Republican Whataboutism Gets More Desperate

Trump has been promoting many of the same white-supremacist themes that are found in mass-shooter manifestos. That can’t be excused or explained, so his cultists need to divert your attention.


Whataboutism is the tactic of responding to criticism of a politician you like by asserting (often falsely [1]) some equivalent wrongdoing by someone on the other side. (Examples: responding to mention of one of Trump’s 10,000 lies with “What about when Obama said you could keep your health insurance?” or to Trump’s birtherism by claiming Hillary Clinton started it.) Whataboutism has long been a tactic favored by conservatives, but Trump has taken it to a new level: It’s hard to come up with an example of him addressing a criticism any other way. He never explains or apologizes, but instead launches some new accusation against someone else.

David Roberts points out the general moral immaturity of a whatabout response

One thing to note is the bizarre implicit assumption that if responsibility is equal on both sides, then … we’re fine. We’re even. Move on. In other words, it’s not the damage done, or the principle violated, that concerns [WaPo columnist Marc Thiessen], it’s *blame*. We need not strive to be good as long as we are no worse than the other side. It’s the moral reasoning of a [10-year-old], focused exclusively on avoiding responsibility or sanction.

Gonna be lots of right-wing whataboutism focused on antifa and environmental extremists in coming weeks. [Conservatives] need to head off the growing consensus that [right-wing] terrorism is a unique problem.

This week saw two prominent attempts at whataboutism, both aimed at diverting attention from Trump’s role in promoting the false claims that inspired the El Paso shooting and have inspired other acts of white-supremacist terrorism.

  • What about the liberal views of the Dayton shooter?
  • What about Rep. Joaquin Castro revealing the names of Trump donors in his district?

Dayton. Roberts was specifically responding to the Thiessen column “If Trump is Responsible for El Paso, Democrats are Responsible for Dayton“.

But if Democrats want to play politics with mass murder, it works both ways. Because the man who carried out another mass shooting 13 hours later in Dayton, Ohio, seems to have been a left-wing radical whose social media posts echoed Democrats’ hate-filled attacks on the president and U.S. immigration officials.

The difference between the two cases is pretty obvious: The El Paso shooter justified his rampage in a manifesto that used Trumpist rhetoric about the “invasion” of our southern border. [2] His massacre took place near that border, and targeted Hispanics under the assumption that they were the “invaders”. Similarly last October, the man who slaughtered 11 Jews at a synagogue in Pittsburgh believed Jews were organizing the immigrant “invasion” caravans that Trump had been making the focus of his midterm-election messaging, and the MAGA bomber targeted people he saw as Trump’s enemies.

A window of the MAGA bomber’s van.

But so far no one has found any connection between the Dayton shooter’s left-wing views and his crimes. If the Dayton shooter had shot at “the president and immigration officials”, that would be comparable. In future, if someone follows up his retweets of Elizabeth Warren statements by, say, shooting some of the bankers or drug company CEOs Warren criticizes, that also would parallel the El Paso shooting (and we could expect Warren to issue a statement telling her supporters not to be violent). But the Dayton shooter did nothing of the kind.

In the wake of the El Paso shooting, Hispanics might legitimately fear further attacks from copycat killers; but fear of a copycat Dayton shooting afflicts anybody who goes out in public rather than some group criticized by Democrats.

Picturing what a comparable liberal shooting would look like just emphasizes the Trump connection to El Paso.

“How do you stop these people? You can’t,” Trump lamented at a May rally in Panama City Beach, Fla. Someone in the crowd yelled back one idea: “Shoot them.” The audience of thousands cheered and Trump smiled. Shrugging off the suggestion, he quipped, “Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement.”

Trump wasn’t horrified by the suggestion that someone might shoot Mexican border-crossers, and did not say it would be wrong. Instead he talked about what his followers could “get away with”, as if it’s natural to want to shoot Hispanics, but politically incorrect to say so out loud. If the El Paso shooter was listening to that exchange, it’s fair to assume that he was not discouraged from his plans.

“Hate has no place in our country!”

You have to go back to 2017 to find any kind of legitimate liberal parallel: the shooting of Republican Congressman Steve Scalise by someone who once volunteered for Bernie Sanders. Unlike Trump, who denounced the El Paso shooting in general terms (in one of his read-from-the-teleprompter statements that look as insincere as a hostage video) without acknowledging any connection to it, Sanders did the responsible thing:

I have just been informed that the alleged shooter at the Republican baseball practice is someone who apparently volunteered on my presidential campaign. I am sickened by this despicable act. Let me be as clear as I can be: Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms. Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values.

