In Martin Scorsese’s 2010 documentary about Fran Lebowitz, Public Speaking, Lebowitz explains that news is no longer information. “Facts are what’s important in news,” she says, “but no one is interested in facts anymore.” Eight years later, not only is she right, but facts no longer prove anything, and the truth is open to interpretation.
Fran Lebowitz is usually right. Fran Lebowitz told you so. She is an astute observer and social commentator with an ability to dissect human nature—to pinpoint particular trends and habits, like how we consume, what we value, and how we behave. This is how she maps out society’s downfall. The problem is that by the time we catch up and realize she’s right, it’s too late.
Despite that, even she couldn’t foresee Donald Trump’s victory. But she’s less preoccupied with that mistake than she is with what he’s destroying. And now Lebowitz, who is famous for delivering snap judgments in front of audiences, is getting more questions about politics than she is about her writer’s block.
That knack for observation was present early in her career, when she was writing her opinion column, “I Cover the Waterfront,” for Interview, and then in her two essay collections, Metropolitan Life and Social Studies. And in spite of her “writer’s blockade,” she has made a career out of talking and delivering her opinions on society, politics, and art. Since 1981, she has been writing her famously unfinished novel, Exterior Signs of Wealth. Ever the ironist, for nearly fifteen years Lebowitz has also been working on Progress, a critique of American life and culture. Lebowitz is still a literary humorist operating in more a classic, subtle tradition: she minds other people’s business just as much as Oscar Wilde, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, and Dawn Powell did.
She spoke to me over the phone, from New York, the day before Toronto elected Doug Ford as premier-designate of Ontario. (Doug Ford, the brother of Rob, mayor of Toronto, 2010–2014, has been compared to Trump for his right-wing, brash, regressive views.) At one point, I had a momentary lapse of reason and brought up her recent “book tour” (by which I meant “speaking tour”). “Believe me, I wish it was a book tour,” she interjected, “because for a book tour, you need a book.”
—Sara Black McCulloch
I. “THERE IS NO REASON WHY PEOPLE SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO MAKE BILLIONS OF DOLLARS.”
THE BELIEVER: Do you think that people in power know how to get away with everything?
FRAN LEBOWITZ: The thing is, most people don’t understand capitalism. My father, in a way, didn’t understand it. My father was one of these guys who thought that if you worked harder and harder and harder… but, I mean, that’s hardly ever been the truth!
BLVR: Both my parents are the same way, but—and this is especially true for the middle class—you end up getting taxed the most.
FL: When my first book came out in 1978, and Carter was president, the top tax bracket in the US started, at that time, at one hundred thousand dollars a year; the federal income tax was 70 percent. Now, that may be excessive—I mean, it certainly was excessive—but the people who are rich now are psychotically rich. It’s stupid amounts of money that people have, and they pay no taxes! And they are allowed to make money in ways that you were not allowed to make money before. So there used to be all kinds of laws in this country. All kinds of regulations: usury laws, laws that regulated the amount of interest you were allowed to charge, bank regulations—all this kind of stuff. These were laws made by humans. They could be made again by humans. There is no reason why people should be allowed to make billions of dollars. It’s a stupid amount of money. It’s just simply stupid. And no one earns a billion dollars. You earn twelve dollars an hour. These are stupid amounts of money. No one should have them.
There is a way to keep people from having them, which is the tax code. If you make the tax code, you put it in the service of these people, which is what has happened, [and] then it’s worse for everyone else! It’s really bad. For instance, when Clinton was president—when he signed NAFTA, I was really opposed to NAFTA. I fought with all of my friends. And they kept saying that I sounded like Ross Perot and I kept saying that Ross Perot was right about this. You don’t have to do this. This didn’t have to be done. Globalization is not some natural thing, like an earthquake. It’s a man-made thing! There are certain things that were inevitable, [like technology], and in the end that’s probably a good thing. But technology is not the same thing. These are different things. When things happen at the same time, people get confused about what happened. For instance, Madoff happened at the same time as the economy was crashing. I guarantee you there is a significant percentage of the American population that thinks Madoff caused that. It had nothing to do with it! He was just a con man. But he was a person people could see, [who] was understandable to them.
