While most weeks, the writing staff at Last Week Tonight have to limit themselves to a tight few minutes on Donald Trump's chaos, this week, they got an entire episode to do a deep dive on the zaniest stories in the year since the election. John Oliver recapped Trump's presidency on Last Week Tonight in cringeworthy detail, and it's everything we could have hoped for.
Of course, that means he couldn't focus on the Republicans' tax reform bill, which unfolded "with all the grace of a horse falling down a spiral staircase," or Louis C.K.'s sexual assault allegations, which led to "the cancellation of his film, Exhibit A If This Ever Goes To Trial." He also couldn't delve into Trump's Mean Girls-worthy Twitter burn of Kim Jong-un, which is obviously objectively terrifying in the imminent nuclear war sense, but also inexplicably embarrassing for him. Instead, for the Last Week Tonight season finale, Oliver unpacked all the ways Trump's presidency is bucking everything we know about how to hold the highest office in the land. He acknowledged how exhausting it's been to follow the news this past year, astutely observing, "Trump's presidency is like one of his handshakes: it pulls you in, whether you like it or not."
Oliver decided to retire the "We got him" button, because, as it's been made clear to us in the past year, it's basically impossible to "get" him. This, Oliver believes, is because Trump has fundamentally changed "the norms governing how our leaders engage with us, and how, in turn, that affects the way that we engage with one another."
He broke down a three-pronged strategy Trump seems to use, comprised of delegitimizing the media with claims of "fake news," deflecting blame using "what about-ism" (more on that later), and trolling. And this strategy is supported by Trump's nonsensical way of speaking, which Oliver demonstrated is basically predictive text dressed in a baggy suit. (He read a transcript from one of Trump's speeches stripped of his delivery style, and it sounds exactly like a predictive text story.)
The way Trump has weaponized "fake news" is pretty apparent. But his habit of deflecting blame by responding with "What about (insert negative aspects of his political opponents here)," is actually an old Soviet propaganda tool, as Oliver explained:
The reason it is dangerous is because it implies that all actions, regardless of context, share a moral equivalency. And since nobody is perfect, all criticism is hypocritical and everybody should do whatever they want. It is a depressingly effective tool.
The third leg in Trump's strategy is his use of trolling, which he seems to take as a compliment, even though when he's confronted and called out on his bluster, he immediately backs down, memorably responding once, "I don't stand by anything."
"As a troll, Trump often does things that have no effect other than to piss off his perceived enemies," Oliver said, calling back to his CNN wrestling gif, his Mika Brzezinski dig, and the aforementioned Kim Jong-un tweet. But his trolling isn't a virtue. "Sometimes," Oliver stated, "When you do something that makes a lot of people mad, it's because, and bear with me here, you're a d*ck."
But Trump's trolling makes him successful, in a way, because it works at making his enemies unhappy, and then Trump's supporters get to feel good. Oliver cautions us on how warped this is, commenting:
Judging your political success on how bad you make other people feel makes just about as much sense as judging your success as a zookeeper by how many bears you f*ck. That is not your job.
The problem with all of this is that, when the president is doing it, these techniques are legitimized and encouraged to spread. We've already seen congresspeople parrot Trump and copy his style, which risks this becoming the new normal for political discourse. "It's so important to train ourselves to identify these techniques," Oliver urged during his segment. "Because their natural endpoint is the erosion of our ability to decide what's important, have an honest debate, and hold one another accountable."
It's also important, he points out, not to grow complacent about recent strides made in the General Election and to stay motivated for next year's Midterms and beyond. In other words, all hope is not lost, but the feelings you've been feeling about our current political climate for the past year? They're all valid.
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