John Oliver punches down to Trump’s endorsing war crimes, remains silent about Obama/Clinton’s actual war crimes

In the 2016-02-28 episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”, John Oliver had a well-researched segment against Donald Trump.

(Another copy is online at YouTube, I recommend using youtube-dl to download from video sharing sites so you don’t fall prey to proprietary software.)

Despite Oliver’s “come get me” attitude (particularly in the latter part of the piece), Oliver is really punching down by remaining silent about how real power behaves.

The piece builds to Oliver replaying a clip from Donald Trump’s call into a Fox News show where Trump said

…the other thing with the terrorists, you have to take out their families. When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. They say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.

to which Oliver followed up

That is the front runner for the Republican nomination advocating a war crime.

Yes, it is, but the real problem with Trump’s words on Fox News is how well he describes the apparent policy undertaken by the current Democratic Party president, Barack Obama, and his former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who happens to also be a front runner for the Democratic Party.

The US has killed a lot of people in various strikes including “possible bystanders” of intended targets. One such case involves the family of U.S. citizen Anwar al Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, whose family tried to bring a lawsuit against the US for the drone attacks back in 2011 only to have it dismissed by a federal judge who reportedly “[deferred] to executive branch authority over military targeting decisions“. Another set of killings involve the unspecific “signature strikes…in which the CIA kills people without knowing their identities“. Oliver doesn’t point any of this out.

Oliver gives no mention of a host of relevant counterpoints that could help the viewer focus on the more important issue of executing war crimes instead of one-sided jabs against belligerent speech such as:

Oliver’s staff researched Trump’s bankruptcies, his failed business attempts selling steaks, a travel agency, “Trump” magazines, a mortgage bank just before the 2008 collapse, as well as Trump’s flip-flopping on various political opinions, and Trump’s family former name of “Drumpf”. Oliver has good reason to be incensed about Trump’s words here, and Trump has plenty of other characteristics to disrecommend him for US President. But Trump’s speech can’t possibly be more important than authorizing war crimes as Obama and Clinton have.

It would be nice if Oliver were half as concerned about what’s actually happened as he is about Trump’s words. Oliver’s silence in the segment about what has occurred—real extrajudicial killings, real war crimes—completely undermines the power of the point Oliver built up to through the bulk of the segment. Viewers are left with some belligerent speech and a series of entertaining but ultimately significantly less harmful bad business attempts that in no way compare to the lethal horrors undertaken by the US government under President Obama and Senator and later Secretary of State Clinton.

This is not too surprising; Oliver has minimized the circumstances of actual war crimes before. There too he seemed more concerned with PR message than action on the ground.

If Oliver were at least as concerned with real killing as he is with advocated killing, he’d have to reach the conclusion that neither major corporate party is likely to make a choice against more belligerency. And that means criticizing the system on an important matter—recent extrajudicial killing by the US government—which I’m not convinced Oliver is prepared to take on in as thoroughgoing a fashion as he was with Trump’s failed business ideas and lies.

Oliver could have Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein on his show to point all this out and help him and his viewers understand that there’s a candidate on many ballots who doesn’t stand for any of this.

Update (2016-03-04): Glenn Greenwald has more on how the elite are not truly objecting to what Trump is saying, but objecting to the packaging Trump’s words come in by laying out extant policy in words everyone can understand:

Here we see the elite class agreeing to pretend that Trump is advocating views that are inherently disqualifying when — thanks to those doing the denouncing — those views are actually quite mainstream, even popular, among both the American political class and its population. Torture was the official American policy for years. It went way beyond waterboarding. One Republican president ordered it and his Democratic successor immunized it from all forms of accountability, ensuring that not a single official would be prosecuted for authorizing even the most extreme techniques, ones that killed people — or even allowed to be sued by their victims.

Many of the high officials most responsible for that torture regime and who defended it — from Condoleezza Rice and John Brennan — remain not just acceptable in mainstream circles but hold high office and are virtually revered. And, just by the way, both of Trump’s main rivals — Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz — refuse to rule out classic torture techniques as part of their campaign. In light of all that, who takes seriously the notion that Trump’s advocacy of torture — including techniques beyond waterboarding — places him beyond the American pale? To the contrary, it places him within its establishment mainstream.