BLVR: In the past you’ve discussed how there is too much democracy in the culture. In America, there is this sense of meritocracy, too; that in America, you can work your way up the ladder. Do you think this is still true?
FL: It’s more true than in many places. It’s less true here than it once was here—a lot less true. I always say to people, “Do you remember why we had that little war with England?” We had the war with England so we wouldn’t have this. And it worked for a long time. It’s not working very well now. It’s as simple as that. It just isn’t working very well now, and that is one of the reasons why the absolute worst aspect of this  tax law is the estate tax.
The purpose of the estate tax is to make sure that you don’t pass fortunes down through generations, because if you allow that, if you allow capitalism to be unfettered, a very small percentage of the population will end up with most of the money, because there are few people who are incredibly good at making money. Despite what people think, those are not the smartest people; those are the most ruthless, and the people who are the most motivated by money. So if you took all the money in the country and threw it in a big pile, within some period of time, one hundred people would have all the money. And you can’t let that happen! If you let those one hundred people keep all that money and give it to their children, in five minutes no one has money except them. To me, the most important aspect of the tax code is the estate tax, which now will not exist. And now when you have absolutely unparalleled fortunes, fortunes that make the nineteenth-century fortunes look like nothing, and you allow them to be passed down almost entirely intact, there is zero chance that you will continue to have a democracy.
II. “RETROSPECT IS SO DELIGHTFUL.”
BLVR: I’m in Toronto, and there’s an election tomorrow. Rob Ford’s brother is running.
FL: I know that. I was in Toronto—I don’t know; I’m not sure when it was—a month ago or something, and everybody was talking about that and that’s why I know about it. And he sounds truly horrible, but here’s the thing about these truly horrible leaders elsewhere: they are horrible only for that place. The problem with Trump is that he’s horrible for the whole world.
BLVR: It’s terrifying.
FL: Well, it’s more than terrifying. I would like to go back to terrifying, because terrifying is anticipatory. And truly he’s already done so much damage to every single institution in the United States and almost every country in the world that if he evaporated tomorrow it would take decades to repair the damage he’s already done.
BLVR: When you say terrifying, are you referring to the Bush Jr. years?
FL: There are people that I know, by which I mean I have selected them to be in my life, who say things like “Bush wasn’t that bad.” This is simply untrue. I mean, Bush was unbelievably horrible. I mean, like, shockingly horrible, and remains so to me. And the other part of that is that there would be no Trump without Bush. Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. There would be no Trump without Reagan. Truthfully, Reagan was the model for the stupid president. Before Reagan, there was no idea that the president could be stupid. The president could be horrible. We hated Nixon, but no one thought he was stupid. He was not. We just thought he was bad. And he was! But he wasn’t stupid. And stupid is at least as dangerous as bad. With Trump, you have a combination. That was also true of Bush. He was stupid. I’m not certain how bad he was, because he wasn’t really in charge.
BLVR: Is Trump really in charge?
FL: Well, it depends on the way you look at it. He’s much more [in charge] than Bush was, because Bush listened to the people around him. Now, the people around him, unfortunately, happened to be people like Dick Cheney. He did listen to the people around him. As far as I could tell, he basically did what they told him to do, which, I believe, is why his father was so upset. His father wasn’t that type of Republican at all. Trump is in charge, to a greater degree, I think, than any president in my lifetime, because there’s no real structure there. He’s in charge the way that a horrible, awful six-year-old boy is in charge of a playground. And that’s only true if there are no adults or cops around. Trump is in charge more than any president I could think of, because he does what he wants. He does it in a combination of total, fathomless ignorance and this endless emptiness in him so that he keeps repeating what, in his mind, are his former triumphs. I cannot get used to this. Every day is like the day of the election. Every day I retain an ability to be shocked.
