President Trump’s defense of his controversial pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio was precisely the defense that we’ve come to expect from Trump: What about these other pardons?
“[I]f you look at, as an example, President Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, who was charged with crimes going back decades, including illegally buying oil from Iran while it held 53 American hostages — wasn’t allowed to do that, selling to the enemies of the United States,” Trump said at a news conference on Monday. “He was pardoned after his wife donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Clintons.”
He went on with his list: pardons of “dangerous criminals,” of drug dealers, President Barack Obama’s commutation of the sentences of Chelsea Manning and Oscar López Rivera. What about them, he asked? Why is he being maligned when what Clinton and Obama did was so bad?
Let’s set aside the unusual rhetorical tactic of excusing your own behavior by comparing it to what you consider bad behavior by others. Let’s instead focus on why whataboutism is so central to this political moment.
Whataboutism is a cheap rhetorical tactic that relies on drawing false or sketchy comparisons between two things which may not actually be all that comparable. Our Dan Zak notes that the tactic is not a new invention, favored in the past by the Irish Republican Army and, yes, by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Zak also demonstrates that this foray by Trump into Whataboutia is far from his first; in fact, by now it’s no doubt home to several luxurious Trump-brand golf courses.
One reason is that we’re experiencing a highly partisan political moment.
Last year, Pew Research explored the depths of partisan hostility in the United States. More than half of both Republicans and Democrats hold very unfavorable views of members of the opposing party, with 9 in 10 Republicans and a slightly lower percentage of Democrats holding more broadly unfavorable views.
What’s more, at least 4 in 10 members of each party view the opposing party as an active threat to the well-being of the country.
Pew also found that negative sentiments are stronger among those who are more fervently ideological. The more conservative or liberal you are, the more negatively you view the opposing political party.
Partisans also view the personalities of members of the other party as suspect. Seventy percent of Democrats see Republicans as closed-minded; 47 percent of Republicans see Democrats as immoral. It’s easy, then, to imagine that the expectation that the other side would willingly ignore evidence to the contrary and embrace hypocrisy. Oh, you’re criticizing Trump when your guy did bad things, too? Typical. And the critique is waved away.
The researchers found that negative views have increased sharply since the late 1970s, suggesting that they may be the egg in the which-came-first question of the effects of cable news. Certainly, Fox News often fosters the partisan split shown above, and Republicans have been much more likely to watch the network than have Democrats — and much more so than they watch other networks. But Democrats have seen a similar polarization without having an equivalent reliance on one news network.
Whataboutism was a staple of cable news over the course of 2016, and not just at Fox (though it was then and is now a key part of coverage there). CNN had paid whatabouters on staff, most notably Kayleigh McEnany — now the spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. Her expertise was rising unfailingly to Trump’s defense, often by citing some tangentially related whatabout example from a Democrat or Hillary Clinton.
McEnany and the legions of whatabouters on social media were also bolstered by another unique aspect to the moment: the Internet.
Thirty years ago, being able to effectively whatabout a debate would require either a voluminous knowledge of the history of a subject or some serious time spent at a research institution. Now? You have the Web. Legions of supporters are on the lookout for perceived hypocrisy and good examples wiggle to the surface quickly. There’s a huge amount of information immediately available from which cherries of whataboutism can be picked. And they are.
The Internet pro plays another role, too. Many politically active people invest a lot of time and energy in defending their views online. It’s famously rare that an online debate results in any changed minds, in part because people learn to pick out arguments that bolster their case and rebuttals to contrary opinions. Social media is the world’s most effective rhetoric-undermining machine, and people who debate politics on social media build more defensive trenches and turrets than a doughboy in 1917. Whataboutism is a small part of those defenses — but an easy and cheap part.
People are more likely than ever to dislike and distrust their political opponents and have at their disposal the tools and information that allow them to offer quick rebuttals that require little thought or analysis. They live in a media environment in which this is par for the course.
This is the same media environment in which Trump’s own political worldview and rhetorical tools were forged. Trump has watched Sean Hannity and “Fox & Friends” for years, places where whataboutism has long had a place. So for Trump, as for many Americans, what about what Clinton did is a perfectly fair and reasonable response to criticism. Therefore, it’s a response that all too often is offered.