When given the opportunity to condemn the Neo-Nazis after their rampage in Charlottesville, President Donald Trump instead exercised his favorite deflection technique - “whataboutism.” Whataboutism is defined as “the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.” In this case, Mr. Trump proclaimed, “What about the alt-left that came charging at, as you say, at the alt-right? ... You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent.” In another interview, Mr. Trump was asked to explain his initial reaction and statement, and rather than redacting his ramblings, he again shifted blame away from those who deserved it the most. He pulled his statement out of his pocket, and re-read it to prove a disconcerting point; though the white nationalists left one dead and nineteen injured behind in Charlottesville, Mr. Trump could not help but blame the victims in a finger-pointing tirade.
This obstinate refusal to address the gravity of such a situation symbolizes an epidemic that is plaguing our President. In simpler terms, Mr. Trump’s primary response when challenged is usually “say[ing] that someone else is worse.” Take one look at Mr. Trump’s Twitter account, and countless examples of “whataboutism” emerge. Upon initial examination, this may seem to be merely a harmless, annoying debate tactic; however, peeling back the layers of “whataboutism” reveals imminent danger. But we will get back to that.
“Whataboutism” can be traced to its Soviet roots. The Soviet Union first deployed the technique as “a simple rhetorical tactic heavily used…[by] populists in particular, allowing them to be vague but appear straight-talking at the same time.” The tactic was used in abundance during the Cold War, as Soviet leaders attempted to turn attention away from domestic issues while simultaneously promoting a negative view of the United States. According to NPR’s interview with Russian freelance journalist Vadim Nikitin, cases of “whataboutism” were so prevalent in the Soviet Union that most people were aware of some variation of the following exchange: “‘How much does a Soviet engineer get paid?’ and [a Soviet leader would respond], ‘I don't know, but you [in America] lynch Negroes.’” After the Cold War, modern-day Russia adopted the technique. In recent Russian history, Populist Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been guilty of promoting “whataboutism” in the Kremlin. Mr. Putin’s use of the technique might seem eerily familiar to a concerned American following our President’s Twitter frenzies. When the Kremlin was asked about its “treatment of prisoners,” officials responded in the manner of a fluent “whataboutist,” stating, “What about the United Kingdom? Breaking the law during public gatherings there could lead to a fine of 5,800 pounds sterling there or even prison.” This can become an issue when attempting to hold politicians responsible. Using “whataboutism” to answer serious questions does not solve anything -- it only complicates the issue, pulls a veil over the eyes of the public, and frustrates those with valid concerns.
President Trump is emulating Mr. Putin. There are countless examples of Mr. Trump drawing attention to the failures of his enemies in order to paint his administration as comparatively successful. Many of these examples can be found on his Twitter account, while others can be identified in interviews or personal statements, like the response he gave after the attack on Charlottesville.
Mr. Trump took to Twitter on February 17, three days after the tragic school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He made the outrageous claim that the FBI’s failure to stop the carnage was because the investigators were too busy obsessing over the Trump Russia collusion case. In this scenario, Mr. Trump attempts to demonize Mueller’s indictments by blaming the shooting on their supposedly misplaced attentions. Though this is not textbook “whataboutism,” strains of the rhetorical device are identifiable. Mr. Trump deflects attention from allegations of collusion by drawing the public eye to the failure of the FBI to follow through on a report that the school shooter was a ticking time-bomb. As Mr. Trump discredits the FBI for this failure, he plays the story to his personal interests as Robert Mueller releases his indictments. These insidious spinoff strains of “whataboutism” take different forms, each equally as dangerous.
Now, “whataboutism” is becoming the weapon of choice among those defending Mr. Trump, and this is where the technique becomes viral. Mr. Trump is influencing a movement of Americans who, rather than addressing the facts and attempting to explain viewpoints, point fingers to the perceived faults of the Left. In an interview with MSNBC, Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide, was caught in an undeniable flourish of “whataboutism.” When asked what stance he believed President Trump ought to take on the Roy Moore scandal, Mr. Nunberg replied, “I don’t know, ask Bill Clinton!” In this textbook case of “whataboutism,” the former Trump aide is backed into a corner and attempts to escape questioning by distracting his interviewer with a jab at Bill Clinton’s well-documented and properly-litigated extramarital affair. But his feeble attempt was so transparent that the interviewer was compelled to press Mr. Nunberg until he finally admitted that Mr. Trump’s judgment of a person’s character might be based on what, and how much, that person can do for him.
“Whataboutism” works for the President because it seems like he is saying something of worth. Some might even believe he is making valid points. But a roundabout response to a direct question only shows a weakness in the argument. The only acceptable answer to a direct question is one in which a relevant point is made. Anything else should be rejected and questioned by the American public, the press, and responsible politicians.
When left unchecked, “whataboutism” is a danger to democracy. By demanding developed and relevant answers, we can hold politicians responsible for their actions. Sooner or later, the American public needs to shatter this thin rhetorical argument with the same words every parent tells their child; two wrongs do not make a right.