Baratunde Thurston: Q&A with the Man Behind the Viral Response to Trump
The most sophisticated and serious response to Donald Trump's glee over the release of Barack Obama's long-form birth certificate came, oddly enough, from a stand-up comedian who works at the Onion. Baratunde Thurston's impassioned YouTube monologue touched a chord with viewers on Wednesday and quickly went viral. We talked with him about it.
Prolific tweeter Thurston is more than a stand-up. He's the Onion's Director of Digital, a Foursquare Mayor of the Year, and the host of the Science Channel's Pop Sci's Future Of. He could be the most articulate adversary Trump has yet faced on birtherism.
Here's our (edited) conversation by phone yesterday:
How quickly did you record this after you saw Trump's video?
Right after. I watched his video, which was a minute and a half long, and I then I started looking for a space to record.
Were you at work at the Onion?
Yes. But there was no editorial endorsement from the Onion for this video. That's just where I happened to be. So I sat down in a conference room and got it out of my system. Then it took a while to get it up on the internet. First, the upload failed, even on a good machine. Then I had to write up the post. It took about an hour of my time.
You spoke in the video with indignation about how Trump disrespected the accomplishments of so many who have come before us, of those who fought for civil rights so that Obama could be president. Were you thinking of any personal stories from your our family or ancestors?
Yes, I was thinking mostly about my mother. My mom passed away in 2005.
Thank you. She was born in D.C., where I grew up, and she was a freedom-fighting hero in my life, and well before me. She was active in the civil-rights movement, with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and with various black nationalist groups. She was part of rallies and taking over radio stations, and was really my gateway to a more complete understanding of American history.
Her mother was the first black employee at the Supreme Court, and my mother's grandfather — my great-grandfather — was a slave who taught himself to read. There is a direct connection to the weight of progress gained and paid for in the work of a lot of people who have come before me — including people I am directly related to.
What did you make of Trump assuming that a black reporter was an Obama supporter?
I didn't see it. I saw a headline, but I'm not trying to make a habit of following Trump because it's destructive to the psyche and to the national psyche.
What was most offensive to you about the way he handled this?
What's most offensive? The shorter answer would be: What's not offensive? In this case, it was the self-congratulatory tone and pride in himself. He managed to put himself at the center of all of this — not that you can do that alone. It takes cameras to put yourself in the center of the stage. He's just toying with the idea of the presidency, toying with a campaign, the same way he toys with his cologne and his poorly designed economic and real estate ventures.
And the president comes out and chastises the media again, and says let's put this to rest. Again. We've got serious problems and this is a distraction.
And Trump inserts himself and says he's proud of the role he played, and says, "We have to verify this birth certificate. I have to take a look at this." Historically, it's quite dastardly, but not uncommon. For most of our history, any white person could grab any black person off the street and demand they dance. Or produce documents. Or kill that person, who wasn't considered a person.
And Trump says he wants to just walk into the White House and touch this document? That he has the right to do so? You don't have the right to do shit! You don't have the right to roll up to the White House and say, "Show me your papers," like it's apartheid South Africa! In that, I could hear the voice of random white people in history, demanding money for my vote — wanting to know what's my business in this part of town.
In that hour it took you to upload the video, did you have any second thoughts about uploading something so personal and from the heart?
No. While I was watching the video, I was actually crying. My desk is in a pretty public area, and so I had to step aside and cry. But the Onion was forming its own editorial response to the day's events at the same time, and emails were flying around asking, "How we will approach this?" And then we put up "Trump Unable to Produce Certificate Proving He's Not A Festering Pile of Shit".
Were you part of that?
I had nothing to do with it, except my check is cut from same pile of money from the people who made that, which now has over 600,000 Facebook likes on one piece of content. One piece of content, rallying around insanity, saying this is insane. Normally, I would participate in the satirical round-robin, but I couldn't find any comedic angle. So I left that to the writers — it's their primary job anyway — and I said what I had to say.
What I said felt true to me. When you put the truth out — be it satire or a song or a painting — you're seeking a connection. Sometimes it comes through a laugh, sometimes through a tear. And this felt like such a violation, I imagined that there were other people who felt the same way. And, oh, there are.