The Rhetorical Laziness of Whataboutism

For me, one of the more reliably comforting shows to watch over the past four years has been Late Night With Seth Meyers. Of all the late night hosts, I find Meyers the sharpest and the funniest; his “A Closer Look” segments are among the best pieces of political commentary I’ve seen. And yet, about a year and a half ago, I found myself yelling at him on my television screen.

His guest was Meghan McCain, daughter of the late Senator John McCain, who has in the past few years polished her brand as a conservative truth-teller, largely in the context of her seat on The View. Though she situates herself as an anti-Trump Republican, she often ends up tacitly defending him in the name of calling out ostensible liberal hypocrisy. The bone in her teeth the night she appeared with Meyers was Representative Ilhan Omar—who had, at some point prior, made comments over Twitter that many people (Democrats included) perceived as anti-Semitic (basically, accusing Washington politicians of being in thrall to pro-Israel lobbyists; she was accused of indulging in Jewish stereotypes regarding money). Around the same time, she had also made comments to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, saying the council “was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.” The phrasing “some people did something” predictably pissed a lot of people off because of the glib way it glossed over the horror of the attack. Even more predictably, the right-wing media latched onto both of these instances and used them as evidence of Omar’s putative radicalism and capital-O Otherness.

Hence, it was thus unsurprising that McCain would similarly voice her umbrage, but when Meyers pushed back, pointing out that Trump has a long history of anti-Semitic remarks, as well as numerous impolitic comments about 9/11 (such as falsely claiming that, with the collapse of the Twin Towers, the tallest building in NYC was now one of his), she grew increasingly irate, ultimately accusing him of having a double standard. Sure, you’ll attack Trump, she spat, but not someone on your side of the political coin.

This is when I started yelling at the TV. Not because I disagreed with anything Meyers was saying, but because he wasn’t making what, to me, was the most obvious point: that of course there’s a double standard for the words and behaviour of a freshman congresswoman on one hand, and the President of the United States on the other. The former represents something just north of 700,000 constituents in Minnesota. The latter was elected president of 330 million people; is the face of America to the world; has access to the codes for the nuclear arsenal; commands the largest military on earth; and occupies the most powerful political office in the world. The idea that we wouldn’t hold him to a different standard is categorically insane.

There is much about the attacks on Omar that were infuriating, even if you grant the premise that her comments were as offensive as people charged. For one thing, she apologized (something Meyers pointed our several time to McCain, who was dismissive), and promised to learn from her colleagues how best to educate her perspective, whereas Trump has never admitted error or apologized for anything. In his life. For another thing, it’s hard not to speculate on how much grief a white dude would receive for such comments as opposed to a hijab-wearing Black Muslim woman.

I cite this interview because it’s what tends to leap to mind every time I encounter the rhetorical gambit of whataboutism. You’re familiar with it, of course: equal measures of deflection and the implication of your own hypocrisy. “Trump has been credibly accused of sexual assault and harassment of numerous women.” “Oh yeah? What about Bill Clinton? Where’s your #MeToo sanctimony with him?” On some levels, there’s a value to such a turnaround, as it can raise discomforting questions. How do we now think about Bill Clinton’s behaviour while in office, to say nothing of the prior credible accusations against him? And while that can be at times a helpful and necessary exercise in taking a moral inventory of one’s positions, in the context of an argument, whataboutism tends to erase context and nuance. The most obvious answer to my above example would be to say, “We’re not talking about Clinton, we’re talking about Trump. We can talk about Clinton later if you want, but that’s not the subject at hand.” That is unlikely to satisfy your interlocutor, however, and almost certainly will evoke a sneering charge of hypocrisy. On the other hand, any good-faith attempt to address the question necessitates teasing out distinctions of context and changing societal attitudes, which inevitably takes you away from the original premise of your argument. And if you’re up against an inveterate whatabouter, you’ll be peppered with the machine-gun fire of follow-ups. “What about X? What about Y?”

To be fair, there are times when whataboutism is unavoidable, but these tend to be fairly narrow and specific; when the Biden camp put Neera Tanden’s name forward as head of the Office of Management and Budget, a handful of Republican senators protested that they probably couldn’t vote to confirm her, because she’d been frequently caustic and pugilistic on Twitter. Which, honestly, is one of those moments when you just have to say … seriously? What about Trump’s tweeting habits? After four years of being silent on this President, now you choose to take issue with someone being mean on social media?

But for the most part, whataboutism isn’t about opening up the discussion, it’s about shutting it down in a way that promulgates a sense of political cynicism. Meghan McCain’s false equivalency between a freshman congresswoman and the President is merely just a more glaring example of this kind of thinking. Over the past few weeks, there have been a three recurring examples, which taken together comprise a pernicious narrative thread that culminated in the attack on the Capitol: in response to people upset over Trump refusing to concede, you’ve reliably heard people pointing out that Stacy Abrams never conceded her loss in 2018’s gubernatorial contest in Georgia; in the run-up to Republicans’ plan to contest the electoral votes on January 6, many on the Right have pointed out that Democrats contested electors in 2001, 2005, and 2017; and in the aftermath of the MAGA crowd’s storming of the Capitol, the charge has been that liberals and progressives cheered on the BLM “riots” all summer, but now they’re calling for law and order when Trump supporters perpetrate something similar?

