On a recent episode of his HBO show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, host John Oliver discussed President Donald Trump and the impact of his presidency. I thought Oliver’s analysis was excellent, so I’m providing it here, edited for content.
President Trump has three key techniques that he uses to insulate himself from criticism and consequence. And if we are not careful, all three could have serious impacts that far outlast his presidency. Let’s start with the first one…
Delegitimizing the Media
Now, Trump has been attacking the press since he declared his candidacy. The difference now is he’s crying “fake news” as President of the United States, and he is openly proud of it, to the point that he recently tried to take ownership of the term itself.
Trump: “The media is… is — really the word — I think one of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with is ‘fake.’ I guess other people have used it, perhaps, over the years, but I’ve never noticed it.”
He just took credit for inventing the term “fake news,” which, for the record, he did not.
And you can imagine him saying, “Well, I’m not the first politician to criticize the press. What about Hillary Clinton? What about Barack Obama? What about Bernie Sanders?”
And that actually brings us to Trump’s second technique…
It’s the practice of changing the subject to someone else’s perceived wrongdoing. Trump does this all the time.
This technique of saying “what about” is actually an old Soviet propaganda tool, and 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, which is why, on Trump’s favorite network, you hear it all the time.
Fox News clips:
- “The mainstream media focused on the Trump campaign and allegations of collusion with the Russians. But what about the Democrats’ possible ties to Moscow?”
- “Former national security adviser General Michael Flynn, investigated for his private meeting with Russia — but what about Hillary Clinton?”
- “The media wants to call into question the credibility and the trustworthiness of this administration, but what about Benghazi? What about the blatant lies that the Obama administration told us? What about the fact that Ben Rhodes bragged about lying to the media and the public about the Iran deal? What about the fact that Jonathan Gruber basically said the American people were stupid?”
OK, stop. Because here is the thing: none of the errors those people may have made in the past excuse the Trump administration’s actions. A defense attorney could not stand up in court and say, “Maybe my client did murder those people, but I ask you this… What about Jeffrey Dahmer? What about Al Capone? I rest my case.”
The problem with whataboutism is it doesn’t actually solve a problem or win an argument. The point is just to muddy the waters, which can make the other side mad, and that actually brings us to Trump’s third technique…
Trolling itself has been around for years. It’s basically 80 percent of what happens on the Internet. It’s when a YouTube commenter says something willfully provocative, like saying, “[You]’ve aged like an apple core in a dumpster,” or that [you] “look like a pickle with glasses.” It doesn’t matter whether they mean any of that — the point is just to get a reaction and to hurt my feelings.
Trump may well be the first ever troll to be elected president. As a troll, Trump often does things that have no effect other than to anger his perceived enemies. Like when he tweeted a wrestling GIF of himself body slamming CNN, or attacked Mika Brzezinski by saying she was “bleeding badly from a face-lift,” or called a leader with nuclear weapons “short and fat.” And Trump even once retweeted a claim that he was the most superior troll on the whole of Twitter, calling it “a great compliment.” Which it is not, because sometimes when you do something that makes a lot of people mad, it’s because you’re a jerk.
But the thing is, Trump’s trolling is not actually without political value. Despite Trump’s few real policy accomplishments to date, he has consistently achieved one thing, and that is making his enemies unhappy. And for many Trump supporters, that itself counts as a major victory.
Just listen to how Fox & Friends reacted after Trump freaked people out by standing with military leaders during rising tensions with North Korea and suggesting that it was the “calm before the storm.”
I feel like he’s trolling the media.
He is — I think he’s totally trolling the media there. You do something like that — even the smile and the wink.
Those of us that are sick of the status quo, the forgotten men and women who voted for President Trump, want that town to freak out. I want those reporters going, “What do you mean? What do you mean?” It’s beautiful to watch.
Is it? Why? I’m genuinely serious. Who benefits from mass confusion about whether or not we’re about to go to war? Are there thousands of unemployed factory workers across the Midwest going, “Well, the plant closed down, and I lost my healthcare, but somewhere, a Washington Post reporter is scared of dying, so things are looking up. #MAGA!”
