Turn off Fox News and you are likely to see two things: excuses for the president’s often erratic behavior and a series of “what about…?”
Usually regarding former President Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, while neither of them are in power making decisions that are tied to our fate as a people. This whataboutism, as it has been coined, is a favorite tool of current conservative media that aims to divert attention away from the fiascos in Washington.
Whataboutism is the practice of stopping an argument by attempting to compare two things that are not necessarily comparable. It is an old Soviet tactic that the president has employed since he began his run for office. His most egregious use was during the Charlottesville protests when he falsely equated the actual neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates to those that were protesting against them. This is a dangerous practice that is employed by those who have no argument, but, most importantly, it prevents discourse from taking place.
The people who employ this tactic give the facade of an interesting counterpoint, and that is why it is used so often in media and in politics. More often than not, the equivalence used is nowhere close to what the topic of debate had been before. The practice of whataboutism is nothing more than a stall tactic, and it has been working for the GOP. No one questions them when they employ this tactic. No one says, “That does not have anything to do with what we are talking about,” when someone on Fox News says, “Well, Obama/Clinton!”
The worst thing about this phenomenon is that they are getting away with its constant use.
Not only is it used prominently by Trump, but it is also a favorite tactic of Vladimir Putin, something that should be alarming. According to an article written by Dan Zak in The Washington Post, when Putin was pushed on the annexation of Crimea, he pointed to the American annexation of Texas in order to deflect his own misdeeds. We see Trump doing the same thing, but he’s on Twitter, a place he can filter out any voices he does not want to hear, attacking Clinton.
Noam Chomsky once said, “An old joke 50 years ago was that if you went to a Stalinist and criticized the Soviet slave-labor camps, the Stalinist would say, ‘Well, what about the lynchings in the American South?’” One of these things has nothing to do with the other, and while both are horrendous crimes against humanity, one does not excuse the other from occurring. This has always been the tactic of tyrants and those regimes that do not place a value on human rights. To see the president of the United States doing this, along with several prominent members of his party is not only embarrassing, but it is also deeply troubling. It is the first step in suppressing arguments in a childish manner.
Fifty years ago, an American president employing Russian tactics would have been ostracized, and in 2017, an American president using Russian tactics is celebrated by conservative media. Oh, how times have changed.