It’s become a truism of the weeks-old presidency of Donald Trump: If you want to reach the chief executive, and if you don’t happen to have the kind of sway that might get you a White House meeting or a golf game at Mar-a-Lago … no worries: Simply advertise to him. Buy some ad time during the shows the president is known to watch—cable-news morning shows, Saturday Night Live—and influence away. Trump is a creature of television, his fame a product of its charms and his daily habits attuned to its rhythms. If you happen to be in a position to buy yourself some time on TV, it’s possible to talk to him—directly to him—via that defining medium.
The latest political actor to realize (and, then, promptly make fun of) this particular state of affairs? John Oliver. On Sunday, the comedian made his return to HBO after a long(ish) hiatus; he dedicated his first Last Week Tonight episode since Trump’s inauguration to, first of all, offering a detailed examination of the administration’s attempts to destabilize the notion of shared reality. It was an episode that, with characteristic Oliverian nuance, explored the idea that Americans “all need to commit,” as the comedian-activist told his audience, “to defending the reality of facts.”
Oliver concluded that analysis with the suggestion that President Trump—who came to the presidency though a nontraditional path that might have left gaps in his knowledge when it comes to the particularities of country-running—might benefit from some learning sessions. The comedian pointed to that infamous moment when then-candidate Trump was unable to answer a question, during an early-in-the-primaries debate, about the nuclear triad.
And here’s where things got meta.
Trump, Oliver assumes, does not watch Last Week Tonight; he doesn’t have the SNL lobby-by-way-of-sketch-comedy path available to him. So Oliver announced that he and his staff had come up with a way to circumvent that unfortunate situation: ads. Cold, hard, capitalistic ads. Bought for the time during the morning hours of cable news—set to air, specifically, in Washington, D.C., between the Trump-friendly times of 8:30 and 9:00 a.m.
Oliver and his team based their ads on one spot that commonly airs during Fox & Friends and the like—an ad starring a cowboy, talking about his catheter.
Last Week Tonight’s spin on that ad went like this: “I’m a professional cowboy, and I use catheters,” the Oliverian cowboy tells his viewers. “Been cowboyin’ for 25 years, and there’s two things I know: I don’t like pain when I cath. And the nuclear triad consists of land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and aerial bombers. This increases our ability to strike back in the event one of those is destroyed, and deters an attack on us or our allies.”
The cath-cowboy concluded: “So that’s the nuclear triad, in case you’re the kind of person who might really need to know that.”
Oliver’s crowd went wild. And there will be other ads, as well, he told them. Here’s more from the cath-cowboy:
- “Not all black people live in the inner cities. And not all people in the inner cities are black.”
- “Now, I know it can seem like you’re the only person in the world. But if you look here, you’ll see that, actually, there are many non-you people. We call those ‘other people.’”
- “Just because it’s sometimes cold, that don’t mean there’s no global warming. You’re confusing climate with weather, partner.”
- “Gabon is a country on the west coast of Africa."
- “Tiffany. Tiff-uh-ny. Tiffany!”
- “The unemployment rate is a carefully calculated measure derived from a monthly survey conducted by two federal agencies, and has been the agreed-upon standard since 1948.”
The whole thing was dripping with hot, sticky condescension. That was the joke of it. Oliver was embracing the notion of the “smug, liberal elite” rather than attempting to fight it; he was arguing that knowing stuff, far from being a political posture, is simply a good thing for a president to do. He was suggesting that, in that particular way—that vested interest Americans have in making sure the president knows how to govern—we are, all of us, on common ground. There is such thing as shared reality. “We are prepared to educate Donald Trump, one by one, on topics we’re pretty sure he doesn’t know about,” the comedian said, as his audience cheered. He preceded his claim with a caveat: at least, Oliver said, “until we are shut down.”