BLVR: Do you think people have lost the ability to be shocked? I mean, even with Nixon and Watergate, it seems, in retrospect, that people at least took the scandals and revelations seriously. Today it just feels like it’s part of the news cycle and people move on. There are no repercussions.
FL: Of course. I think the central reason for that is that there was no idea that the press—which is what we used to call the media—that the press was lying. I don’t know how old you are, but I know that you’re younger than me, because everyone is, but when I was younger—not even young; just younger—you could have an argument, and I mean a real difference of opinion, with anyone about anything. It wouldn’t matter what it was; it could be something minute or it could be something big, and if one of the people in that argument said, “No, you’re wrong!” and they [told] you why and you [said], “Why do you think that?” and they [said], “It was in the Times”—that was the end of the argument. If The New York Times said this happened on Tuesday and your argument happened on Thursday, and they showed you that the Times said it happened on Tuesday—that was the end of it. Now, yes, The New York Times made mistakes. The New York Times did things that were wrong. But that was the end of it.
BLVR: But it was the official record, so to speak. People didn’t doubt it or any of the journalists.
FL: There’s a famous quote from Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War when Walter Cronkite—who was a TV anchor during an era when they were the voice of God—turned against the Vietnam War; at the time, TV anchors were not allowed to show any opinion. And Lyndon B. Johnson said: “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” This is because people believed him. You know what, there was this idea—that I did not share—that Walter Cronkite actually knew these things instead of… he was reading them, but he was more believable than anything is believed now.
The single most destructive thing that Trump has done—and it wasn’t Trump alone; we built up to this—was to sow doubt about the media. And not just doubt! We have, apparently, close to half the country who doesn’t believe [the media] at all!
One thing that people don’t remember about Watergate is how long it took. It seems, in retrospect, like it took two seconds, because everything seems that way in retrospect, which is why retrospect is so delightful. You know, everyone says, “I hated being a teenager. High school was horrible.” When you look back on high school, it’s two minutes! But in fact it’s not! Watergate took a long time. It took a really long time, and one of the reasons it took a long time was that there was a general belief in the country that a president wouldn’t do such a thing—any president. And then, of course, the Republicans in Congress supported him as long as they possibly could. That’s what people who are part of a political party do. Now if there were tapes, they would say, These tapes are fake. You made these tapes up. And half the country would believe that. When those tapes came out, it was simply—that’s it. This is the proof. The way that a photograph, even a photograph used to be evidence. Here is the photograph. This is evidence. That’s it, case closed. Now, nothing is “case closed.”
BLVR: Everything is open to interpretation a lot of the time.
FL: All the time! There are numerous reasons for this, but this is partly because of the internet. It would not be possible. It’s also because, and I don’t know what generation it is, but we are at least in the second generation of people who have been encouraged to think of their opinions as being valuable. In other words, guess what? Not everybody’s opinion is worth listening to!
BLVR: What do you think are the larger effects on journalistic freedom? Especially now that there is a general mistrust of journalists, or at least more hostility toward them. Early on, people were hoping for a Watergate moment, if you will, and I don’t think we’re ever going to get that.
FL: I think you’re right, unfortunately. I really think that they could have a movie of Trump stuffing dollar bills into Putin’s G-string and you’d have his supporters not believing it. Or not caring.
BLVR: Or even, because of technology, claiming that the footage was altered, fabricated, or Photoshopped.
FL: That is what I mean. There can’t be a week that’s gone by where it has not occurred to me what a genius George Orwell was! This is exactly what he wrote about. It is incredibly dangerous. Every single despot has tried to control whatever the media was at the time, and he has really succeeded in that. He has not been alone in that, because of the people who are aiding him, and some of them are not as stupid as Trump, because hardly anyone is. When you see what people will do for self-interest, it is truly stomach-churning.
BLVR: Guns, for instance, are tied to a particular demographic’s self-interest, so will that ever change?
