Whataboutism: How the Right Uses Collective Guilt to Defend Trump

On Wednesday, December 19th 2018, President Donald Trump made a surprise announcement via Twitter that U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Syria. The announcement caught officials from across the government and military off guard and lacked many of the usual formalities associated with previous presidential announcements of troop withdrawals. Unlike such announcements in the past, the White House had not scheduled any presidential remarks nor had the administration provided any concrete details about the decision by the end of the day on Wednesday. The lack of forewarning left the nation in a state of shock. 

"It's hard to imagine that any president would wake up and make this kind of decision with this little communication, with this little preparation," Senate Foreign Relations chairman Bob Corker said. "I mean, my understanding is that we're beginning to move out right now."

The next day, in yet another surprise development, Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned, citing irreconcilable policy differences. Mattis had vehemently opposed any troop withdrawal from Syria and viewed the president’s decision as a betrayal of U.S. Allies in the region. Other GOP leaders expressed similar sentiments. 

“An American withdrawal at this time would be a big win for ISIS, Iran, Bashar al Assad of Syria, and Russia,” Senator Lindsey Graham said in a statement. “I fear it will lead to devastating consequences for our nation, the region, and throughout the world.”

The bipartisan condemnation of Trump’s decision quickly gave way to partisan bickering. The comparison with Obama’s drawdown of troops in Iraq was unavoidable, but with their backs against the ropes, many conservatives resorted to ‘whataboutism’, a rhetorical strategy of deflecting blame and criticism by drawing false moral equivalences developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, an American Conservative news and opinion magazine, tweeted, “It’s funny but I don’t remember the media in being [sic] such a lather about Barack Obama’s equally foolish decision to pull a residual force out of Iraq.”

Other conservatives quickly joined in with their own ‘what about Obama’ deflections. Mattis’ resignation was a particularly potent source of effective whataboutist confusion. Trump started it off with a tweet over the weekend before Christmas: “When President Obama ingloriously fired Jim Mattis, I gave him a second chance. Some thought I shouldn’t, I thought I should. Interesting relationship-but I also gave all of the resources that he never really had. Allies are very important-but not when they take advantage of U.S.”

From the moment that Trump announced his withdrawal of troops from Syria, the twitter-verse and mainstream media outlets were flooded by ‘whataboutism’ from conservative pundits and trolls. The cognitive acrobatics of conservative deflections toward a vilification of Obama were comparable to the most cynical whataboutist deflections that surrounded the realization that the Trump administration had authorized the detention of migrant children and separation of families at the border over the previous summer. The rejoinder to criticisms of Trump’s administration at that time had been to point out that Obama had also authorized the separations of families at the border. While true, comparing Trump’s zero tolerance policy, which resulted in family separations at a massive scale, to Obama’s policies, under which such separations were rare, is misleading and sloppy. Similarly, comparing the media’s criticism of Trump’s sudden and stunning decision to withdraw troops from Syria against the advice of the Secretary of Defence and other top officials with the media’s lack of criticism of Obama’s methodical and carefully planned announcement of the withdrawal of troops from Iraq is an abandonment of good-faith argumentation. The same can be said for any attempt to deflect criticism of the Trump administration regarding James Mattis’ resignation by pointing out that Obama fired Mattis due to differing views on Iran - the ‘what about Obama’ response is at best a non sequitur and at worst a version of the ad hominem fallacy of irrelevance.

Ad hominum fallacies are a family of fallacies of which ‘Whataboutism’ is just one type, but this particular version has become a common tactic used by Trump and conservatives to defend against criticism. They trade on the misguided intuition that the critic will be discredited if the critic can be shown to exhibit some amount of hypocrisy regarding the issue at hand. The underlying logic of the ‘what about Obama’ arguments are: “How can you say that about Trump when you supported Obama and he did something similar?” The trick here is that, by calling into question the critic’s own history as the critic, the defender can motivate the critic to feel the need to justify their own grounds for criticism when in reality no such justification is necessary. For example, if John says, “Bob is guilty of tax evasion and defrauding the government out of tax dollars,” then Jane might respond, “How can you say that when you yourself have 35 unpaid parking tickets?” Of course, whether or not John has paid his parking tickets has no bearing on Bob’s tax evasion. But the implication that John cannot criticize Bob unless John is himself clear of any wrongdoing is a smooth way to derail the critic’s argument and avoid genuine discussion of the topic at hand. 

This tactic has been used in Britain and Ireland since the period known as the Troubles, but was perfected by the Soviet Union for use as propaganda during the Cold War. Whataboutism was deployed against Westerners who criticized human rights abuses in Russia by pointing out human rights abuses committed by Western powers. Famously, a common refrain in the Soviet Union when favorable statements were made about America at the expense of the Soviet state was, “U nich negrov linchuyut.” Translation: “Over there they lynch negros.” Whataboutism is still employed by Russians today, and was recently used by President Putin in his interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly In June, 2017. When asked about Russia’s meddling in American elections, he changed the subject to U.S. interference abroad: “Put your finger anywhere on a map of the world, and everywhere you will hear complaints that American officials are interfering in internal election processes.” 

