“I don’t know,” is a blessed phrase all too infrequently uttered in this age of sneering snap judgements and people who think a farting Peter Griffin gif is a killer comeback to one’s nuanced point about social justice. And yet, Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver readily admitted, partway through his Sunday main story about the national debt, that he truly doesn’t know all the ins and outs of whether America’s current $28 trillion debt is the sort of red alert a number that big sounds like. Even if, Oliver notes, he’s the sort of guy who looks like he has thoughts about the relative merits of different brands of graphing calculator, he’s a late-night comedian, and not an economist. (Who also occasionally screws with the purveyors of Big Debt.) The thing is, anyone who examines the complex issue of debt and deficits (there’s a difference, as Oliver helpfully points out) also knows precious little about the intricacies of projecting the nation’s future financial health, at least if they’re being honest.
And that counts out today’s Republican Party, according to Oliver, whose membership has united against President Joe Biden’s proposed stimulus and infrastructure bills in as much red-faced alarmism as it joined together in harmonious, ass-kissing song when the previous (Republican) president proposed adding to that trillions-deep debt by giving them and their wealthy donor base a massive tax cut. Funny how that shit works. Oh, wait, not funny. Infuriating, predictable, and, as Axios correspondent Jonathan Swan got GOP Senator Ted Crux (R-TX) to admit on camera, “the most cynical, phony thing” imaginable. Cruz doesn’t respond to the British journalist’s fed up, “Doesn’t that make you want to puke?,” possibly because Ted Cruz is not capable of differentiating between nourishing good-faith discourse and toxic, self-stuffing hypocrisy.
Of course, Ted Cruz isn’t the only GOP operative caught admitting that the national debt is only really a thing when there’s a Democrat in office (Oliver shows that Mick Mulvaney also lacks a functional gag reflex when it comes to bald-faced performative faux outrage). And while we’ll let Oliver’s signature cheekily (and actually) outraged piece lay out the case, let’s just sit back and marvel at the Last Week Tonight research squad for digging up former Vice Presidential candidate, historical footnote, and current avatar of karmic comeuppance Sarah Palin introducing her inevitably wrongheaded remarks on the debt with the always-terrifying preamble, “And this isn’t racist, but ...” (Note: Palin’s point comparing debt to slavery was very, very racist.)
As Oliver concludes—with the help of a kid-voiced parody of the traditional Republican scare tactic ads—there is a good-faith debate to be had about the national debt. But asking a Republican Party—that has historically only given an exaggeratedly effortful shit about the debt when there’s a Democrat in charge who wants to pay for social programs, environmental safeguards, education, and infrastructure (as opposed to granting trickle-down tax breaks that somehow never trickle down)—to engage is such a debate is simply not worth the effort. The issue—as Oliver shows in an especially infuriating clip of noted deficit hawk and conservative fetish object Ronald Reagan explaining to Johnny Carson—is not (suppressing gag reflex) akin to a woman learning to “preserve her virtue” by “saying no.” It’s more a question of looking at the available facts, evaluating real costs and benefits, and, as Oliver notes, debating “whether the investments we are making are worth it or not” when it comes to the future of the country and its people. Or, as Oliver’s economy kids put it even more succinctly in addressing Republicans shifting to debt panic now that their guy’s plutocratic coup attempt failed, “Grow the fuck up,”