Unlike his other late-night cohorts, John Oliver brought the second of his socially distanced Last Week Tonight episodes to us on Sunday not from a tub, rumpus room, or sofa, but from the sterilely spooky reaches of “a blank, white void full of sad facts.” Where is John Oliver’s void? Well, there’s no audience, no guests, and, while his one-camera setup still looks a lot better than the cell phone cameras most hosts seem to be stuck using, presumably a skeleton crew keeping a responsibly safe distance from the host’s signature rants. Or maybe it’s just a really good TV camera propped up on a chair. No way to know. Still, as Oliver broke down this latest week of hardcore coronavirus sequestration and mounting medical crisis, his main focus was on the indeed sad fact that the country’s political and moral leadership in the face of this unprecedented-in-memory pandemic also resembles nothing so much as that blank, white void.
One might think that verbally pummeling Donald Trump for his mishandling of the COVID-19 response would be repetitive old comic hat by now, but, as Oliver laid out in chillingly verbatim detail from Trump’s daily torrent of self-exonerating bullshit, there’s always some fresh abomination to hold up to horrified public view. Tracking the self-serving logic of Donald Trump’s looping, stoned-spider web of excuses as to why none of this exponentially escalating horror is in any way his fault, Oliver concluded the Trump portion of his main story by hanging Trump with his own words so nauseatingly succinctly as to sound the death knell for the political career of any human being with even the tiniest speck of shame or decency. (Note: As of press time, Donald Trump still remains president.)
For Oliver, this emergency reveals a lot more truly dark and terrifying things than the soulless, whinging ineptitude of a morally bankrupt lifelong huckster who’s somehow wound up in the most powerful office in the land just at the exact wrong time. (As Oliver puts it, “For once, something has come along that is more toxic and more threatening than this president, and somehow he’s got fucking stage envy.”) Turning to the national scene, Oliver showed in stark detail just how “a crisis of this magnitude ends up revealing a lot of who you are as a nation, and not all that’s being revealed is good.” Medical professionals are good, as Oliver spent some time extolling the heroism of those doctors, nurses, and support staff who are fighting to stem the tide of the dead that’s seen hospitals ordering in refrigerated 18-wheelers to store the overflow from morgues, and who tearfully plead for the most basic of protective equipment. Oliver stressed that medical workers “deserve, among other things, a fucking parade—whenever we’re allowed to have parades again.”
But for many, old and shameful American habits die hard. Like scapegoating an ethnic minority in times of trouble, leading to, in this case, a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes exacerbated by a president all too eager to whip up his base of xenophobic yahoos. Or the even-to-Oliver-shocking number of right-wing “thinkers” whose collective take is that life-saving measures to save potentially millions just ain’t worth doing if it means losing money. Pointing to those rich old white men whose chest-thumping pledges to sacrifice themselves for Wall Street include the implicit wink that it’s not rich old white men who will proportionally be doing the dying, Oliver referred to the likes of Glenn Beck, Dennis Prager, Brit Hume, and Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick with the withering contempt these Republican stalwarts appear to hold for anyone suggesting that old, sick, or poor people deserve to live, even in a pandemic. As Oliver concluded, “We’re being forced to confront some of the strangest, darkest implications of our national mindset, in which market worship threatens to become a fucking death cult.”