sitting around with a group of black families who had lived in an apartment in this neighborhood for 20 years and have the contract that says they can stay there, and are being driven out of the apartment through horrible conditions so the landlord can raise the rental price.
When did the housing divide become an issue you were passionate about?
Frankly, if somebody reads the paper and listens to the news, you’re on the periphery of understanding it. You don’t really understand it until you get into it. When something takes you inside of it, then you really see the suffering. So I knew about it, but I couldn’t imagine it to be what I found when I was actually inside of it.
What surprised you the most when you got inside of it and started learning what it was like?
The biggest takeaway was to understand for the first time how cruelly some people are being treated and can be treated in our America. Even at my age and sophistication, it’s a kind of thing that, as I go through my daily life, I thought was only happening in other countries. But here it is.
Your segment is about the housing divide. There are other segments in the series that deal with immigration, civil rights, workers’ rights, and the equality imbalance in our country, generally. Is that imbalance worse now than it’s ever been?
I’m confident the economic inequality is worse now than it’s ever been because you’re supposed to know so much more. Especially since our understanding is so much more and we’ve been interested in it so much longer. The stats are there. So, yes. And as a human, as a species, I would think that we’d be beyond it by now.
How do we get beyond it? What can be done?
The first thing as Americans we can do is understand that—you know, I guess because I don’t want to hear the words “Donald Trump” I had forgotten it momentarily. (Laughs) The first thing we can do is make sure he doesn’t get near our problems.
When there is someone like Donald Trump, he is clearly speaking to a group of people who believe in these things that he’s saying.
I have a different hunch about why people feel what they feel about Donald Trump. Leadership is so crappy everywhere in this country, whether you’re talking about automobile companies, pharmaceutical companies, food companies, United States senators, or Congress, leadership is just foul. The American people don’t have it. I think Donald Trump is the middle finger of the American right hand. They’re saying you give us this kind of leadership everywhere, take this. And they pick Donald Trump. He’s the middle finger of the right hand.
The middle finger.
That means “fuck you.” “Fuck you, leadership.”
Because there’s such a resounding…
…vacuum. Of leadership everywhere. Media! We’re a country and kind of government that depends on an informed citizen. Where do they get a chance—unless they’re trying very hard and looking in 30 different places—to get informed? There was an Edward R. Murrow once. There was a Walter Cronkite once. People who called themselves broadcasters and felt they didn’t need to make money on the evening news. That’s all changed just in my lifetime. The news became a profit center just like everything else. Now it’s talking heads and bumper stickers yelling at each other.
When you work on a project like this alongside people like Shonda Rhimes, America Ferrera, and Jesse Williams, does it hearten you that there are people working toward a change?
Yes. To be working in a generation of young people like Shonda Rhimes and America Ferrera and Common, and not in this but my friend Jerrod Carmichael and his show, and Kenya Barris and his show black-ish, it encourages me very much to see a generation of young people like that. South Park, those guys are still going strong, Matt and Trey. Seth MacFarlane. They’re all people who care and put themselves on the line.
When I read about you and your work and projects that you continue to do, like this one, there are people who are surprised that you’re not just letting the younger generation do this work for you. You’ve earned the right to do that, but you’re doing so much of it yourself still. What’s the motivation to still be in the trenches?
The motivation is…how old are you?
That’s how old I am in this conversation. I am the peer of whoever I’m talking to. That’s the way I feel. I’m another 30-year-old. If you were 12, I would feel 12. I consider myself part of your generation.
When people talk about The Carmichael Show and black-ish, two shows you just mentioned, they talk about how they’re reviving the Norman Lear tradition: television that means something, that crusades for change in comedy. That’s a tradition that went missing for decades. What is it about today that those shows are finally coming back?
I think it has a lot to do with the amount of outlets there are. You have to fill it with something and there’s far more room now. And they’re working! Carmichael is working. Black-ish is working. They’re doing well, so I expect we’ll see more.
America Divided features celebrities putting their face next to controversial issues and having very intense, personal reactions to it. That’s something we seem to be more comfortable with, celebrities being involved personally in political causes. And yet there are still cases when there is backlash for that very thing, like when Jesse Williams gave his speech at the BET Awards. What do you make of our relationship with politically active celebrities today?
