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The perils, and benefits, of whataboutism

Tu quoque, Brutus?


NPR, other left-wing sources, and even some conservative columnists, have discovered a grave new danger coming from the always dangerous President Trump.

Trump, they claim, “has developed a consistent tactic when he’s criticized: say that someone else is worse.” This dreaded tactic is labeled the doctrine of “whataboutism,” which is described as:

Party A accuses Party B of doing something bad. Party B responds by changing the subject and pointing out one of Party A’s faults — “Yeah? Well what about that bad thing you did?” (Hence the name.)

In an NPR article, writer Danielle Kurtzleben points out that Trump is following in the footsteps of… the Russians (GASP!), and President Vladimir Putin, and before them, their predecessors the Soviet communists. According to NPR, the risk is that:

Whataboutism flattens moral nuances into a black-and-white worldview. But in this worldview, it’s very difficult to be the good guy; idealism is the ultimate naïveté, and anyone who dares to criticize another can be “unmasked” as a hypocrite. This creates a useful moral equivalency…if nobody is perfect, there’s license to do all sorts of imperfect things.

Now, pardon me for engaging in this dreaded tactic myself, but President Trump is far from the first politician, or even the first president, to use whataboutism. President Obama loved to engage in it. Near the end of his first two years in office, when many Republicans were complaining  about excessive spending and poor economic stewardship coming from the fully Democrat-controlled federal government, you may remember him bloviating, “after they drove the car into the ditch, made it as difficult as possible for us to pull it back, now they want the keys back,” Obama said of the GOP. “No! You can’t drive. We don’t want to have to go back into the ditch. We just got the car out.”

Aside from domestic politics, President Obama also engaged in whataboutism to defend radical Islam from its (supposedly) Christian critics, “and lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

It’s not just politicians who resort to whataboutism.

Here is PBS fact-checking Republican critics of President Obama and his military and defense spending. Notice that in the very first part of the fact check, where PBS defends President Obama’s record, it does so by comparing Obama’s military and defense spending to that of President George W. Bush. Isn’t this whataboutism? Shouldn’t NPR be critical of its associate, PBS, as well?

Whataboutism has a long tradition in American politics, and as a doctrine, it is so obvious, as NPR acknowledges, that even a child can understand its usefulness and engage in it. The idea that President Trump is somehow unique or uniquely evil for using this “immoral” rhetorical device is, as they say, fake news.

In fact, to a certain extent, the use of whataboutism by President Trump is actually a corrective measure. Since the Clinton years, the mainstream media has swung increasingly to the left, and made no secret of its overwhelming bias against Republicans. The past year, journalists have gone overboard attacking Trump, and every week there is a new charge against the president.

However, as many on the right have noticed, these attacks tend to be hypocritical, as Trump is chastised for things that Obama, or one of the Clintons, did as well, which were never criticized (and sometimes praised) when Obama/Clinton did them. There is nothing wrong with President Trump and his defenders resorting to whataboutism, if there is nothing illegal or immoral about what is being done.

For that matter, pointing out the hypocrisy may indeed help to end it.

There are three possibilities here – a system where both parties obey the rules, a system where only the Republicans have to obey the rules, or a system where neither the Democrats nor the Republicans obey the rules. As a principled Republican, I would rank these in order of preference with the first being the most optimal situation, and the third being second-most optimal.

Thus, perhaps the only way to get back to the most optimal point is to hit the Democrats with their own hypocrisy while also having the Republicans refuse to obey the biased rules of the system. Then, maybe, both sides will have an incentive to return to the old system, and to stop their own hypocrisy. I know this is probably unlikely, but it is likely the only way  to go back to the optimal system.