One year after Election Day, the season finale of Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver outlined the three main manipulation tactics President Trump uses when engaging with the public and the press: delegitimizing media, “whataboutism” and trolling. The techniques, Oliver says, are “depressively effective.” Many of these persuasive tools were even employed in Soviet-era propaganda. Even more depressingly, the negative impact is already spreading beyond Trump’s presidency.
Oliver begins with Trump’s most apparent defense mechanism: crying “fake news.” Trump popularized the term during the presidential campaign, which hedged on attacking the mainstream media for having inherent liberal biases. As president, Trump continues to alienate reporters, which, paradoxically, perpetuates the misinformation he claims to abhor.
Trump’s slightly subtler tactic is a term Oliver called “whataboutism,” a fallacy with roots in old Soviet propaganda that shifts any given topic to another, potentially irrelevant one. “It implies that all actions regardless of context share a moral equivalency,” says Oliver. “And since nobody is perfect, all criticism is hypocritical and everyone should do whatever they want … It doesn’t solve a problem or win an argument. The point is just to muddy the waters, which just makes the other side mad.”
The most famous recent example was Trump’s reaction to the alt-right rally in Charlottesville. When a neo-Nazi intentionally drove a car into a mass of people and killed protestor Heather Heyer, Trump responded by looking for equal fault on the other side. “A defense attorney could not stand up in court and say ‘maybe my client did murder those people, but what about Jeffrey Dahmer? What about Al Capone? What about the guy from Silence of the Lambs? I rest my case.'”
Trump’s smoke-and-mirrors speaking style leads up to his hallmark tactic: trolling. The point of trolling, Oliver said, is to be “willfully provocative” for no other purpose than to anger the enemy. “It doesn’t matter whether they mean any of it – the point is just to get a reaction and hurt [my] feelings.” Trump’s primary use of trolling is, of course, his Twitter account.
Oliver argues that this trend could have the most deleterious effects in the political system. Already, younger politicians emulate it as a path to success, like Congressman Paul Gosar, whose ignorant response to Charlottesville echoed Trump’s.
Trump’s trolling has satisfied some of his supporters. Oliver showed a reaction clip from Fox and Friends, where the commentators celebrate how much Trump is “trolling” the media by standing with military leaders in light of military threats from North Korea. (“It’s beautiful to watch,” said one of the reporters.)
“Who benefits from mass confusion about whether or not we’re about to go to war?” Oliver said, dumbfounded. “Are there thousands of unemployed factory workers across the midwest going, ‘well, the plant closed down and I lost my health care but somewhere a Washington Post reporter is scared of dying so things are looking up. MAGA!'”