What I would’ve said 20 years ago I would say today. You want attention, you raise your hand. If you have a face that’s well-known that goes with it, you get more attention. So the culture is looking all the time for a way to encourage attention. A well-known face does that.
But there are also people who don’t want to see the actor they like from their favorite TV show speaking passionately about an issue they don’t agree with.
Well, fuck them. (Laughs) Fuck them.
That’s not always an easy thing to face when you’re a celebrity, when you want to be liked!
I feel the same way. I don’t know, give me a celebrity who disagrees with me. I have a couple of friends who don’t agree with me—I’m embarrassed for them—who are Trump-ish. But I won’t mention their names. But their right to command attention and say the things I disagree with is first and foremost. And my right to beat the shit out of the idea if I can is also first and foremost.
There are some people who express shock or frustration that the issues you were writing about decades ago on TV are still issues that are deemed provocative, hot-button, or controversial today. Whether it’s abortion or race relations, it’s still provocative. It still gets people riled up. Are you as surprised by that?
Maybe not. I mean, what’s happened with the LGBT community and—what does the Q stand for?
I’ve always wondered about that and this is the first time I’ve asked. Look how far we’ve moved in so little time. But it also had the kind of attention other issues didn’t. Guns are starting to get that attention, and I think we’ll see a big move in the next decade with guns. I don’t want to ban the Second Amendment. I’m not predicting anything like that is going to happen. But the sensible things that we need to be doing to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, I think we’ll see that in the next decade.
You’re already seeing the role pop culture could have in that. This past season black-ish took on that very thing. Like we were just discussing, it made some fans of the show really angry that they were taking that on and it made some fans really happy and grateful.
Yes. Yes. There’s a little thing Archie did on guns, I guess the whole episode would be about guns, but this was a little PSA on television for people who believe in the right to have guns. And, Jesus, it was everywhere for a couple of weeks, this little clip. So I sense a great deal of action.
I think you’ve used this terminology yourself, but a lot of people have been calling Donald Trump a “real-life Archie Bunker.” Having created Archie and seeing his legacy, what do you make of that comparison?
I think Donald Trump is shrewd in a way Archie never was. Archie Bunker was far wiser of heart. Sure, the thoughts he held were antediluvian. But Donald Trump is a thorough fool, having nothing to do with the shrewdness that has allowed him to cheat and steal the way he has for his own good. Underneath that he’s a fool. The only thing I have no answer for regarding Donald Trump is why his kids seem to be so sane. I don’t understand enough about human nature to understand that. They really seem like good, sensible kids. It doesn’t make any sense at all. The complexity of the human species, there is nothing more amazing than us.
You’re known for reflecting that complexity back through those TV shows you’ve created. It’s interesting that it continues to surprise you.
Trump stumps! (Laughs)
Do you have a hope for what impact America Divided might have for those who watch it?
You’re asking that of someone who doesn’t want to wake up the morning he has no hope left. Yes, I have hope. I see great hope in the fact that it made it on the air, that Epix wants to do this.
Having Shonda Rhimes involved means something in today’s world.
Did you like the piece she did for Hillary?
Oh, yes. What’s your impression of her?
Shonda Rhimes? I think she’s glorious. I love what she does. I love the way she thinks. I love that she did it, and she’s a woman. She’s at the forefront of whatever we’re seeing coming about now. She’s pushing it forward.
How does it feel as someone who’s watched the intersection of pop culture and political change for decades to see someone like Shonda Rhimes rise?
Hope. What could give you more hope than seeing someone like Shonda Rhimes happen right in front of you? She’s a marvelously talented person with all the conviction in the world and energy.
It’s refreshing to talk to you because so often pop culture can be dismissed as a distraction, but you prove why it can be necessary.
Look what’s happening with Donald Trump. If he isn’t a piece of pop fucking culture I don’t know what is. He’s the best example there is for how powerful pop culture is. That that clown can say, “I want to be president” and be taken seriously. My god. And all the way through the Republican convention, from all over the country these supposedly respectable Republicans are now susceptible to a piece of pop culture that’s flaring in front of them and took them. Dear god almighty, there can’t be a better example.