Last Week Tonight wins a lot of praise for its incisive segments on topical issues, even though John Oliver contends that he is more comic foil than journalistic firebrand. Now, as Last Week readies for its return to HBO this Sunday, it’s hard to ignore the biggest issue of all: President Donald Trump. The show’s featured segments have tackled everything from public schooling and abortion access to refugee crises, all of which have become crucial battlegrounds amid Trump’s rise to the presidency.
Ahead of Last Week Tonight’s season premiere, here are the ten segments that merit a rewatch as you try and wrap your head around America’s colossally new political landscape.
International Women’s Day
After last year’s International Women’s Day, Oliver and his team felt it important to highlight just how out of touch prominent figures in statehood and media from several nations — including the U.S. — were regarding the advancement of feminist concerns. With another Women’s Day just a few weeks off, it’s hard not to think about the worldwide marches and general alarm regarding D.C.’s old-is-new-again boys’ club and ponder whether the global community has become more recalcitrant or if arcane gender separatists have only begun to dig their heels in.
The Syrian Refugee Crisis
Ah, the good old days of the presidential campaign, when Jeb Bush was mocked for his recommendation that we vet Syrian refugees based on their commitment to Christianity. As Oliver observed in this September segment, Donald Trump had already cast his lot with the anti-refugee crowd, and the U.S. already had more stringent vetting procedures than, say, Arizona State University. A little more than four months later, President Trump signed the now-infamous executive order temporarily banning immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries deemed as terrorist hotbeds, effectively stranding both refugees and legalized American citizens who’d been overseas for personal or professional reasons. It’s worth bearing in mind Oliver’s reminder that we take tiny risks everyday — from getting in our cars to eating foods with potentially lethal allergens — and that we shouldn’t let the fear of a terrorist entering our country overwhelm our capacity for human compassion.
Public Charter Schools
We’re getting pretty far into the policy weeds when it comes to charter schools, school vouchers, and every other aspect of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s philosophy of loosely organized chaos. But as this deconstruction underscores, charter schools specifically remain in the experimental stage, and are susceptible to the kind of selfish interests and corruption inherent in any free-market enterprise. Except, in this case, the products being tested are our kids. All of which comes into stark relief now that Donald Trump and Mike Pence have tapped an inexperienced billionaire to shape the near-future of public education in America.
The State of Journalism
Before Kellyanne Conway introduced the world to “alternative facts,” and before Trump’s election drove newfound support for journalism, Last Week Tonight provided nearly 20 minutes of tough candor about how we’ve failed the Fourth Estate. When this segment aired last August, “fake news” hadn’t yet dominated discourse or been summarily hijacked by the Trump administration, further emphasizing Oliver’s point: “Sooner or later, we are going to have to pay for journalism, or we are all going to pay for it.”
Last Week Tonight would sometimes take Trump to task directly, though until the election, the show generally provided escapism rather than dwelling on the prospect of his presidency. But after the polls closed in early November, there was little choice but to devote an entire 30 minutes to Oliver’s two questions: “How the fuck did we get here? And what the fuck do we do now?” Smartly, he advises a steady diet of cynicism and resistance, even as everyone from Barack Obama to cable-news talking heads suggested that President-elect Trump merited the benefit of the doubt. Oliver’s extended oratory also excoriated 24-7 media for obsessing over Trump’s magnetism at the nation’s peril, then took a mirror to Facebook users’ cozy echo chambers. As this not even three-month-old segment illustrates, the next four years demands that we keep ourselves and our institutions honest.
Even the Last Week staff would probably admit that, circa June 2015, they were a bit too comfortable in the certainty that Obamacare wouldn’t be dismantled. This edition of the show’s bite-sized “And Now …” segment features a patchwork of conservative pundits getting ahead of themselves by forecasting the demise of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. As it stands today, Donald Trump has made clear he intends to hasten the repeal of the health-care law, though the “replace” part is tabled for some nebulous point in the future. So, really, this clip could carry through to conservative optimism that the end for Obama’s signature legislation is nigh. Or, should Trump make good on his mission to roll back health-care reform, it’ll remind us of how he’s endangering the lives of sick people.
The Supreme Court
While Democrats decide whether to soften their stance on Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, the rest of us can go back in time to one of Last Week’s many angles on the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. In this five-minute distillation from last February, Oliver calls out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for his convenient appropriation of an obscure, tacit Senate rule to prevent a vote on Merrick Garland’s nomination — the very same provision McConnell railed against only eight years prior. That, along with a compilation of soundbites from Trump, Marco Rubio, et al. insisting that their Republican peers delay and deny Obama’s appointed choice all but raises the question of political revenge: Should Democratic leaders filibuster Gorsuch?
The Border Wall
Last March, Last Week wisely focused its examination of Donald Trump’s “build the wall” proclamations by following the money. Oliver was especially astute in joking that Mexico would pony up for the wall, because “people love it when you make them pay for shit they don’t want.” Naturally, once Trump was in office, his actual strategy became clear: Americans will have to “front the money” for the wall. Also, as Oliver mentions, we shouldn’t forget this pithy concern from former Al Jazeera America correspondent Paul Beban: “If you build a 30-foot wall, all it’s going to do is create a market for 31-foot ladders.”
Tapping former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission is a bit like nominating someone who’s routinely sued the EPA to serve as its overlord. Though to be fair, and as Last Week points out, Barack Obama’s most recent FCC head was cable-company lobbyist Tom Wheeler. What Oliver laments in this June 2014 segment — that, in essence, telecom giants were conspiring to share the wealth by gouging customers while offering limited and dysfunctional services — seems almost quaint in 2017, as Pai has already begun to target net-neutrality rules that ensure equitable internet access. Smells like a segment in dire need of an update.
The new secretary of Health and Human Services has been described as a “rabid supporter of defunding Planned Parenthood.” Donald Trump authorized an executive order blocking aid to foreign nonprofits that perform abortion or discuss it as an option. Meanwhile, as this February 2016 segment illustrates, anti-abortion advocates have already undermined the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling, while spreading the kind of misinformation that Trump mentioned during the presidential debates. Given that, as mentioned, this year’s International Women’s Day is at the doorstep, there’s no better time for Last Week Tonight to revisit the topic.