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In Defense of Whataboutism

By  |  July 14, 2017, 11:45am  |  @MarcGiller

Donald Trump, Jr. gets caught in what appears to be a sleazy attempt to use Russian sources to get dirt on Hillary Clinton ahead of the 2016 election. Democrats scream about treason, even though evidence that a crime has been committed is thin to nonexistent–but with the media tying itself into knots trying to connect the Trump administration with Russian skullduggery, it looks bad, bad, bad.

To which Trump defenders say, “Well, what about the time Hillary tried to coordinate with Ukraine to get dirt on Trump?  Or when she gave away 20% of America’s uranium reserves to Vladimir Putin, and then the Clinton Foundation got a $20 million donation from Russian-backed interests?”

The difference:  DJT, Jr. has been dominating the news cycle since the story broke.  The Hillary stuff?  Nary a mention from the mainstream media.

Then there was that time during the election, when the infamous Access Hollywood tape got leaked and “grab ’em by the p*ssy” because yet another meme parents would rather not have to explain to their kids.  That came on top of Alicia Machado, the Miss Universe turned gun moll who accused Donald Trump of fat shaming her, which Hillary extrapolated to mean that Trump hates all women.  Again, no matter how you sliced it, it looked bad, bad, bad.

To which Trump apologists said, “Well, what about the horrible way Bill Clinton treated women?  Hillary not only stood by him, she actively set out to destroy any woman who accused her husband of sexual misconduct!”

The difference:  The news media spent endless hours replaying the tape, and treated the accusations of Machado–a woman who once threatened to kill a Venezuelan judge when her boyfriend was indicted for attempted murder–without the slightest bit of skepticism.

I could go on and on here, but you probably get the picture.  Every time Donald Trump gets accused of something deplorable–and, let’s face it, occasionally the accusation has merit–his allies will fire back with something even worse that the president’s enemies did.  This “whataboutism” has been the subject of some debate lately, with concerns on how this line of argument is corrupting our politics and the culture.  Ben Shapiro, in particular, makes an eloquent point when he writes:

[Moral relativism] 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.

This is absolutely correct.  It also speaks to a hallmark trait of the conservative movement, in that it has historically elevated principle above party, and laid down markers that have guided conservative policy:  the innate value of human life that stands in opposition to abortion, the liberty of the individual that stands in opposition to big government, the rule of law that applies to the powerful and the powerless alike.  Conservatives always had an expectation that their leaders not only espoused these principles, but actually believed in them as well, and would conduct themselves accordingly.

But has the Trump era changed all that?  At first glance, you can see how it would be easy to get that idea.  Donald Trump, as a candidate and as president, has completely upended what we’ve always thought of as traditional conservatism and somehow managed to engender a fierce loyalty among his supporters, even as some unsavory facts have come to light.  Imbroglios that would have caused voters to desert your typical Republican have seemingly made Trump stronger, and made his voters dig in with one “what about?” excuse after another.  What gives?  Have traditional conservatives abandoned their principles entirely in favor of Trumpism?

Long term, I don’t know the answer to that–but I don’t think so.  Conservatives still live their lives according to their principles, which they find and reenforce through family, faith and community, and that will remain so no matter who’s running things in Washington.  Their embrace and defense of Trump is more a reaction to the corrupt media and political establishments, which are telling the public that the president represents a unique danger to American democracy, while at the same time diverting attention away from the festering swamp of corruption that has stuffed the halls of Congress with shysters, saddled the country with mountains of debt, and sustained a political class that sees itself as above the rules.  When they see Trump accused of all manner of malfeasance, while blatant malfeasance is excused and ignored elsewhere, they quickly conclude that the game is rigged just like Trump said it was–and when they see him getting screwed over, it only reminds conservatives of how everything they hold dear has been given the shaft by the media and the popular culture.  Supporting Trump by pointing out that hypocrisy is the best way conservatives know how to give them all the middle finger.  It’s very punk rock–and in many ways, quite refreshing.

It also, hopefully, has the potential to shift the media climate away from a biased model and over to something fair.  I have to believe, stupid and stubborn as they are, that eventually the media will figure out that the more they try to damage Donald Trump, the stronger he’ll become.  At that point, perhaps they’ll try the obvious and actually resort to reporting without favor–and the public will start hating them less.  In the meanwhile, for every accusation they hurl Trump’s way, there will almost certainly be an example of how Democrats under Obama did much, much worse and nobody in the media seemed to care.  So why should the public care now?

Leveling the playing field would go a long way towards curing that attitude, and the moral relativism that incubates it.