The American population has seen Donald Trump interact and debate in politics for over two years now, and many of his speech tactics have been studied to understand how he’s able to communicate so effectively with his supporters. One of these tactics is known as “whataboutism” and has probably been his most used strategy. According to Oxford Dictionary, whataboutism is “the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.” Although avoiding or redirecting questions isn’t anything new in the political world, it does appear to be more common in political discussions nowadays, especially when mentioned by President Trump.
On Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver spent most of the season finale discussing Trump’s “three key techniques that he uses to insulate himself from criticism and consequence:” delegitimizing the media, whataboutism, and trolling. Although the other two tactics are harmful to democracy too, whataboutism is a technique that anyone can easily adopt and exercise. It makes it difficult to solve an argument democratically when the defending side uses a “two wrongs make a right” statement.
Take for instance, Trump’s response to the Charlottesville alt-right protest in August. When asked about whether or not he condemned neo-nazis and the alt-right, Trump stated, “what about the alt-left that came charging… Do they have any semblance of guilt?” In this instance, Trump uses whatboutism to deflect his personal opinion about the right-sided extremist groups and avoid having to take a stance, which is a statement of its own. He again used the same logic when trying to justify why the Robert E. Lee statue should not be removed. “George Washington was a slave owner,” Trump said, “are we going to take down [his] statues?” Even though the two were fighting for different sides — and Lee thought it was “wiser not to keep open sores of war” by building statues — Trump produced a perception that both people were equally in the wrong, which justifies the monuments.
The reason this tactic is so effective is because the questioner has to shift gears from asking pressing questions to defending trivial parallels that slow the debate. John Oliver said it best by saying, “the problem with whataboutism is it doesn’t actually solve a problem or win an argument, the point is just to muddy the water and make the other side mad.” Charlottesville was just one example of this, but Trump and his party members have a long track record of using this rhetoric on Twitter and press conferences, mostly in regards to Hillary Clinton and Obama. Furthermore, news organizations like Fox News regularly defend Trump when Russia accusations come up by relating the story back to Hillary Clinton, which only bolster the tactic as a norm.
Whataboutism is not only an issue for debates and clarity, but it can have some lasting effects on democracy. When media organizations and political elites use whataboutism, it justifies viewers’ perception and adoption of the technique. The only way to combat this is by calling out the hypocrisy and sticking to the original question. If both parties use this willingly, however, then little to no political, social, or economic progress can be made because there will always be something to say “what about” to.
*Photo by Pixabay, “Untitled” (Pexels), Creative Commons Zero license.
I agree with the sentiment of your blog post that whataboutisms effectively corroded the quality of discourse surrounding the 2016 election in America. However, I would contend the notion that they are inherently detrimental and that they prevent diplomatic discussion.
There is a palpable distinction between the ways in which Trump habitually used whataboutisms and the way in which they might be employed reasonably. Trump and his pundits compulsively deflected questions pertaining to scandals that arose from his campaign with cries of hypocrisy, almost always pointing to Hillary Clinton’s emails or her husband’s sexual misconduct when it was wholly irrelevant to his own infraction. This is the “two wrongs make a right” mentality. In reality, one’s reaction to Clinton’s private email server can and should be entirely independent from one’s reaction to Trump’s mocking of a disabled reporter because there are no parallels between the two.
On the other hand, when parallels exist, whataboutisms may reveal unthought of or ignored fallacies in an argument. For example, if an ardent supporter of criminal justice reform argues that they voted for Sanders in the primary because of Clinton’s involvement in the promotion of the 1994 crime bill, it would be a relevant and discussion-advancing question to ask: What about Sanders’ vote? If the whataboutism retort undermines the set of values that the recipient is meaning to promote, meaningful discussion with regard to that conflict can result.
While drawing attention to hypocrisy is by no means a tenet of democracy, it certainly helps to nuance discourse and promote rationality—a step towards achieving that “epistemic minima” that Huq and Ginsberg thought necessary for effectual democracy.