A number of folks I respect have gone full Never Trump, and a few have come out in support of the administration, to varying degrees. But quite a few of “us” have rejected full-on support or opposition, lapsing into what I’ve come to think of as “But What About….?”-ism. This phenomenon was pointed out by Washington Post journalist Radley Balko, who said in January:
Maybe at this point, stuff like pointing and laughing at liberal/media hypocrisy, crowing about political correctness, invoking “Obama/Hillary did it too” arguments, mocking social justice groups who fear Trump—maybe these should no longer be our main priorities. Maybe this is the time to start directing most or all of our energy at the people who actually hold power now, and who are threatening to do some very unlibertarian things with it.”]
I have to say, this brought me up short. I had just been tweeting or writing something about Obama’s executive order stranding Cubans. And now the Left is fully bent out of shape over Trump enacting policies that are not all that different from Obama’s! Y’all didn’t get upset about Obama (or Bush, or Clinton) issuing all those executive orders. You’re a little late to the party; ha! I win!
But my man Radley Balko ruined all that. Because he’s actually right. The Economist wrote about “whataboutism” in 2008 to describe the long-time Soviet, and later Russian, tactic of answering a criticism of their actions with “Oh, yeah? What about….” and then some observation about the U.S. and its own bad actions in Vietnam, Latin America, or more recently in Iraq. Or, even more recently, in Ferguson, MO.
Notice what Whataboutism does: It changes the subject and tries to establish a moral equivalence: that the actions being criticized are like previous actions not (sufficiently) criticized by the current critic (or even, in the case of Ferguson, MO, perpetrated by the critic). The point of Whataboutism is to impeach the moral authority of the critic. What Whataboutism never does, and cannot do, is evaluate the moral claim that was the actual center of the original point.
So when Never Trump folks bring up
- Donald Trump’s attempts to intimidate or abuse the American press,
- Trump and Steve Bannon calling the press the “opposition party,”
- And the Trump administration imposing a gag order on Federal agencies, especially the EPA.,
My first thought is, “But what about Obama’s record on suppressing whistle-blowers and attempting to control agency communications?” And in a way that’s fair enough, because Obama was extraordinarily aggressive about using the “Espionage Act” against American media and whistleblowers. After complaining about the incursions on free speech, the press, and other basic freedoms for eight years of Obama (and, by the way, eight years of Bush) we may be entitled to a few days of “Whataboutism.”
But we’re done now. It’s time to take things on their merits, without changing the subject or feeling smug about liberal surprise and anguish at losing the election. If you actually support Mr. Trump, then that’s fair enough — you’re entitled. But if you don’t, then stop pretending that opposition mostly involves mocking the new allies who have finally awakened to the dangers of concentrated state power.