FL: Only when the old people die. Truthfully, it’s very disconcerting for me, as an old person, to be wishing for all these people to die, because I’m not as old as Trump, but I’m closer to Trump’s age than the kids who are marching. In a larger way, I believe that Trump and this stuff around Trump [are], in the purest sense of the word, reactionary. In other words, it will end. However, the danger is what will be left. You know, the rubble of this democracy—it will end.
I’m sure there are horrible kids. I’m sure there are kids who have a million guns. I’m sure there are kids who are racist. I’m sure all that’s true, but many deep-seated attitudes that you could say are just automatic in certain people from certain places are just less present in people who are younger. Racism, to me, is one of the biggest examples. I’m certain there are thousands, if not millions, of racist twenty-year-olds, but there are fewer of them than there are racist fifty-year-olds. I believe that Trump’s appeal to his so-called base is almost wholly racist. In other words, I do not believe that those unemployed coal miners in West Virginia really believe that Trump is going to make it 1950 again. When I watched those rallies before the election—and I would never have imagined, of course, that you would continue to have campaign rallies after you were elected—but when I was watching those rallies, I kept saying to people that these are George Wallace rallies. George Wallace was the governor of Alabama and he ran for the presidency—these are Klan rallies. These are exactly those rallies. Not somewhat like them, but 100 percent like them, and so I have to believe that those people are largely not benefiting from Trump the way rich people are. Rich people are really benefiting from Trump—from this tax cut, which is just psychotic. I mean, it’s a tax cut to them, but my taxes, of course, went up. Trump does nothing that benefits that voter except allowing them to express their racism, which is apparently so pleasurable that they’re eager and happy to trade away everything else for it.
And the guns are part of that. This thing with guns, to me, is so stupid. Most of this stuff is so stupid that the average eight-year-old would laugh. We have a horrible Supreme Court—a really bad one—and it’s only going to get worse. The idea that the Constitution means that every idiot in the world can have guns is not what it means. It’s really clear what it means. It’s not clear if you don’t know anything about history. If you don’t know that the biggest fear of the founders of the United States was that someone would declare themselves the king—well, that was the biggest fear. And so this allows people to take up arms against someone who tries to. It’s a militia—that’s what it says. It doesn’t say that every idiot in Florida can have twenty-five guns in their house. The fact that we have a phrase that everyone understands, and that it is “school shooting,” like this is some normal phrase like “crispy bacon” or “happy birthday”—you know, something normal—no! This is a thing that didn’t exist—
BLVR: —just twenty years ago.
FL: At least! And now we have them all the time. If you look at where we don’t have them: we don’t have them in New York City! We do not have school shootings in New York City. Why is that? Because we have such strict gun laws here, which I’m certain they’re going to try to get to. If you have a gun in New York City, and you commit another crime, like you’re shoplifting and you have a gun on you, the possession of a gun is an automatic year in jail. Even if you’re not using the gun! Even if the gun is not loaded! No one should have a gun! It is ridiculous! It’s absurd. It didn’t used to be this bad. A long time ago, I would argue with many of my friends that the NRA was originally a hunting club. It was a club for people who went deer hunting or something. It was about rifles—that’s why it’s called the National Rifle Association. When people on the left became extremely concerned about animals, and became very anti-hunting, I really think this distorted the situation.
I said years and years ago to people to stop this thing about hunting because hunting in certain parts of this country is a real tradition of families. They’ve done it for generations and, yes, they kill the deer, but they eat the deer! It may not be the most sporting kind of sport in the world, and the deer doesn’t have a gun and that may not be fair, but now you end up with people who have military weapons in their pockets when they go into a school.
BLVR: Yes, but how do people go from hunting rifles to military weapons?
FL: People want them, and so if there’s a market for something, someone will provide that thing for you. It’s about money. Why does someone want them? Because they’re morons.
