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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

John Oliver looks at the cruel circular illogic of Trump's immigration racism on Last Week Tonight

Illustration for article titled John Oliver looks at the cruel circular illogic of Trump's immigration racism on Last Week Tonight
Screenshot: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

With the midterm elections coming up tomorrow, John Oliver had plenty of topics to work with when it came to spurring his audience to vote on whether or not Donald fucking Trump’s America is something they really want to support. Presumably spinning the wheel of bigotry, attacks on civil and voting rights, sexual misconduct, environmental pillaging, destruction of democratic norms, rampant corruption, Russian collusion, and the bonus “random scandal” space, Oliver and his Last Week Tonight crew eventually settled on immigration as their election eve subject. (He did take some time up top for an introductory bonus round of “the GOP supporting literal neo-Nazi Republican legislator Steve King [R-IA.]”) All things considered, it was a bold play, since Oliver’s examination of the administration’s campaign to demonize immigrants relied on viewers willing to follow a complex train of thought for 18 minutes.


Or maybe it was simple. Oliver, near the end of his segment, warned viewers, “This is rough to watch,” before showing a clip from a documentary about a six-year-old named Jenri whose time in one of Donald Trump’s kiddie koncentration kamps has left him withdrawn, terrified, and prone to hysterical outbursts where the experience of being ripped from his mother erupts in what is clearly lasting emotional damage. Or, as Oliver shows Trump loyalist Corey Lewandowski saying when told of another such case of family separation, “Womp-womp.” That hacky catchphrase of soulless cruelty in the face of human suffering is shown to be Trump supporters’ across-the-board response when confronted with anything resembling humanitarian (or just plain human) consequences of Trump’s immigration crackdown. And, as Oliver notes, that’s the result not only of some good old fashioned white American racism, but a concerted effort by an administration to give such un-American bigotry cover.

Taking deep breaths, Oliver laid out the old school racist Trump “vote to keep the scary brown people away from the women and children!” strategy. Make seeking asylum—which is legal under international and U.S. law—harder. Eliminate an Obama-era program to ensure asylum seekers follow the proper procedures for applying. Lie about the number of asylum seekers who follow the proper channels and show up for their court appearances, while making up a catchy-to-dimwits label like “catch-and-release” to inaccurately describe the system. (Don’t worry, Trump’s on-air estimate of “zero percent” of asylum seekers who follow the rules was only off by 99.3 percent, according to Oliver.) Run scary GOP ads showing immigrants as raping, murdering (not white) monsters. (Including the one run by NBC on that very night’s Sunday Night Football that was rejected by CNN for being fact-averse, fear-mongering racist propaganda.) Create a system to rip families apart with the clear intention of deterring immigrants with the very real fear that their children will be taken away into an incompetent and capricious bureaucracy where kids are shown to have been routinely lost. (Even with the genius, “call an infant’s name and see if it answers” identification policy.) Hammer home to Trump supporters on the fence that immigrants deserve what happens to them (and their kids) if they enter the country “illegally,” leading to interviews like the ones Oliver shows where the carefully constructed rationalizations of MAGA types are stripped down to their foundational racism with the merest breeze of a question. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

For Oliver, this effort of weekly stripping-down emerges in energetic, expertly punctuated comic outrage and appearance smack. (Boorishly blustering ICE head Thomas Homan is, here, what happens “when a can of Monster energy drink fucks John Lithgow.”) And for a guy whose mission to provide facts in an America where any inconvenient truths are invariably sneered at as “fake news” by a white supremacist serial liar and his followers, it’s clearly a tough gig. Summing up his pre-election final salvo against this week’s exploration of shoulder-shrugging Republican racism, Oliver says he chose the subject of family separation because Trump himself chose it as his cynically racist, fear-based message to his white, self-justifying base. Calling the family separation policy “the most emblematic moment of his presidency so far,” Oliver termed it “cruel, sloppy, needless, racist, and ultimately exactly what we should have expected.”


Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.