John Oliver Highlights Trump's Authoritarian Aspects, Warns of U.S. Liking It

The HBO host used an extended segment about strongmen around the world to explore whether the American president displays those same traits.
Eric Liebowitz/HBO

For his final deep dive of 2018, John Oliver took a look at the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world, pinpointing three "common traits" strongmen leaders have that make them appealing, and then assessing to what extent those characteristics apply to the President Donald Trump to see whether America "is heading in the same direction."

Specifically, Oliver singled out "projecting strength," "demonizing enemies" and "dismantling institutions" as his three main authoritarian traits.

"Authoritarians love grand displays of force like military parades … many authoritarian countries tend to conflate their country's national identity with their personal identity, so they individually need to appear strong too," Oliver explained, later adding, "They often tell their citizens that that strength is necessary to protect them."

Moving on to authoritarians' tendency to demonize enemies, Oliver said, "Authoritarians often go out of their way to identify and sometimes manufacture a group of evildoers from whom they and they alone can save the country … Authoritarians need enemies because one of their greatest appeals is making a complicated world simple. If you're under attack or made to feel that way, it's nice to have a charismatic individual say, 'Fuck the rules, fuck the system, I've got this.' That's an impulse we're all vulnerable to."

And if there's not a real threat, Oliver said, "strongmen will often make one up, often targeting a group that's been persecuted to begin with, like immigrants or minorities."

"As they gain power, authoritarians will try to weaken any check on them," including the press, courts and legislatures, Oliver added.

Oliver then conceded that some of what he'd mentioned was probably "ringing a bell."

Trump, Oliver said, "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 as well as picking aggressively optional battles with Canada; the NFL; Mark Cuban; the FBI; Robert De Niro; the 2017 Emmys; Puerto Rico; the Postal Service; an upscale farm-to-table restaurant in Lexington, Virginia; the NSA; LeVar Ball; the city of Chicago; the mayor of London; the CEO of Merck; Nordstrom; and Chrissy — fucking — Teigen."

That, Oliver added, was only "counting the Twitter feuds."

He continued, pointing out that Trump has expressed admiration for authoritarian leaders and arguing that Trump's "entire tone on campaign trail was of an unapologetic strongman."

But what's more troubling, Oliver argued, than Trump's authoritarian tendencies, is the support such behavior has received. "The real worry here isn't just that Trump sounds like an authoritarian, it's that many people in this country like the way that sounds," he said, before airing clips of Trump supporters praising his strength.

And he argued it's important to "remain vigilant" to keep the country from becoming an authoritarian state, which hasn't happened yet because, Oliver said, "while Trump has done terrible things as president, our institutions generally speaking so far have been just strong enough to hold up against his most authoritarian instincts."

After citing a few examples of institutions withstanding threats, Oliver pointed out that Trump is "testing the system."

"People do need to remain vigilant, and that is the key thing here," he said. "While we may talk about institutions being strong, what that actually means is people are working very hard to protect them and to use them to contain this president's worst impulses."

And it's going to be increasingly important to keep resisting, he said, adding, "The world is dabbling in something very dangerous and America needs to be careful."