Since President Donald Trump’s political rise, pundits and news junkies have learned what seems like an entirely new vocabulary to discuss his rhetoric: gaslighting, alternative facts, fake news. What about whataboutism?
Analysts have been dinging Trump for whataboutism for months, particularly in recent weeks. In fact, during a press conference on Tuesday, Trump spouted a textbook example of the practice. In addressing his tepid, vague denunciation of the protests that led to fatal violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend, he responded, “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.” That is to say, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members may be bad, but people on the other side have also done bad things. What about them?
So what is whataboutism, and why do we keep hearing about it?
What it means
Whataboutism refers to the practice of deflecting criticism by pointing to the misdeeds of others. Oxford Dictionaries defines it as “the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.”
Essentially, it’s an appeal to hypocrisy ― a logical fallacy also known as “tu quoque.” Instead of proving that your opponent’s claim is wrong on its face, whataboutism argues that it’s hypocritical of the opponent to make that claim at all. (Oh, you think I shouldn’t cheat on a test? What about that time you took a crib sheet into your calculus exam last year?!)
Where did it come from?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the Trump administration’s murky ties to Vladimir Putin and his associates, whataboutism is viewed by many as a Russian import.
Though it may not have been invented there (see linguist Ben Zimmer’s June column in the Wall Street Journal for an etymological exploration), it became a trademark form of Soviet propaganda, as attacks on Soviet human rights abuses and other failures were rebutted with references to apartheid in South Africa or lynchings in the U.S. In 2007, British journalist Edward Lucas blogged for The Economist from Russia and described a popular joke from the Soviet era: “For example: A caller to a phone-in on the (fictitious) Radio Armenia asks, ‘What is the average wage of an American manual worker?’ [...] Then the answer comes: ‘u nich linchuyut negrov’ [over there they lynch Negroes].’” By the later part of the 1980s, he wrote, that rejoinder became “the derisive catchphrase that summed up the whole bombastic apparatus of the Soviet propaganda machine.” While true, it prevented the Soviet people or international observers from ever advancing necessary criticisms of the Soviet Union.
Lucas saw a resurgence of “whataboutism” during his reporting, and it’s been observed to be a favorite tactic of Putin’s. “Like many other Soviet traditions, whataboutism has resurfaced in the Putin era,” observed Olga Khazan in The Atlantic in 2013. Specifically, she noted, Putin’s offer to shelter Edward Snowden offered a perfect opportunity: “It allows the Kremlin a moment of whataboutism, a favorite, Soviet-era appeal to hypocrisy: Russia is not that bad, you see, because other countries have also committed various misdeeds, and what about those?”
Why have we been talking about it?
The perils of whataboutism have numbered among the warnings issued by Russian writers to their American counterparts, amid fears that the Trump administration would resemble Putin’s. In January, Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev wrote a viral Medium post to his “doomed colleagues in the American media,” in which he cautioned reporters to expect answers packed with “false moral equivalences and straight, undiluted bullshit.”
For example, he predicted:
[I]f you’re raising a serious issue, [he’ll] respond with a vague, non-committal statement (‘Mr President, what about these horrible human rights abuses in our country?’ ‘Thank you, Miss. This is indeed a very serious issue. Everybody must respect the law. And by the way, don’t human rights abuses happen in other countries as well? Next question please’).
Fears of impending whataboutism do not appear to have been exaggerated. Pundits have been noticing Trump’s proclivity for the “what about” defense for months. Even since taking office, the president has been quick to respond to accusations of collusion or corruption by pointing to the alleged misdeeds of his former opponent, Hillary Clinton.
He’s also resorted, weirdly enough, to the inverse. In a February interview, Bill O’Reilly challenged Trump on his support for Putin, calling him “a killer.” “There are a lot of killers,” retorted Trump. “You think our country’s so innocent?” In a Foreign Policy column, Jake Sullivan explained what he was doing: “The American president is taking Putin’s ‘what about you’ tactic and turning it into ‘what about us?’” It’s a free-for-all of multidirectional moral equivalency. If we can do it, Russia can; if Hillary can, so can I. It justifies anything Trump or his allies might want to do, somehow or another.
“Whataboutism” is once again in the news in the aftermath of the tragic violence instigated by a white supremacist rally that united neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump’s initial comments condemning the “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” This might not exactly be whataboutism, but if not it’s a close relation: By vaguely condemning “many sides” rather than specifically denouncing the white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups that gathered in Charlottesville to spread bigotry and violence, the president fostered the impression that the hate groups and the protesters who gathered to oppose them were morally equivalent in his eyes.
Or, in other words, “You think the alt-right is fostering violence by gathering in groups to spout hateful ideologies? Well, what about Black Lives Matter?” It’s an absurd comparison, suggesting that people opposing hate is in itself hateful. Of course, Trump made his whataboutism more explicit on Tuesday when he suggested the alt-left are also to blame for violence in Charlottesville.
Oddly, many American conservatives ― typically the wing that rejects moral relativism in favor of upholding strict, traditional values ― have rushed to the defense of “whataboutism” in recent months, as media attention on Trump’s use of the fallacy has intensified. The National Review’s Dan McLaughlin called it “the liberal/progressive-pundit buzzword du jour” in February. “The attack on whataboutism is a defense of hypocrisy,” wrote Joel Pollak on Breitbart Tuesday.
Why should we be worried about it?
To be sure, hypocrisy is bad. The Soviets were not incorrect in pointing out that the countries that criticized them often harbored their own systemic human rights issues. It’s no wonder that whataboutism exists, to some degree, on (as Trump would say) many sides. When Clinton was slammed during the 2016 primary season for helping to sell the 1994 crime bill, which many now believe greatly exacerbated the mass incarceration crisis that disproportionately affects black Americans, her boosters rushed to point out that her opponent, Bernie Sanders, had actually voted for it.
Political supporters of every stripe are eager to hold opponents accountable for their double standards, and that is a human and, to some extent, good impulse ― especially during a campaign, when making clear the actual distinctions between candidates is useful. It is, however, unusual for an American political leader to engage in the practice so frequently and blatantly; deflecting accountability is for surrogates and supporters, not elected officials themselves.
The problem with whataboutism is that hypocrisy is a durable problem (humans being flawed and inconsistent), but it is not the only problem. Forever circling around each other’s hypocrisies pulls us away from necessary conversations about how to reach for and enforce the values we aspire to and hold each other accountable for wrongdoing. This is particularly crucial when it comes to our leadership. With all the power of the American government behind him, the president has every responsibility to reach toward our most aspirational ideals. Whataboutism provides an excuse for our most powerful to evade self-reflection and self-improvement. That’s not an excuse the American president needs ― not now, not ever.
This story has been updated to include quotes from President Donald Trump’s Tuesday afternoon press conference.