On ‘Whataboutism’ And Its Moral Hazards


On Wednesday morning, President Trump tweeted out his most important defense to accusations about Donald Trump Jr. attempting to collude with the Russian government: hey, but Hillary.

This has become the all-purpose alibi for all Republican malfeasance. Some call it “whataboutism.” What about Hillary Clinton? What about the media? What about Bill Cinton or Teddy Kennedy?

There’s a raging debate on the Right about the nature of this defense. Is it just excuse-making for bad behavior? Or is it a legitimate reminder that politics is a dirty game, and that we don’t choose the rules of engagement? This morning, Byron York of The Washington Examiner explained:

This seems inadequate. Whataboutism takes three basic forms, some of them useful, some of them counterproductive. Let’s run through them.

1. Reminders Of Leftist Dishonesty. When Trump tweets out that Hillary Clinton “may have gotten away with” bad behavior, he’s at least partially reminding the media and the Democrats that they were fine with Hillary’s bad behavior. When conservatives spent much of yesterday reminding the media that Barack Obama pledged “flexibility” to the Russians in exchange for them backing off their aggression in the final days of the 2012 election, they were doing so in order to point out the media’s obvious leftist bias. That’s important and worthwhile, but it should be made explicit.

2. Reminders Of Proportionality. Sometimes, “whataboutism” takes the form of reminding people that something isn’t that big of a deal. Seemingly the entire Left went ballistic this week when it first heard about a House rule that forbade bare arms in the Capitol. The Right promptly reminded the Left that this rule existed under Nancy Pelosi as well. It wasn’t a big deal then, and it’s not a big deal now.

3. Moral Relativism. This is the dangerous form of “whataboutism,” and also the most common. This is the actual message underlying Trump’s tweet: Hillary got away with it, so why shouldn’t I be able to get away with it? This ignores two facts: first, Hillary most certainly did not get away with it in the minds of the American public, which is why she’s not in the White House; second, wrong is wrong. The Right now engages in a fantasy whereby the Left’s dishonesty somehow justifies conservative dishonesty — hey, if Hillary’s corrupt, what’s the big problem with the Trump campaign soliciting information from the Russian government?

In this case, whataboutism is itself dishonesty — it’s pretending to care about the sins of the Left in order to justify the sins of the Right. It actually throws into sharp relief the hypocrisy of the Right: we complained endlessly and justifiably about Loretta Lynch meeting secretly with Bill Clinton, but we’re fine with Donald Trump Jr. meeting secretly with Natalia Veselnitskaya; we ripped President Obama’s “flexibility” hot mic moment, but we’re fine with President Trump saying that America has killed people just like Putin; we correctly targeted Clinton over Chinagate, but now we’re happy to use Chinagate as an excuse to avoid talking about Russiagate. This isn’t conservative. It’s not even moral. Kindergarteners learn that “but he did it, too” isn’t an excuse for bad behavior.

The Right often embraces this form of “whataboutism” because many people believe that fighting the Left requires tossing out morality of means in favor of morality of ends. Fight fire with fire! Since that was the animating principle behind much of the conservative support for the Trump campaign, this form of “whataboutism” has also become the most common form.

Many on the Right say this isn’t actually moral relativism: relativism implies that there is no moral answer to a given question, whereas situational morality implies there is a moral answer, but it changes based on the fact pattern. Therefore, it would normally be wrong to collude with Russia, for example, but it’s a moral imperative to do so to defeat Hillary Clinton. After all, we had to side with Stalin to defeat Hitler. The problem is that this invites an obvious temptation: if you can turn the other side into Hitler, you can make excuses for siding with Stalin. In the game of politics, few are willing to honestly assess the moral quality of their opposition and the rules of engagement — it’s far more politically profitable to define all political enemies as Nazis, and then suggest it’s okay to punch them. This is just as true for the Left as for the Right (far more so, in fact). It’s always easier to win if you side with Stalin — even if you could win without siding with him. The temptation to demonization is therefore tremendous.

We ought to be careful about how we utilize “whataboutism.” The goal should be to reinforce moral standards, not to undermine them. But that goal seems to be receding into the distance as we use “whataboutism” as a club directed at destroying principles rather than a shield for defending them.

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