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Bill Maher isn’t just politically incorrect—he’s politically irrelevant

Before Milo Yiannopoulos had even set foot in the studio to record his appearance on Real Time With Bill Maher, there was already a strong backlash against the comedian host for even having him on. Giving this trolling blogger the platform of an HBO show was only playing into his hands and boosting his agenda, the argument went—though some held out for the possibility that Maher would be the one to hold Yiannopoulos’ feet to the fire and humiliate him in front of a large audience.

Such a comeuppance would have certainly made the whole thing worthwhile, but of course, it never happened. Instead, Maher let Yiannopoulos ramble mostly unchecked on his views—that transgender people are disproportionately involved in sex crimes; that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group—and completely failed to press him on past comments about Jews and the “myth” of rape culture, letting that duty fall to guest Larry Wilmore. And in the end, he mocked his audience of liberals as “fucking schoolgirls” for “taking the bait” and allowing themselves to be riled. If people were mad at Bill Maher for being a shameless opportunist, now they openly despised him for being a willing conspirator.

While there is some catharsis in just straight-up calling Bill Maher a bigot, an asshole, or even a monster, it’s worth considering that his interview with Yiannopoulos is part of a long history of Maher inviting his ideological enemies to the table, no matter how scummy. “I think you’re colossally wrong on a number of things,” Maher told him last Friday. “But if I banned everyone from my show who I thought was colossally wrong, I would be talking to myself.” In fact, that willingness to engage has been an essential part of our political dialogue. No matter how you feel about the 2017 version of Maher (for the record, I’m not a fan), it’s hard to deny that he’s done a lot to shape that discourse. And in many cases, he changed it for the better.

Maher’s first show, Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher completely changed the TV version of political debate when it premiered in 1993. Before this, it was mostly left to dry shows like The McLaughlin Group, and Crossfire that only the most hardcore wonks would sit through. On Politically Incorrect, audiences could watch politicians and pundits mix it up with comics, rock stars, and other celebrities—and there was a decent chance the celebrity might win the argument. It created a conversation that was more vibrant, open-ended, and honest with the typical rules of decorum all but abandoned in favor of jokes and cutting digs. In the post-Daily Show age of John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and Stephen Colbert, politics as entertainment now seems entirely conventional, but Maher’s early show was instrumental in making politics an essential part of pop culture.

These days, of course, a white man (particularly one as unapologetically smug as Maher) bragging about being “politically incorrect” just seems insufferable. But it’s worth noting that Maher—who believes above all else in the right to speak your mind—challenged the conservative concept of “political correctness” just as much as the liberal one. This was never more true than in Maher’s infamous comments after 9/11, in which he argued that American troops firing missiles from a distance were far more cowardly than the hijackers. While perhaps not the best way to critique the American military-industrial complex, it nevertheless illustrated that Maher was an independent thinker, unbound by the rules of politeness or “too soon.” Naturally, he got fired for it.

After less than a year of unemployment, Maher rebounded at HBO with Real Time, a show that’s currently entering its 15th season. At first, Real Time didn’t have much of an identity, beyond the curiosity of seeing how Maher would recover from his 9/11 controversy. But soon he would zero in on the target that would define the second half of his career. Maher had always been critical of organized religion, but in the middle of the George W. Bush administration, his frustrations suddenly felt more relevant than ever. Conservative Christians dominated the political landscape, telling us we couldn’t have gay marriage or stem cell research because those things made baby Jesus cry. Maher hammered them every week, and in doing so, he became one of the most prominent, popular atheist voices in the country.

Unfortunately, after a while the limits of atheism as a political stance became evident. Beyond Maher’s choir-preaching documentary Religulous, there was the fact that, like so many other prominent atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, etc.), Maher never tied his atheism to any meaningful cause beyond rejection of its dogma. Yes, he was critical of religion being employed to justify sexism and homophobia, but he was more reluctant to attack either of those things head on, seeming to believe that simply going after the faithful would cover it. Like his frequent advocacy for drug reform—which mostly centers on his own love of getting high—his atheism was often more about serving himself than arguing for any sort of social betterment.

There were other cracks in Maher’s supposed progressivism, like his tendency to drop sexist remarks (Remember when he called Sarah Palin a “stewardess?”), and especially—and more recently—his frequent attacks against Islam. Maher routinely argues that while yes, all religion is bad, Islam is the most bad, and Muslims are deserving of every bit of fear they’ve been shown. In this, Maher could no longer claim that his atheism was protecting the little guy—not if he was attacking the most marginalized religious group in America. Quite simply, Muslims have endured enough crap since 2001 without someone who self-identifies as a “proud liberal” saying it’s not only okay, but rational, to be afraid of them. (Adding fuel to the recent fire, it’s an issue that he and Yiannopoulos chummily agreed on.) And it’s caused many on the left to turn on Maher: In one of Real Time’s most charged episodes, panelist Ben Affleck called Maher and fellow panelist Sam Harris’ opinions on Muslims “gross and racist.”

Courting such controversy has long been Maher’s M.O., and with the recent uproar over Yiannopoulos, it’s worth considering that he’s never received this level of backlash for palling around with Ann Coulter. The equally outspoken, equally despicable conservative commentator—fond of saying things like Mexico’s culture is “obviously deficient,” illegal immigrants are “pederasts,” and Barack Obama is a “retard”—is a friend and frequent guest of Maher’s whose comments are no better than Yiannopoulos’, yet a few grumblings aside, she’s never been the target of such mass outrage at being allowed to spew them on Real Time.

One could argue that disproportionate response has to do specifically with Yiannopoulos’ fans within the white supremacists hiding behind the term “alt-right,” whose increased visibility has attracted sometimes violent protests. But a more likely culprit may be that the culture has simply changed—that we are increasingly unwilling to humor overt racists, even in the supposed interest of “debate.” The time when Maher could bring someone like Coulter on to banter about her hateful ideas is rapidly passing, and it seems to be leaving him behind.

In 2017, Maher now feels like a man without a country. Given the ongoing fallout from his most recent episode—not to mention the swift reversal of fortune Yiannopoulos has experienced this week—he could soon become a man without an audience. Liberals won’t (and shouldn’t) abide by his Islamophobia. Conservatives and libertarians might admire his free-speech defense of Yiannopoulos, but they’re also unlikely to see eye-to-eye with a man who routinely insults them as morons. And while Maher agrees with their eagerness to fight the policing of humor, he isn’t willing to go to the dark places necessary to become part of the “alt-right.” That’s why the decision to book Yiannopolous felt mostly like an act of attention-grabbing desperation. In an effort to stay relevant, Maher went with the controversial flavor of the month, and it backfired in the worst way possible.

Maher still deserves praise for how his innovations changed the way we talk about politics. But as last week’s episode made clear, he’s yet to evolve to meet the times—and his reputation has suffered for it. The decision to book one of the world’s most hated bigots and decline to challenge him seriously seems poised to damage him further. Sure, Maher will be back this Friday (and if HBO holds to its contract, for many more Fridays through 2018), and he’ll certainly find a way to laugh it off. But it’s increasingly unclear how many people will be left to laugh with him.