John Oliver ended Last Week Tonight’s fifth season laying out grim indications that global authoritarianism is on the rise. Authoritarian leaders gain power by perpetuating their own strength, creating popular enemies by demonizing marginalized groups and dismantling institutions. And, Oliver argues, these trends are growing in countries such as Russia, China, Turkey and the Philippines, and latching on in other countries like Brazil, which just elected the ultra-conservative Jair Bolsonaro as its president.
The most troubling aspect of this trend, Oliver said, is how susceptible people are to authoritarianism when they’re scared. “One of their greatest appeals is making a complicated world simple. If you’re under attack or you’ve been made to feel that way, it is nice to have a charismatic individual to say, ‘Fuck the rules, fuck the system – I’ve got this,'” Oliver said, with a joke: “That’s an impulse we’re all vulnerable to. Take me; I believe in the separation of powers and the rule of law. But if America were to descend into a civil war and someone said, ‘Hey, what if we just let Tom Hanks figure it out?,’ a not insignificant part of me would say, ‘Yeah, that seems nice. In fact, all praise Daddy Hanks; long live the Gump; death to his enemies.’”
How does the United States factor into this? Oliver suggests that Trump’s rhetoric both on the campaign trail and in the White House sets a dangerous tone for dictators in other countries who are watching him and don’t have the checks and balances of government America has. “[Trump] loves appearing strong; he actually wanted a military parade; and when it comes to demonizing enemies, he’s gleefully gone after immigrants and other marginalized groups,” said Oliver.
On a less serious note, Oliver queued up the 2016 clip where Trump steps in it by explaining to NBC why he retweeted a quotation by fascist leader Benito Mussolini. When asked by NBC News’ Chuck Todd if he “wanted to be associated with a Fascist,” Trump gave the Trumpiest response: “No, I want to be associated with interesting quotes.” Oliver’s take? “There’s roughly a 50 percent chance that Donald Trump thinks that Mussolini is just an Italian moose.”
Be that as it may, Oliver called for Americans to stay vigilant. “While we may talk about ‘institutions being strong,’ what that actually means is that people are working very hard to protect them – and to use them to contain this president’s worst impulses,” he said.
“He’s lost in court because people have sued him; he’s kept the Russia investigation going because his advisors know there would be a public outcry if he stopped it; and to the extent that Congress is able to check him going forward, it’s because people turned up at the midterms. And it is going to be even more important to keep doing those things because the world is dabbling with something very dangerous right now, and America needs to be careful.”