Trump, master of ‘whataboutism’

America has a bad case of “whataboutism.” Here’s how it works.

Democrats say: President Trump has completely bungled the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump answers: What about the way Obama-Biden mishandled the swine flu?

Conclusion: The Democrats screwed up the swine flu years ago, making their criticism of Trump’s handling of Covid-19 false.

In another case:

Former Vice President Biden: You should condemn white supremacy.

Trump: What about your friends, the liberals and antifa? They are the bigger problem.

Conclusion: The extreme left is worse than the extreme right, so I don’t need to condemn white extremism.

Whataboutism has been around for a long time. It is a slick way to answer a charge with a countercharge, dodging the original criticism. These days with Trump, to paraphrase the old movie line about love, the result is, “Being president means never having to say you’re sorry.”

The ploy helps people worried by the charge, but who want to justify their continued support. It gets them off the hook, when they can ignore the charge and keep on backing the accused for their own reasons.

Trump who continually plays to his core constituency finds whataboutism a useful tool. Just as important, he may induce other, unwary people to see the original criticism as an unfair attack on him, possibly leading to their support.

Whataboutism has two flaws.

The more obvious problem is that, while the original charge may be true, the countercharge is not true. But it is stated which such conviction and as a balancing argument against the truth, so that it, too, sounds like the truth.

Take the virus debate. Covid-19 has been the cause of death of more than 220,000 people in the U.S. We still have no way of knowing when it will have run its course and how many victims it will ultimately claim. The early, disorganized response to it was left largely to the states.

The 2009 swine flu pandemic took 12,500 lives in the U.S., an impact similar to the annual flu. Under President Obama, there was a federal response from the first outbreak.

Conclusion: Both pandemics were harmful, but not strictly comparable. Certainly the answer to the charge about dealing with Covid-19 was not a countercharge about the earlier, far less harmful and well-managed pandemic.

As for right- and left-wing extremists, Trump fails to condemn white supremacists, who have formed organized militant groups, some supporting him. Biden has condemned extremism on both sides. The FBI states that antifa (short for “anti-fascist”) is not a group but a protest movement.

To obscure his failure to use the term “white supremacy,” at 29:39 minutes into the presidential debate Trump charged that Biden refuses to say the words “law enforcement.” He still makes that charge. Yet twice, at 30:59 and 37:54 into the debate, Biden did use the term.

The second flaw is that, even if Trump were correct, two wrongs don’t make a right. Suppose his criticism of Democrats is accurate. While their actions might be worthy of criticism, how does that relieve him of responsibility for his own actions?

If whataboutism were accepted as a political defense, the obvious result would be the elimination of any standards of public behavior. Each act would become a precedent excusing later acts as being no worse. All it would take to start the ball rolling downhill would be the first act.

Here, Trump is the master. He sets new low standards in political behavior unmatched in American presidential history. The risk is that they will become the baseline for more whataboutism.

In his furious response to the vice presidential debate, he asserted that Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic candidate, is a Communist. Communism is a bit outdated as the principal U.S. adversary, perhaps showing senior citizen Trump’s frame of reference. But it is a serious charge.

No top-of-the-ticket candidate has ever charged that the opposing national ticket included a Communist. Trump set a new low.

Trump has failed to disclose his tax returns and medical reports, falling below the standards followed by the last eight presidents. This is a new standard without any reasonable justification.

Medical information about the effect of experimental drugs or a mood-altering steroid on a man with the nuclear weapon trigger is important to the public. If they have no effect, tell us. And his health condition could legitimately influence how people vote.

In 2016, he expressed willingness to release his tax returns, though he imposed phony conditions, but he still fights tenaciously to keep them secret even from law enforcement. Did he lie in his first campaign?

His record-setting number of lies has set an impressively low standard for whataboutism. Any future president could lie regularly, while claiming, “What about Trump?”

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.