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.

I'm sorry.

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.


sthrasher@villagevoice.com / @steven_thrasher.com

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38 comments
TIP Lady
TIP Lady

Keep Your Eye on the PRIZE!!!! It's the Whitehouse and they want it back!!!! VOTE SO THAT THEY CAN'T STEAL IT FROM US AGAIN!!!!~ The Tip Lady

Steelpan Lady
Steelpan Lady

Wow......that's what you call coming straight from the heart! I'm with you Mr. Thurston and I'm a white Canadian senior. The day Mr. Barack Obama was elected President of the United States was one of the greatest moments of my life and one I never thought I'd see in my lifetime. People like DT (I can't even bring myself to say his name or see it in print) will never ever be in the same class as President Obama and his family no matter how much money he has. Thank you Mr. Thurston for all of us.

Bzf503a
Bzf503a

I am ashamed that our President would be subjected to such a thing as this. That the opposition is so low that they cannot debate the merits of his accomplishments but instead attack him in this racist manner. I am also waiting to hear that the GOP official who "passed" on an email depicting President Obama as a Chimpanzee has resigned . She claimed she was a good Christian and didn't understand the history and possible ramifications..what a crock! We are becoming so uncivil in politics and in life these days that I find it hard to believe anyone would ever want to subject themselves or their families to the hate generated by the "birthers, etc. I am a white woman if you need to know.

Dina37
Dina37

Years of pain and hate has been reawakened with Trump's KKK philosophy!!! I am ashamed and appalled at Trump's arrogance and being a white person apologize for what he has said and done. It is disturbing to say the least!

Imani
Imani

Thank you, like so many others have already said, you spoke eloquently for all of us.

Cheri54
Cheri54

Baratunde, you expressed everything I have been saying and affirmed everything I have been feeling. We were marched into a glorious moment in 2008 when it was announced that Mr. Barack Obama had become President Barack Obama and so many rejoiced with us. The scarring of that moment has made me cry many tears. Thank you for your response that so many needs to hear!

mem_somerville
mem_somerville

I am so glad someone can articulate this rage--I share it, but trying to compose anything about it makes me froth incoherently. For Trump (whose mother was born outside the US, btw) to enjoy the fact that he was the last clown in the clown car is absurd. A bunch of his kids were born of a furrin' mom too, right? I think it's time to question their citizenship.....

Cheri
Cheri

From the prairie of Nebraska, your words are heard and deeply appreciated!

Ladywolfe
Ladywolfe

Everybody who is loving this - I hope you are sharing it! :-)

Ladywolfe
Ladywolfe

Powerful - Incredible - Truth. Thank you for sharing and reminding us all why this isn't an annoying little fly or a stupid prank we can joke about. It's serious. It's wrong. It's not what we want to be as American's and we need to shut these ridiculous antics down and support our President with vigilance and pride. We are grateful for the gift of you, dear sir!!

independent
independent

I haven't yet watched this video but it sounds like it is a more visceral version of a public comment I made after watching Trump malignant, racist chest thumping. As I concluded in my shorter, less personal summary, he was born fifty years too late to truly enjoy his segregationist buffoonery.

Marybellal
Marybellal

You people fail to look at the timing of this certificate showing. Trump is trying to get answers from Obama that he has failed to respond to and pushed to the side his whole term. Trump isn't really running. First of all he has too much junk in his closet and it would waste the gov't's time looking into all his bad judgements. Donald Trump is an actor. He's acting for some lobbyist that has an agenda. The fact that he is forcing this issue, and I think he will push others, is to actually get Obama re-elected. If you actually saw both videos of Trump being proud of himself, and Obama's response to the whole affair, you will see both of them are laughing about the situation. I study people, this is an indication that they are in agreement with each other, and we are the stupid fools listening to this hogwash while the real issues of unemployment, finance and our schools are pushed off his shoulders for a week or two.

Carrolldm09
Carrolldm09

Thank you Baratunde. I am so very proud of you.

Dora Gough Rex
Dora Gough Rex

that was so eloquent, Baratunde. i am heartbroken along with you.

Everett Draper
Everett Draper

Great video. I could not have expressed my own feelings any better. Thank you. I have postedit video on my Facebook page and I also sent it to my email contacts.

ewe
ewe

I can't possibly be the only one who doesn't want a real estate agent to represent the United States?

ewe
ewe

Donald Trump is a disgrace to ALL naturally born New Yorkers as well as all Americans.

Big Gay Sam
Big Gay Sam

This is going to go down in history as one of the most embarrassing moments for our nation. I voted for President Obama and I will vote for him again. He is my president and deserves the respect that office entails.

Obama 2012! - that's the best response we can give to this racist bullshit.

Mikemale76
Mikemale76

u people all need to get a life!

baratunde
baratunde

Thanks so much for the interview opportunity, Steven. And for the Village Voice readers!

varmintito
varmintito

Yes, a million times. The whole birther fraud is all about the claimed right to demand that a black person show a white person his papers. It is a provocation, an indignity, an affront, and it is 1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000% deliberate and knowing. In a just world, Donald Trump would be spat on by everybody he encountered. He goes on TV, and Katie Couric hocks up a lunger right in his face with camera rolling. He goes to get a paper and the guy at the newsstand unloads his nostrils on his tie. Relentlessly, until he is dead. The line of people waiting to offer their last respects by spitting on his grave would stretch around the block.

rcdcr
rcdcr

Mostly, this Trump mess leaves me wondering how people hold in their hearts such an immoral capacity for the mistreatment and degradation of others.

Although I grew up after the civil rights movement in the 60's, this taste of public racism will take some time to go away. I still can't believe this happened. It is a not so subtle reminder of how far we have yet to evolve.

There are very many Americans who owe their President a personal apology.

Rose Fox
Rose Fox

Glad to know a black guy is articulate. Is he clean and well-mannered too?

Tracey
Tracey

BRILLIANT!!!!! Thank you thank you thank you Baratunde for finding the words that I have been desperately searching for. My heart is broken also.

Ladyvet
Ladyvet

Mr. Thurston, I applaud your "from the heart" commentary. I too am saddened about this. We best wake up before it's too late!

poxod
poxod

Baratunde Thurston put into words what so many people were thinking after witnessing the insulting spectacle of Trump's victory lap. Thank You!

Cheryl Bianchi
Cheryl Bianchi

Thank you for speaking for so many of us....gratified this has gotten wide spread attention....i agree, if we NEVER hear or see Trump in any format, it would be a boon for us all

Oldiehawn
Oldiehawn

Well said...Trump needs to be horse whipped PUBLICLY. He's a asshole and I can't stand the damn idiot.

Tracey
Tracey

Donald Trump is a disgrace period, along with anyone who takes him even semi-seriously. What frightens me is this; how did this lunacy get this far? I believe the time has come for this society to FINALLY wake the f*** up! I think Cultural Anthropology should be mandatory in all schools, every single year, starting at the elementary level. People need to be educated because that is the only way this ridiculous, insulting, disrespectful behavior can be stopped.

Norahmattei
Norahmattei

When I read your article yesterday it made me realize what every American (I am a white female) should be saying to someone with such hatred and malice in their heart. From the way Trump (I won't even put a MR in front of his name) deals with others you can tell how he was raised!! A friend once told me "You can put a fur coat on a jackass but he's still a jackass." I've always remembered that statement. God bless you Baratunde!!

Steven W. Thrasher
Steven W. Thrasher

You're welcome. Our readers appreciate your sharing, and so do I.

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