What about antifa? What about free speech? What about the guy who shot Steve Scalise? What about the mosque in Minnesota that got bombed? What about North Korea? What about murders in Chicago? What about Ivanka at the G-20? What about Vince Foster? If white pride is bad, then what about gay pride? What about the stock market? What about those 33,000 deleted emails? What about Hitler? What about the Crusades? What about the asteroid that may one day kill us all? What about Benghazi?
What about what about what about.
We’ve gotten very good at what-abouting.
The president has led the way.
His campaign may or may not have conspired with Moscow, but President Trump has routinely employed a durable old Soviet propaganda tactic. Tuesday’s bonkers news conference in New York was Trump’s latest act of “whataboutism,” the practice of short-circuiting an argument by asserting moral equivalency between two things that aren’t necessarily comparable. In this case, the president wondered whether the removal of a statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville — where white supremacists clashed this weekend with counterprotesters — would lead to the teardown of others.
Robert E. Lee? What about George Washington?
“George Washington was a slave owner,” Trump said to journalists in the lobby of his corporate headquarters. “Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson?”
Using the literal “what about” construction, Trump then went on to blame “both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville.
“What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at the, as you say, the ‘alt-right’?” the president said. “Do they have any semblance of guilt?”
For a nanosecond, especially to an uncritical listener, this stab at logic might seem interesting, even thought-provoking, and that’s why it’s a useful political tool. Whataboutism appears to broaden context, to offer a counterpoint, when really it’s diverting blame, muddying the waters and confusing the hell out of rational listeners.
“Not only does it help to deflect your original argument but it also throws you off balance,” says Alexey Kovalev, an independent Russian journalist, on the phone from Moscow. “You’re expecting to be in a civilized argument that doesn’t use cheap tricks like that. You are playing chess and your opponent — while making a lousy move — he just punches you on the nose.”
Vladimir Putin has made a national sport of what-abouting. In 2014, when a journalist challenged him on his annexation of Crimea, Putin brought up the U.S. annexation of Texas. The American invasion of Iraq is constantly what-abouted on state television, to excuse all kinds of Russian behavior.
In Edward Snowden, “Russia has found the ultimate whataboutism mascot,” the Atlantic’s Olga Khazan wrote in 2013. “By granting him asylum, Russia casts itself, even if momentarily, as a defender of human rights, and the U.S. as the oppressor.”
The term was first coined as “whataboutery” and “the whatabouts,” in stories about the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s, according to linguist Ben Zimmer. But the practice goes back to the chilly depths of the Cold War.
“An old joke 50 years ago was that if you went to a Stalinist and criticized the Soviet slave-labor camps, the Stalinist would say, ‘Well what about the lynchings in the American South?’” philosopher Noam Chomsky once said.
In 1970, as the Soviet Union made headlines for imprisoning dissidents, Ukrainian artist Viktor Koretsky created a propaganda lithograph titled “American Politics at home and abroad.” It depicted U.S. police beating a black man and a U.S. soldier standing over a dead body, presumably in Vietnam.
In May 1985 the U.S. State Department funded a conference at the Madison Hotel on the fallacy of “moral equivalence,” a philosophical cousin of whataboutism. The goal was to tamp down comparisons of the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, among other instances. The actions may be comparable, the State Department implied, but the intentions were not.
“If it is no longer possible to distinguish between freedom and despotism,” said Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, then “the erosion of the foundation of a distinctively Western, democratic civilization is already far advanced and the situation serious indeed.”
Flash forward 30 years. President Trump’s Twitter feed has been a whataboutism showcase, with Hillary Clinton as the usual target.
April 3: “Did Hillary Clinton ever apologize for receiving the answers to the debate? Just asking!”
June 26: “The real story is that President Obama did NOTHING after being informed in August about Russian meddling.”
July 22: “. . . What about all of the Clinton ties to Russia . . .”
Googling of “Whataboutism” began to climb sharply in November of last year; this week, with Charlottesville, it reached an all-time high. “You look at both sides,” Trump said Tuesday, after saying “what about” three times. “I think there is blame on both sides . . . and nobody wants to say that.”
Some people saw this as brave truth-telling, and as exposing double standards in the media.
“Trump-haters on both sides of the aisle simply cry ‘whataboutism,’ as if it were a magic spell to ward off rational thought,” wrote Joel B. Pollak on the right-wing site Breitbart.com, in an article headlined “The attack on ‘whataboutism’ is a defense of hypocrisy.”
Trump’s most flagrant what-about, though, was used not in defense of himself, but in defense of Russia.
“Putin’s a killer,” Bill O’Reilly said to Trump in a February interview.
“There are a lot of killers,” Trump whatabouted. “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent?”
“That’s exactly the kind of argument that Russian propagandists have used for years to justify some of Putin’s most brutal policies,” wrote Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration.
“Moral relativism — ‘whataboutism’ — has always been a favorite weapon of illiberal regimes,” Russian chessmaster and activist Garry Kasparov told the Columbia Journalism Review in March. “For a U.S. president to employ it against his own country is tragic.”