Trump, on the other hand, undercut even his general denunciation of the shooting by implying that the shooter might have had a point: Limiting immigration should be part of the response. It’s as if Sanders had proposed that Republicans respond to the Scalise shooting by ending their attempts to repeal ObamaCare.

Trump also undercut his anti-white-supremacy statement by reverting to the both-sides rhetoric he used after Charlottesville: He’s against not just white supremacy, but “any other kind of supremacy“. (Both Trevor Noah and Seth Myers wondered what “other kind of supremacy” Trump might have had in mind. The Bourne Supremacy?) He’s also against “any group of hate”, and singled out the amorphous anti-fascist group Antifa, as if hating fascism is similar to hating Hispanics or Jews, and as if the Antifa body count (0) bears any comparison to the many dozens killed recently by white supremacists. Matt Bors makes the point with a cartoon.

Shaming Trump donors. The second whataboutist controversy started with a tweet on Monday: San Antonio Congressman Joaquin Castro listed the names of 44 San Antonians who had given the maximum allowable personal donation to Trump’s re-election campaign, and commented

Their contributions are fueling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as ‘invaders.’

He got the names from publicly available FEC records; you could have looked them up yourself had you been so inclined.  And he used those names for the purpose that the disclosure laws intended: So that the public knows who’s bankrolling a political campaign.

Castro was clearly trying to shame the people he listed, and you might imagine Castro’s Twitter followers, especially Hispanic ones, deciding not to do business with big Trump donors: If money I give these people might flow through to ads that threaten me, maybe I’ll deal with somebody else. (This logic is similar to why so many LGBTQ people are reluctant to eat at Chick-fil-A. It’s also why #CancelSoulCycle has been trending after word got out that owner Stephen Ross was hosting a multi-million-dollar Trump fundraiser in the Hamptons.)

But nothing in Castro’s tweet suggests violence against these donors, and in fact there is no established pattern of violence against Trump donors. But conservatives needed to divert public attention from the violence Trump incites by accusing some Democrat of inciting violence too — because, as David Roberts pointed out, that would make it all OK from their grade-school moral perspective — and Castro was what they had to work with.

So Donald Trump Jr. went on Fox & Friends to compare Castro’s list of Trump donors to a “hit list” that the Dayton shooter had kept in high school. (As far as I know, none of the people on that list were targeted in the Dayton shooting. So even if you buy the idea that there’s a comparison, we’re talking about a list of fantasy targets, not actual ones.) Ted Cruz accused Castro of “doxxing” his constituents. (Falsely. [3]) House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted:

Targeting and harassing Americans because of their political beliefs is shameful and dangerous.

And I suppose that is true if you assume that someone has been targeted and harassed, rather than just called out for sponsoring insults against their neighbors.

So the whatabout here is equating a direct connection to several real-world mass murders with a fantasy about what some Castro-follower might do, even though none of them have actually ever done such a thing, and there are no examples of similar crimes.

What does it mean? Whataboutism isn’t new, of course. (What about Hillary’s emails?) But new whatabouts point out where conservatives believe they’re vulnerable. And the less convincing the whatabouts are, the more desperate the need for them must be.

If you meet whataboutism in the wild — in face-to-face conversation or in social media — it’s important not to get distracted by it. [4] Call it out for what it is (that meme at the top of the page is kind of handy) and restate the point the whataboutist is trying to divert you from. In this case, that’s Trump’s role in promoting the rhetoric of white-supremacist terrorism.


[1] Since the point of whataboutism is to derail a criticism rather than refute it, a false assertion often works even better than a true one, because the discussion then careens off into evidence that the assertion is false. Suddenly we’re rehashing the details of what Obama or Clinton did or didn’t do, while the original criticism of Trump scrolls off the page.

The assumption behind refuting the false whataboutism is that the Trumpist will be embarrassed to be caught saying something untrue, and so will stop repeating the false statement. But the essence of Trumpism is that shame is for losers, so refutation is pointless.

[2] A wrinkle in this argument is that the El Paso shooter seems to have worried that his actions might reflect badly on Trump. So he made sure to state that his views predated Trump’s candidacy.

the media will probably call me a white supremacist anyway and blame Trump’s rhetoric. The media is infamous for fake news.

But his concern for Trump’s image belies his point, and whether or not his murderous rage against the Hispanic “invaders” predates Trump’s rhetoric is irrelevant. Nobody is saying that Trump invented white supremacy or anti-Hispanic racism. Rather, he (along with many, many conservative opinion-makers) has promoted and mainstreamed ideas that have been floating around in the white-supremacist and neo-Nazi underground for decades.

Trump’s rhetoric is a Nazi gateway drug. After you get used to the notions that Central American refugees are really “invaders”, that immigrants are spreading crime and disease, that white Christians are victims, that people of color who criticize America should “go back where they came from”, and that political correctness is a far more serious problem than racism — all core Trump points — then when you chase a link to the Daily Stormer or some other Nazi site, 90% of what you read sounds perfectly normal.

