There’s a new word emerging in our lexicon: whataboutism. It’s an argument form that most of us abandoned some time during pre-puberty, but it infests right-wing “reasoning” and debases the whole movement.
As widespread as the use of the argument form is among right-wingers, most of us wouldn’t accept it even from an 8-year-old. When Johnny gets caught with his diabolical little hand in the cookie jar, what kind of parent is going to credit the “Sally did it too” defense? And that’s how it works: “Well what about Sally?” Or, “Officer, what about the guy who passed me three miles back going even faster?”
To illustrate how Republicans use this degraded and puerile device, recall the right-wing response not so long ago when it came to light that Donald Trump had asked then-FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation into former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn. Right-wing media abruptly developed a renewed interest in a months-old story about Bill Clinton meeting on an airplane with then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch while Hillary Clinton’s email use was still under investigation. Instead of addressing the breathtaking impropriety of Trump’s conduct with Comey, right-wingers asked, “Well what about when Bill Clinton met with Loretta Lynch?”
And now we’re seeing the same tack as pols and pundits condemn the Trump pardon of Joe Arpaio. Instead of focusing on that matter — the one that is presently relevant and consequential — right-wingers hastily recalled another Bill Clinton transgression: his last-day-in-office pardon of a crook named Marc Rich. How could Trump pardon a monster like Joe Arpaio, the question went. The answer came, “Well what about when Clinton pardoned Rich?”
Why this “reasoning” is dangerous
1. It contributes to the dumbing of America.
A country that can install the likes of Donald Trump at the apex of its power structure — and do so with the consent of the governed — is a country manifestly beset by lazy habits of the mind. If “Make America Great Again” sounds like a concrete idea to you, then you’re a fool, plain and simple. Because it’s not a concrete idea (“Build that wall!” at least has the concrete part going for it — it’s as concrete as it is unworkable and silly). MAGA is not a creditable idea; it’s a vague racist appeal to the emotions of people exhausted by 8 years of Barack Obama’s insufferable elegance.
Like this acquiescence to mindless blathering, whataboutism is a symptom of our vast national stupidity — and it needs to be treated. There is no lazier tack in an argument about a serious matter than changing the subject.
2. It leads to false equivalence.
The essence of whataboutism is its implicit suggestion that all transgressions are interchangeable and therefore essentially equivalent.
Take, for example, the What about Loretta Lynch argument. Many Republicans, when probed for their responses about Donald Trump asking an FBI Director to drop an ongoing criminal investigation while the two were alone in the Oval Office, wanted to talk instead about a former president chatting — about grandkids and family vacations — with the Attorney General while their two planes were on the same tarmac.
Right now, there is a right-winger reading this and frothing at the mouth, screaming, “We don’t know that that’s all they talked about!” Rube, meet the trapdoor of whataboutism: you just fell away from the relevant and current and into the depths of conjecture and intellectual impertinence where the demons of unreason want you to dwell for eternity. Not only have right-wingers changed the subject in your mind; they’ve done so in such a way as to whip you (their base) into a frenzied delirium.
In fact, as stupid as it was for Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch to speak to one another (and I happen to think Lynch should have been fired for letting that happen), the specter of a former president talking with an official who was not directly managing an investigation into careless email practices is not on the same order of magnitude as the specter of a current president asking the man supervising a criminal investigation into espionage against the United States to flat-out drop a federal investigatory proceeding. The two episodes do not occupy the same political, legal, or moral universe.
By making this argument form — whataboutism — a feature of their public discourse, right-wingers have ushered in an age of false equivalence, where things essentially unlike in all important respects are nonetheless treated as like.
3. It leads to extravagant amplification.
Once right-wingers have latched onto a meme, they don’t let go. Think Benghazi — by any reasonable standard a non-scandal involving the kind of human loss that strikes dozens of times around the world every day. But by indulging the deceit of false equivalence, Republicans turned our inability to respond to an emergency into the moral equivalent of refusing to respond, and thereby transformed a tragedy that could have befallen any president or secretary of state into a contentious “scandal.”
Once false equivalence has been established, Republicans employ their next device: repetition. No matter what wrongdoing Republicans were accused of undertaking during the Obama Administration, the Republican answer was often the same: “What about Benghazi?”
The same tactic was used to amplify Hillary Clinton’s inexpert application of arcane State Department email protocols. What was at worst an example of poor judgment — the kind many of us have exercised by sending personal emails on a work account or perpetrating the incautious operation of the “reply all” function — was made to be an offense approximating espionage or treason.
Then came the repetition. In response to every Trump scandal during the 2016 campaign — and there was a new and breathtaking revelation every day — the Republican answer was always the same: “What about the emails?”
The amplification that is achieved through repetitive whataboutism leads to remarkable group behaviors. Terms like Benghazi and emails become like Pavlov’s bell — the mere mention of the terms cause packs of mindless carnivores to drool and slobber — lusting for the reward of dead Democrat meat.
Republicans enjoy the added benefit that liberals don’t use whataboutism nearly as effectively; they’re generally too bookish for that kind of thing, and they’d think it embarrassing. So when Republicans change the subject, instead of changing it back, Democrats will try to reason their way to an explanation that any logical creature could accept — as to whatever subject matter Republicans want to talk about. In this way, Republicans control the debate and the framing of the issues — by incessantly asking what about, they maintain an offensive posture against people too honest and well-meaning to return the volley.
What to do about it
First, recognize it. Call it what it is. When you hear a right-winger say what about, roll your eyes and say, there you go again — that’s all you’ve got. Whataboutism. Any adolescent would be embarrassed to argue that way.
Second, hit back with the necessary implication of whataboutism: it’s a confession of wrongdoing. When a person uses this argument form, he or she is conceding that his or her position is indefensible; the only ploy left is to abandon ship and hope the other side sends a lifeboat.
Refuse to send the lifeboat. Call whataboutism what it is, indict its user for confessing guilt, and keep changing the subject back to the one that’s relevant and consequential: put your opponent right back aboard that sinking ship.
In short, those of us who value intellectual rigor must shame those who don’t. So no, Trump supporters, we’re not going to talk about Marc Rich. Anyone who mentions it should be charged with juvenile argumentation, convicted for confessing that Donald Trump was wrong to pardon Arpaio, and sentenced to intellectual ignominy.