John Oliver: When Trump 'uses the word thugs, you know what it’s code for'

Adrian Horton

“It’s been a truly brutal week, with protests across the country in response to the horrific killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police,” said John Oliver on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, which was taped, he noted on Twitter, on Saturday morning (“that’s never great, and this week, it’s especially not-great.”) “There is clearly a lot to discuss here: how these protests are a response to a legacy of police misconduct both in Minneapolis and in the nation at large, and how that misconduct is in and of itself built on a legacy of white supremacy that prioritizes the comfort of white Americans over the safety of people of color. There is so much to say here – some of it complicated, much of it all too clear. 

“Or, you know, you could just go on TV, open up your mouth, and let this shit fall out,” he said before playing a clip of Fox News host and “human boat shoe” Tucker Carlson.

“Rioting is the one thing you don’t want,” Carlson said on his show over footage from violent clashes between police and protesters in Minneapolis. Carlson compared the violent protests with the now-infamous incident in Central Park last week in which a white woman called the cops on a black birdwatcher, who asked her to leash her dog, and feigned hysteria to gain a swift police response. “Ugly opinions, police brutality, officious birdwatchers, rude and entitled ladies walking their dogs in big-city parks – all of that is bad. But none of it is nearly as bad as what you just saw,” Carlson said.

“OK, first: fuck you, Tucker,” Oliver responded. “That’s just a general point. Second, saying ‘officious birdwatcher’ is deeply offensive – because you’re either trying to both-sides that Central Park incident or insulting fans of this show, who proudly call themselves ‘officious birdwatchers’. I am the ‘officious bird’; they are the ‘watchers.’ Keep their name out of your mouth.”

“People like Tucker love to venerate order at moments like this, and that’s easy to do when order in its current form is designed to benefit and protect you,” Oliver continued. “But it’s hard to overstate how clearly we’ve been reminded lately of the hostility of our existing order toward black people who’ve been killed by police on the street [George Floyd], killed by police in their own home [emergency room technician Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police on 13 March in Louisville], “killed by wannabe police in the street [Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot and killed while jogging in February by two white men in Georgia], and threatened with state violence while literally birding [Christian Cooper, the birdwatcher in Central Park]. “Collectively, that has just got to be some brutality bingo right there.”

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“And when ‘order’ results in you lying face-down on a lawn while your grandma stands between you and the police who have pulled their guns on you after you allegedly just rolled a stop sign,” he continued, in reference to Tye Anders, a 21-year-old Texan arrested in a terrifying ordeal with police in May. “I can see why being lectured on the importance of ‘order’ at the expense of all else is just not what you want to fucking hear right now!”

And the president, Oliver noted, is baiting – the host pointed to his tweet from the weekend (which Twitter sanctioned for “glorifying violence”) in which he called the protesters “thugs” and said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” “When a man like Donald Trump uses the word ‘thugs’, you know exactly what it’s code for,” said Oliver. “‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts,’ is actually a quote from a notoriously racist 1960s Miami police chief. And it is truly astounding how Donald Trump has managed to live 74 years with a remedial understanding of spelling, grammar, geography, science, civics nutrition and child development, and yet he’s the fucking Library of Alexandria when it comes to racist maxims of the 20th century.”

Oliver’s main segment concerned the less explosive but extremely important issue of mail-in voting – the same issue which garnered Trump’s other Twitter censure last week, for his erroneous claim that it’s “substantially fraudulent”. Mail-in voting is actually common in many states with both Republican and Democratic-leaning governments, “and if this pandemic continues into the fall, as it most certainly will, many voters will want to do exactly that”, said Oliver. “Because think about it: holding an in-person election during a pandemic is an absolute nightmare.

“The question isn’t ‘should we have voting by mail’ at all, because we already do,” Oliver explained. “It’s ‘how hard should we make it?’” That question depends on where you live – some states have significant restrictions on mail-in voting, such as Alabama, which requires mail-in ballots to include a photocopy of one’s state ID and a notary signed by two witnesses. Voter fraud is thus a crime that is “difficult, high-risk and low reward”, said Oliver. “It’s as if at the end of Ocean’s Eight, we learned that Sandra Bullock had gone to all the trouble of breaking into the Met Gala to steal a map of state’s quarters.”

And while advocates argue that it will reduce obstacles to civic participation, “that in and of itself may be why it’s become so controversial”, Oliver said. “Conservative opponents often speculate that any increased participation would benefit Democrats despite the fact that researchers have consistently found that hasn’t obviously helped one party or the other.”

The attempts to discredit mail-in voting during a pandemic is why “now is absolutely the time to talk about this,” Oliver concluded. “You cannot prepare for an election the same way you update your computer’s software, by just putting it off for months on end and secretly hoping that maybe you’ll be dead before you actually have to deal with it. We need to get this right, now.”