So, for example, if you marinate long enough in TrumpWorld, and then start to wonder how these illiterate Guatemalan peasants are organizing their invasion of the US, the neo-Nazi answer — Jews like George Soros are behind it all — jumps out at you like a revelation.

[3] True doxxing reveals personal contact information like a home address or personal phone number, and typically violates an assumed boundary (like when someone attaches a name, address, and phone number to someone else’s Twitter handle). But donors to political campaigns know that their names are being recorded for the public record. Suzanne Nossel explains:

It’s fair to question whether Mr. Castro’s tweet was prudent or decorous. But to refer to it as doxxing or online harassment is inaccurate, and sows confusion over what online abuse actually looks like.

CNN adds:

Richard Hasen, an expert on election law at the University of California at Irvine, said neither the boycott calls [against SoulCycle] nor Castro tweet appears to cross the line into the “unconstitutional harassment” of donors. “Being called a bad name on Twitter is not the kind of harassment the Supreme Court was talking about” in allowing exemptions [from disclosures] for people who face a real threat of harassment, he said.

Republicans can’t have it both ways here. They want to allow unlimited political donations because “money is speech”. But when you speak in the public square, people know who you are. At the very least, an ad whose donors you can’t track down should end with “The sponsors of this message have chosen to remain anonymous” so that we can assume the worst about them.

[4] Don’t do the kind of lengthy explanation I’ve done here; this was for educational purposes only. Having seen a couple of whataboutisms dissected in detail should make it easier for you to spot new ones.

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Comments

  • Gina  On August 12, 2019 at 9:22 am

    I sometimes catch myself doing whataboutism, but my intention is not to deflect from whatever criticism the other person is giving. Instead, it’s to point out the hypocrisy in their bad faith argument and hopefully to get them to argue in good faith and state their true motivations for opposing certain people. For instance, when someone would say they hate Obama because he lied about XYZ, I would say “What about this lie that Bush told, which was much bigger and more harmful, and what about this other Bush lie, and this one? Do these lies bother you as much as Obama’s lies?” Or, if someone is harping on Hillary’s unsecure private email server putting state secrets at risk and that she should go to jail for it, I’ll say “What about when Trump revealed state secrets to Russians, should he go to jail for that?” But I’ve learned that this line of logic doesn’t have the intended result. They have no shame about hypocrisy and they seem to take my whataboutism in the same light as you are presenting here—if I’m saying “what about…” then I’m acknowledging that whatever they said about Obama or Hillary is true.

    In response to criticism of Bill and Hillary Clinton for Bill’s past of sexual accusations, I asked if Trump’s past of sexual accusations is just as bad or maybe worse? The answer was Trump’s accusaions were “alleged” while Bill Clinton’s crimes are accepted as fact in the same way that Bill Cosby’s were before his conviction. It’s just known that Clinton is a sexual predator while Trump has just been the target of a few accusations. I’ve learned that you can’t back this kind of thinker into a corner and force them to use rational arguments.

    Instead, I’m trying to phrase it differently and simply say something like this, “I sincerely doubt that lying is the reason you hate Obama, since other politicians’ lies haven’t bothered you in the same way. I’d be curious to know the real reason.” Or “I question whether Hillary’s handling of her email is the real problem you have with her, since politicians on both sides have used private email servers or accounts for official correspondence and you don’t seem bothered by that.”

    Another “what about…” example is the immigration thing. “It seems like it’s not really about the rule of law and the notion of people coming here or living here illegally, since there are a great many other illegal behaviors that are much more harmful to us all that you don’t appear to be concerned about.”

  • James  On August 12, 2019 at 10:21 am

    How about “Two wrongs don’t make a right”?

  • Paul Kilduff  On August 12, 2019 at 11:24 am

    Thanks, Doug!

    Hey, I wish you’d use the word “supremacism” rather than supremacy.

    > Nobody is saying that Trump invented white supremacy or anti-Hispanic racism. >

    Sent from my iPhone; typos likely

    >

  • rbshreve2  On August 12, 2019 at 2:24 pm

    Whataboutism is, as you clearly explain, a tactic to undermine critical thinking and analysis. It diverts the focus from something that won’t bear scrutiny. I’m wondering it there is a playbook for mendacity that this belongs in.

  • Michael Forster  On August 12, 2019 at 3:23 pm

    I noticed this at full display with our recent “rigty” conversations!

  • rene waguespack  On August 13, 2019 at 7:02 pm

    Your OPINION jounalism lacks objectivity.
    Good job.

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