I’m not a politician, but what is wrong with someone who wants military weapons? Something is wrong with you. And when I say there’s something wrong with you, it could be, let’s say, you’re not the smartest person on Planet Earth or there is some lack in yourself that makes you need to have something like that. The interesting thing about these people is that they’re so butch and all this kind of stuff but they’re the most frightened people on Planet Earth. I’ve never seen people more frightened. You see some of these guys talking about this: these big, young guys saying they did it for self-defense. Really? I don’t know. I’m 5’4”. I’m a woman. I lived in New York City during the ’70s, when it was super dangerous here. I never had a gun; I’m alive. I don’t feel so imperiled as they do. They seem to be in a constant state of terror. “I need to defend my house, my family”—where do they think they live? Syria?
III. A NATIONAL DISDAIN FOR EDUCATION
BLVR: You’ve been very vocal about the education system in the US and even the lack of understanding when it comes to the Constitution and history. I wanted you to expand on this a bit more.
FL: Well, the public school system in this country is horrible. And it has been horrible, as far as I can tell, for the last thirty-five years minimum. I went to public school. Everyone did when I was young, by the way! This is the problem. When I was young, the only people who didn’t go to public school were rich people, and there were far fewer of them, and they were a different kind of people where I grew up. And a lot of Catholic kids went to Catholic school. It was very common.
The public school system was pretty good, depending upon where you lived, obviously. One of the problems of the public school system in this country is that it is so local [that] it is financed by property taxes, which is a crazy way to finance a public school system, because obviously, where property taxes are higher, the schools are better. If property taxes are higher, it’s where people have more property, so they have more money. That is a very bad way to finance a public school system, but everyone I know who was my age who went to public school had a better education than people now get in public schools.
I had a very good public school education. I’m talking about grammar school. And the grammar school that I went to probably gave you a better education than the average high school now. The high school I went to wasn’t very good. And I’m talking about the most basic kind of education. I’m not talking about Harvard or Cambridge; I’m just talking about the most basic education. People don’t know anything. It is unbelievable to me and I’m flabbergasted by it. I don’t know what they do in these schools. In large parts of this country, the financing for schools is ludicrous. We’ve had numerous strikes for months, so that someone in New York City who never really thought about Oklahoma public schools now knows about them. The Oklahoma public schools make the New York City public schools look like Harvard. There is a disdain in this country for education.
BLVR: You’ve mentioned before that America hates elites, and by “elites,” you mean “smart people.”
FL: When Republicans say “elite,” they don’t mean “rich.” They love rich people. They mean “smart.” And this has always been true in this country. There has always been a real strain of anti-intellectualism in this country, but I’m not even talking about intellectualism. I’m talking about normal intelligence and lack of ignorance.
You know, politics is a field of knowledge. Politics is something very important. Just because a lot of politicians are horrible doesn’t mean it isn’t! Did you ever hear anyone say, “I have a horrible leak in my apartment. Do you know someone who isn’t a plumber?” Donald Trump is not qualified to be anything.
I was incredibly wrong about the election. I spent the year before the election going around the country telling thousands of people that he had zero chance of winning. Zero! And a friend of mine, right before the election, said to me that Trump could win. And I said that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. And she said, “You know, Fran, you don’t understand the country, because you don’t watch reality television.” And I thought that was idiotic. Now, you know, I never saw Donald Trump’s television show. I knew that it existed. I heard about it the same way I heard about the Kardashians.
BLVR: Do people associate fame with competence? Or is fame just a substitute for it?
FL: Oprah Winfrey made a speech [at the Golden Globes], and the second she made that speech, millions of people kept saying that she should be the president. I got into a huge argument with someone because no, of course she shouldn’t be president! I’m certain—I mean, I don’t know Oprah Winfrey, but I’m guessing that she has many people who write things for her, as all people do, by the way—except Fran. No, Oprah Winfrey shouldn’t be president. Would she be better than Donald Trump? Of course she would. Anyone would! But that can’t be the standard. A friend of mine said she could win, and I said I’m certain of that.
