Senator John Kennedy from Louisiana recently got into an exchange with NBC’s Chuck Todd about the effort to impeach President Donald Trump. At one point, an exasperated Todd hit Kennedy with what’s become a common argument-winner: “Do you think whataboutism—how does that have anything to do with the president of the United States going to another world leader and saying, open up an investigation on my chief political rival?”
Also recently, on Real Time with Bill Maher, Business Insider columnist Linette Lopez cut short her own argument about Trump’s false piety regarding the wrongdoings of Joe Biden’s family. She came to an epiphany and scolded herself: “That’s whataboutism,” she said. “And we don’t do this on this show. It’s too easy. We do better on this show.”
Here’s an unpopular opinion: Whataboutism is not all bad and we’ve become too quick to dismiss it. In fact, it can be a deadly effective means of pointing out hypocrisy. If someone is outraged when one party does something wrong but never seemed to mind when another party did the same wrong thing, they should be called out on it. Expressing scorn for “whataboutism,” then, can be a deft way of escaping a charge of hypocrisy.
Now, where the case against whataboutism is strong is in taking to task those who justify the actions of one person solely because that person’s critics or opponents did something similar. But how often does that really happen? If you’re a Trump fan who thinks he did nothing wrong in asking the president of Ukraine to look into Hunter Biden’s dealings, you’re probably not citing some past Democratic action as sound precedent. But you’re happy to point out the selective outrage of those who only decided that stiffing Ukraine on defense was a bad thing after Barack Obama left the White House.
And if you’re a conservative who thinks Trump did do wrong, you especially don’t want to hear about the horrors of shifty foreign-affairs chicanery and betrayal from those who were fine with it when it came from the Obama administration.
When did the Obama administration betray the public trust and dishonestly leverage foreign policy for domestic political gains?
What about, if you will, in 2012, when Obama was caught on a “hot mic” in Seoul, Korea, talking to Vladimir Putin protégé Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s then-president? Obama told Medvedev that “particularly with missile defense” he’d be better able to satisfy Putin’s concerns after the U.S. presidential election later that year. “This is my last election.…After my election, I have more flexibility,” Obama said. This is as clear as anything in the transcript of Trump’s call with Volodymyr Zelensky. Obama meant that he had to display toughness on Russia to get reelected, but when that was over, he’d be sure to deny missile-defense assets to our European allies—a massive concern of Putin’s. Medvedev heard him loud and clear. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir,” he said. What about if Trump had done that?
And what about when the Obama administration, also in that reelection year, deceptively blamed an Egyptian American’s online film for an al-Qaeda-associated terror attack that killed Americans in Benghazi, Libya? Obama didn’t want to be seen by American voters as having failed to sufficiently counter jihadist terrorism, so the administration denied the terrorist angle, and the filmmaker, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, was thrown in jail for a year. In time, the administration was forced to tell the truth.
It’s all bad and dishonest and dangerous: Trump’s machinations regarding Ukraine and Obama’s deceptions on Russia and Benghazi. But if the overriding claim against Donald Trump is that he is uniquely—unprecedentedly—bad, then a little whataboutism can be quite clarifying.