What Is Godwin’s Law? John Oliver Condemns Trump's Charlottesville Response For Reversing It
On Sunday's episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver covered the tragic violence that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday as well as President Donald Trump's insufficient response to it. Indeed, Oliver characterized Trump's reaction to the violence, in which he failed to condemn white nationalism, as "a reverse Godwin's law."
As TIME noted in an article in June, Godwin's law essentially consists of the notion that, eventually, in an online argument, someone will bring up or make a comparison to Nazis or Hitler. This comparison essentially ends the argument, because the comparison is often not well-thought-out and, resultantly, someone mentions Godwin's law, which then stops the discussion.
On his show, Oliver was discussing Trump's response to the horrific attack on individuals who were counter-protesting a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In his speech, Trump failed to use the phrase "white nationalism" and instead condemned the "hatred, bigotry, and violence that's on many sides."
This response infuriated Oliver, who stated, "Wait, on many sides!? ... This was a white nationalist rally! You have to call that out by name!” The television host went to note that it was as if Trump had invoked a "reverse Godwin's law," in which “if you fail to mention Nazism, you lose the argument.”
Oliver, and likely many others, clearly believe that Trump should have overtly called out and condemned white nationalism during his speech following the Charlottesville tragedy, not avoid the term. Indeed, Mike Godwin himself, the attorney who invented "Godwin's law," also condemned Trump for failing to directly denounce white nationalism. When asked to comment on the Charlottesville tragedy and white nationalist rally over the weekend, Godwin tweeted,
By all means, compare these s***heads to the Nazis. Again and again. I'm with you.
Thus, as Godwin (and Oliver) noted, while Godwin's law is typically used to decry arguments in which comparisons to Hitler and Nazis are made, in the case of Charlottesville, this comparison is seemingly well-deserved — and needs to occur in order to appropriately condemn the horrifying, bigoted violence that happened in Virginia this weekend. Unfortunately, the president of the United States did not provide this condemnation and, as Oliver pointed out later in his show, even if he does in the future, it may be too little, too late. The host noted,
It doesn’t get much easier than disavowing Nazis ... It is almost impossible to screw it up, but that’s exactly what happened. So there is clearly no point in waiting for leadership from our president in moments like this because it is just not coming, which means we will have to look to one another...
Thus, the concept of "reversing Godwin's law" serves to illustrate the incredibly frustrating notion that the president failed to characterize the Charlottesville tragedy for exactly what it was — something that is very much to his own and his country's detriment.