In the season five finale of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver left viewers with a handy checklist of three traits to look out for in authoritarian despots, including one that may just be taking hold in the United States.
“Many authoritarians project strength out of a real concern that they may be seen as illegitimate,” Oliver says. “In the same way a man who is insecure about his penis buys a motorcycle, or takes up bodybuilding, or invents the Tesla.”
First and foremost, there’s “projecting strength”—“spectacles” of national power, such as military parades, and of personal strength, like Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s wild workout videos.
These leaders claim they need to flex this strength in order to protect their citizens, which leads into what Oliver identifies as the next major trait of authoritarianism: demonizing enemies.
“Authoritarians often go out of their way to identify, and sometimes manufacture, a group of evil-doers from whom they and they alone can save the country,” he says. In a tense political climate, authoritarians present themselves as the simple solution to their citizens’ problems. This includes targeting already-marginalized groups.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, for instance, has stoked fears of Muslims and refugees, while Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed homosexuality was a weapon of the EU amidst a dip in popularity in his country.
As they gain power, authoritarians consolidate their rule using this third trait: dismantling institutions. Journalists, courts and legislatures are threatened; in recent years, Turkey, China, Hungary and Venezuela have all faced pressures on their checks and balances, and Poland looks to be headed the same way.
Sound familiar? Donald Trump certainly exhibits quite a number of authoritarian traits, most of all 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 Emmy Awards, Puerto Rico, the Postal Service, an upscale farm-to-table restaurant in Lexington, Va., the NSA, LaVar Ball, the city of Chicago, the mayor of London, the CEO of Merck, Nordstrom and Chrissy fucking Teigen,” Oliver says, breaking down the many beefs of America’s tweeter-in-chief.
Could authoritarianism take hold in the U.S.? It’s an increasingly frightening possibility. “The real worry here isn’t just that Trump sounds like an authoritarian,” says Oliver, “it’s that many people in this country like the way that sounds.”
So far, American institutions have proven just strong enough to counteract Trump’s authoritarian moves. But as Oliver cautions, it’s now more important than ever for Americans to be vigilant.
“The honest answer to ‘could authoritarianism happen here’ is, and possibly always will be, no. I think, no, ehhh, probably no.”
Watch the segment below.