In his monumental excoriation of the Soviet Union titled The Gulag Archipelago, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Solzhenitsyn writes this passage to illustrate a fundamental truth of human nature that the Soviets used to justify the imprisonment, enslavement, and execution of millions of Russians, namely that every human being in a society suffers at the hands of, and perpetrates suffering upon, other humans as a natural consequence of living in a society. Insofar as we are each in our own identities a member of different groups within society - whether they be classist, ethnic, familial, occupational, national, or gender bound, for instance - we may be naturally held responsible for the oppressions that our groups collectively impose on others. The Soviets leveraged this truth to justify condemning millions of agronomists when the harvest failed, millions of kulaks and ethnic Koreans when racial oppression was discovered, millions of grandparents and children when parents were labeled enemies of the state. It is this same truth that Putin trades on when he attempts to shift the flow of criticism back against Americans, and it is this same truth that Trump and his supporters use to obfuscate their responsibilities: “What about you? What about the evil your group is responsible for?”

The root problem with whataboutism is that it deploys our collective failures as a society against good-faith discussions of specific failures by members or groups within our society. By invoking the consequences of Obama-era policies, the GOP may successfully muddy the waters enough to dodge their responsibilities for the current political moment, but by making a habit of doing so, the GOP misses the larger consequence of their tactic: it is now an accepted form of political argumentation to force your opponent to account for some random past transgression before a conversation can move forward. The implicit stipulation here is that, not only must all participants in a political discourse be ‘free of sin before they cast stones,’ as Jesus would say, but also that all political interlocutors must be ready to demonstrate why they are not personally responsible for the past sins of the larger groups in which they hold membership. Since such mountains are, in principle, impossible to summit, there can be no genuine political engagement with parties who employ whataboutism. 

Some flavors of whataboutism focus on ascribing an identity to an individual that does not match the individual’s chosen identities. Other flavors of whataboutism focus on wrongly ascribing qualities to identities that individuals do claim ownership of (individuals may embrace the identity but not the qualities ascribed, or vice versa). Whatever the flavor, as types of ad hominem fallacies, whataboutism attacks a person’s identity, not the substance of their arguments. Whataboutism seeks to wrongly shame an individual critic in an attempt to regain or retain rhetorical superiority. The misstep here can be both a simple logical error of reasoning and a moral failure. Whether a given instance of whataboutism is an innocent logical error or a malicious moral failure rests on the intent of the one who employs it. If a person accidentally uses whataboutism during the course of a genuine, good-faith conversation, then they have committed an innocent logical error. However, if a person intentionally uses whataboutism in an attempt to ‘win’ a conversation regardless of the substance of their arguments, then they have committed an immoral act. The immorality of the act comes from the deceit that the whataboutist trades on to gain the upper hand: while the opponent believes they are engaged in a good-faith, genuine attempt to arrive at some political truth, the whataboutist is concerned only with beating the opponent, regardless of the consequences for the issue at hand or the wider political discourse of the nation.

There is something profoundly anti-American about whataboutism. After all, whataboutism, as it was developed by the Soviets, relies on a conception of group identity that is both non-existent and at odds with what it means to be an American. As Americans, we do not have as strong a sense of a collective identity as other cultures do. For instance, the collective guilt of the German people after World War Two is something we will never fully grasp. Likewise, the tribal identities of the various nations that have animated events throughout Eurasia, South Asia, Africa, and even South America, are in many ways incompatible with the U.S. nationalism built on loyalty to the constitution above all else. Beyond our shared commitment to the values and laws enumerated by our constitution, Americans are bound to each other by nothing more than our adventurous spirits and dreams of a better world. Americans are profoundly individualistic, and that individualism is only recently becoming present in the cultures of the rest of the world as the digital age propagates the elevation of the individual self above the community, a feature of individualism that has been a part of America since its founding. We can use this individualism to defend against whataboutism. We can reject Soviet-style identity politics by asserting uniquely American ideas of individualism and self-determination. 

Liberals in America have engaged with identity politics in a more nuanced way than many conservatives over the last several decades. The Left has made a concerted attempt to explore the treacherous landscape of identity, and the fruits of this labor are manifest in the ever-expanding recognition and social acceptance of diversity. However, liberals must recognize the opportunity in the backwards whataboutism that is coming from the right. Here the left can diagnose the problem of collective guilt and offer an alternative narrative to the right that teaches compassion for human imperfections. As liberals continue to engage in the wider social justice project of expanding the mainstream acceptance and just treatment under the law of all peoples regardless of the definition of their genders, races, ethnicities, socio-economic classes, and other identities, liberals must also continue to reform the notion of American individualism itself to be more cognizant of collective failures in order to facilitate the healing of our nation. Where the whataboutist sees guilt, the humanist must respond with redemption: let us offer each other absolution as individuals, if only for the sake of argument.

Offering forgiveness of this kind to the GOP is hard for Democrats at the moment. Dems are ready to fight, and they are not ready to do the hard work of healing the nation. Perhaps that is appropriate given the current rise of proto-fascism and right-wing extremism around the globe. But as Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”

Whataboutism is a favorite tool of President Trump and his supporters, but it does not have to become a mainstream element of political discourse if we are prepared to assert our personal commitment to truth as individuals. The first step to successfully mitigating whataboutism is to learn to recognize it. The second step is to learn to avoid reacting to it. Instead, one can respond with some version of the following: “Let’s return to your point, but first please address my original claim.” By refusing to allow the conversation to become derailed, the whataboutist will be forced to address the point in question. When someone says “what about Obama...” we can respond by saying, “But first, you haven’t addressed my concern that...” There will, of course, be situations where a whataboutist will be so committed to their fallacy that nothing will work to keep the conversation moving forward. At that point, it is best to either address the fallacy and turn the discussion to whataboutism, or abandon the attempt at discourse in order to avoid legitimizing whataboutism as an accepted form of political argument. After all, if the whataboutist is unable or unwilling to refrain from fallacious and possibly malicious strategies of argumentation, there is little to be gained by engaging with them. Sometimes the best we can do for the health of the nation is move on.

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