The surest proof of trolling often comes when a troll is confronted. Because that’s when they either have to put up or shut up. You may have heard about cases where people tracked down the source of something awful that was posted online, only to find some sullen fifteen-year old who just shrugs and goes, “Well, I don’t know why I wrote that. I just did it. Stop asking me so many questions!”
That is basically our president now. Remember when Trump said that Obama surveilled him in Trump Tower, tweeting, “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones?” Watch what happens when he was asked to justify that.
Trump: Well, you saw what happened with the surveillance, and I think that was inappropriate. That’s the way…
Reporter: What does that mean, sir?
Trump: Uh, you can figure that out yourself.
Reporter: Well, the reason I ask is you said he was — you called him “sick and bad.”
Trump: Look, you can figure it out for yourself. He was very nice to me with words, but — and when I was with him — but after that, there has been no relationship.
Reporter: But you stand by that claim about him?
Trump: I don’t stand by anything. I just, uh… You can take it the way you want.
OK, so let’s just walk through what happened there. On the Internet, he claimed that his predecessor committed an extremely serious crime. But in person, he is suddenly backing down, first saying Obama was “very nice to me with words,” then that, “I don’t stand by anything.” Which is one of the most frighteningly nihilistic sentences a president can say.
It gets worse because that interview kept going, and Trump was explicitly given the opportunity to set the record straight for the “fake news media,” but he flat-out refused.
Reporter: I just wanted to find out — you’re the President of the United States. You said he was “sick and bad” because he attacked you…
Trump: You can take it any way — you can take it any way you want.
Reporter: But I’m asking you, because you don’t want it to be fake news. I want to hear it from President Trump.
Trump: You don’t have to ask me.
Reporter: Why not?
Trump: Because I have my own opinions, you can have your own opinions.
Reporter: But I want to know your opinions. You’re the President of the United States.
Trump: OK, that’s enough. Thank you. Thank you very much.
While there is nothing new about any of these techniques, they are now coming out of the Oval Office, which not only legitimizes them, it risks them spreading, and that, sadly, is happening.
Last month, Congressman Paul Gosar used all three techniques. First, he suggested in an interview that the March in Charlottesville may have been a “false flag” operation created by the left, which is pretty troll-y behavior. And when confronted about it, he deployed the other two tools.
Reporter: It’s all been debunked.
Gosar: It’s not been debunked. Absolutely not debunked whatsoever. So stay tuned.
Reporter: The conspiracy theory that you have put out there has been debunked.
Gosar: It has not been debunked. Look at what CNN has talked about with what’s going on with the Clinton administration right now with the dossier. Hardly an aspect in regards to debunk. You’re not real news, you’re fake news.
Reporter: Sir, everything you’ve said has been debunked. Why are you putting this out there?
Gosar [walking away]: Fake news. Fake news.
So he’s basically just copying Trump. And if there is one thing that is worse than something terrible, it’s a cover band of that terrible thing. If Trump is Nickelback, that man is Bickelnack — not as good as the original, and a horrible sign that the disease is spreading.
The problem is, if that becomes the level of discourse in this country, we are seriously in trouble. And just this week, we saw some of these techniques pushed to the absolute limit by the scandal involving Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has denied allegations of sexual misconduct with a 14-year old when he was 32, and called them “fake news.”
Now watch Sean Hannity use whataboutism to derail a discussion about it.
Geraldo Rivera: This 14-year old girl, purportedly, according to the Washington Post, told two of her girlfriends what happened in real time.
Sean Hannity: Here’s a tough question — do you think Bill Clinton, in retrospect, was a predator?
But that is not what this discussion is about. You might as well have said, “Here’s a tough question — if you had to guess, how many lobsters are there? Like, total, in the world?” Is that worth discussing? Sure, but first let’s finish talking about the Senate candidate who may have made sexual advances on a child. Whether Clinton engaged in predatory behavior is absolutely a legitimate question, but it shouldn’t really inform what we do about Roy Moore. And even if you believe the Democrats are guilty of a double standard, the solution is not to have no standard whatsoever.
That is why it’s so important to train ourselves to identify these techniques, because their natural endpoint is the erosion of our ability to decide what’s important, have an honest debate, and hold one another accountable.