The appeal of whataboutism is that it’s easy, and provides a blunt rhetorical cudgel easily taken up by people with little interest in context and nuance. Not one of the three examples I cite here holds up on examination, but to engage each of them on their merits requires making distinctions in which those inclined will see no difference. There is no equivalence, none whatsoever, between Stacy Abrams’ refusal to concede and Trump’s recalcitrance. Abrams’ refusal was a symbolic protest—she accepted the fact of Brian Kemp’s electoral win and did not attempt to overturn the election results. But she held, not that the results were fraudulent, but that her opponent had acted inappropriately in his dual role as gubernatorial candidate and Georgia’s Secretary of State, and thus in charge of overseeing the election in which he was running—and in the process, enacting voting restrictions that disenfranchised thousands of Black voters. Which is not even remotely similar to Trump’s refusal to concede based on his repeated claims of voter fraud on a massive scale that was somehow perpetrated with such subtlety that no evidence of it could be produced in over sixty lawsuits. The difference between Abrams’ refusal to concede and Trump’s is that hers did not deny the reality of the election results—it was, rather, a protest against voter suppression perpetrated through entirely legal means (and the fact that it was entirely legal is one of the crucial problems she sought to address). Trump, by contrast, is a conspiracist and a fantasist, and his repeated assertions of fraud—repeated and amplified by his useful idiots in conservative media—have created a dangerous alternative reality among his supporters.

Indeed, the flimsy tautology cited by the senators and representatives contesting the electoral votes on January 6 was that they had an obligation to open an investigation into the election because so many people believed it was fraudulent … belief fabricated out of nothing by Trump and his mouthpieces. And, further, contesting electoral votes was hardly uncommon, given that Democrats had done so after the 2000, 2004, and 2016 elections. But again, that whataboutism infers equivalence where there is none: in each of those cases, the election had been conceded—by Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton, respectively. And in each case, the protests were raised by outliers in the Democratic Party; in 2001 and 2017 they were gavelled down by the outgoing Vice Presidents Gore and Biden (“Come on man, move on,” was Biden’s characteristic rebuke). Last Wednesday, we saw twelve senators and over one hundred representatives in an organized effort to disrupt and delay the confirmation of Biden’s presidency, egged on by a delusional lame duck President stuck in a bubble of resentment and rage, while the insurgency he had spent months fomenting made its way to Capitol Hill.

“But what about all the violent riots by Black Lives Matter protesters this summer?” I find this one particularly saddening, mainly because it was disheartening to watch the perception of an historic nation-wide movement calcify into the overdetermined and inaccurate memory of “riots.” It is crucial to remember the widespread shock and horror inspired by the images of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a callous and indifferent police officer; it is equally crucial to remember that BLM’s national approval was over sixty percent in the weeks that followed, most specifically because, in addition to the cruelty of Floyd’s murder, millions of people witnessed the police doubling down on their brutal methods when faced with mass protests: confronting BLM marchers in riot gear; being the ones to incite violence as they charged the protesters; bombarding them with pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets; driving their vehicles into their lines. While some police precincts attempted more peaceful conciliation, they were the outliers—for the most part, police met protesters in quasi-military garb and militant tactics, while largely ignoring or winking at right-wing groups like the Proud Boys when they showed up after curfew to clash with the protesters.

The summer was long, and memories and attention spans are tragically short. Frustration mounted. More bad actors inserted themselves into the protests. Was there violence? Yes. Did some of the protests devolve into riots after dark? Also yes. But the confluence of participants–the police, BLM protesters, anarchists, opportunistic looters, right-wing counter-protesters and wannabe militiamen like Kyle Rittenhouse–meant that the excesses could not be blamed on any one group, and the BLM leadership always called for peaceful protests. Sadly, though, what was always a national movement proceeding from a long history of racial injustice became distilled for many as a series of images of fire, violence, and smoke—usually at night—and the nuances evaporated from the larger national discourse and tacitly laid the blame on Black Lives Matter.

The point being that the complexity of the summer of protest bears no resemblance to the stark insurgency that took place on Wednesday. The former sought to wake a nation to its long-standing history of racial injustice, and was met by overwhelming force by law enforcement. The latter was an almost entirely white mob fomented by a delusional president, a mob that sported confederate flags, neo-nazi garb and tattoos, and who—for all their protestations of patriotism—replaced an American flag with a Trump flag. And they were met not by overwhelming force, but by a paucity of Capitol police who apparently did not think a mass of Trump supporters was a threat.

The former was protest. The latter was insurrection. There is no equivalence.

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