Oprah Winfrey is probably one of the most popular people in the United States. The most popular person in the United States has almost always been someone in entertainment. There was a time when Elvis Presley was the most popular person in the United States. There was a time when Frank Sinatra was the most popular person in the United States. There was a time when Marilyn Monroe was the most popular person in the United States. That’s who is most popular. The most popular person in the country is usually not a research physicist. And people used to know the difference between these two things. There’s nothing wrong with loving Oprah Winfrey as an entertainer, but there’s something very wrong with thinking she should be president.
I remember when Kennedy ran and everyone thought that a Catholic couldn’t be president. Kennedy had to say that he wouldn’t listen to the pope. He had to actually say that. One of the reasons Kennedy won was because he was so attractive. I mean physically attractive, attractive in his manner, so that’s always been a part of politics. It’s just that it didn’t used to be the only thing. For instance, Eisenhower ran against Adlai Stevenson. Adlai Stevenson was probably the smartest person who ever ran for president. At the time, in the ’50s, the charge against him was that he was an egghead. He was too smart! No one wanted him. It’s a combination of things. Kennedy had extremely smart people around him. Probably the people around Kennedy were smarter than he was, but he was smart enough to put those people around him. The president of the US is many things, and one of those things is a symbol. One of the worst aspects of the Trump presidency is what he is symbolic of. Obama was certainly very smart. That, I think, was a thing the people who voted for him liked about him. And that was probably the thing that the people who hated him hated him for.
BLVR: That’s what happened with Trudeau here in Canada, I think. He was a symbol for us, especially in light of the [Stephen] Harper government, but it was equally soaked in nostalgia: when people saw him, they saw his father. People had high expectations. Do you think that people had unreasonable expectations of Obama?
FL: For me, I never loved Obama, because I knew right away that he was to the right of me. I could see that right away, and when I kept saying that to people, what I kept saying was that he was a yuppie. I voted for him. I also didn’t feel that Obama had the right temperament to be president. Obama, I always thought, was too judicious to be president. He would have been a fantastic Supreme Court judge. He is a constitutional lawyer, and when McConnell wouldn’t let Congress vote on Obama’s choice on the Supreme Court, I said that Obama should appoint himself because he would be a fantastic Supreme Court judge. So I think that Obama was not forceful enough for president. It’s a position of leadership where you have to be more emphatic than Obama was.
One of the problems with Obama was his lack of experience. Most presidents that preceded him had more experience than he did. And you saw his lack of experience almost right away, so that when he came into office, right at the beginning of this horrible financial crash, he called the people who caused it to advise him. Why did he do that? He did that because he didn’t know what else to do. It was so disastrous, and much more than people seem to realize. He did understand, because he was smart, how disastrous it was, but he didn’t have enough experience. And so he goes to the people like Lawrence Summers and these people who caused this. Probably, in the end, the worst thing Obama did was let this once-in-a-hundred-years opportunity get away, because the banks and those hedge-fund guys—all those people—they initially were scared because they got caught. And we could have put in all these regulations to stop this, which caused not only this financial crash, but this immense, devastating inequality. And so he didn’t do that. The people who will be alive a hundred years from now—if there is actually still a Planet Earth a hundred years from now—will probably look back on that and say that’s the worst thing Obama did. That’s the biggest mistake he made.
BLVR: You’re an avid reader, and I wanted to know if your reading habits have changed throughout the years. Are you reading less of one thing and more of another?
FL: My reading habits used to be mostly fiction. Fiction is my preference in reading and I do read nonfiction, like news and stuff like that, but since the election, I read more nonfiction than I was. Even political books, which I never read. I read James Comey’s book [A Higher Loyalty], Michael Wolff’s book [Fire and Fury]. I would never have read books like this, because they’re not really, I don’t know how to say it, books! I’ve been driven so insane by this [fact] that, like any other addiction, the taste of the thing gives you a taste for the thing. In fact, I noticed that in the last couple of months, I’ve been slowly reading more fiction again, so I took this as a sign that even though I’m not getting used to Trump, I must, in some way, be getting used to Trump.