Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Whataboutism’ in American politics

‘Whataboutism’ is part of the American conversation
Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS

As the midterm season draws closer, we are seeing an increase in political speech that comes close to what we saw before the 2016 election. As tends to happen, the midterm after an election year sees a shift away from the party that won the presidency, and the pendulum is now swinging back to the Democrats after over a year of President Donald Trump.

To Democrats, the scope and severity of the Trump administration’s corruption is a central talking point, especially as it relates to the Russia investigation, the president’s personal affairs and, more recently, the ethics scandals involving Jared Kushner and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. In any other presidency, these focal points would be ample ammo for the opposition party to make a comeback. But as we’ve been seeing since July 2015, none of the usual rules that we expect from politicians seem to apply to Trump.

In particular, it looks like over time, supporters of the president only become more and more ingrained in their views. This isn’t surprising, as psychologists have found that people’s opinions often tend to be based on feelings rather than evidence. And so, defenses of the president often center about the idea of “whataboutism:” deflecting criticism of the president by bringing up the Democrats, particularly President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Whataboutism evades the question and shifts the focus to an irrelevant party. The Republicans control the House, Senate, presidency and a majority of state governorships and legislatures. It would stand to reason that, for anyone who cares that our public officials conduct their business in an ethical way, we should focus our attention on the administration in power. There are more than enough ethical concerns for the media to focus on in this administration, yet one of the most frequent conservative responses to any of these questions is to simply deflect the question to the Democrats.

It’s a technique used by some of President Trump’s most vocal supporters. Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, upon the revelation that he had used his platform to advocate for an end to the FBI investigation of Michael Cohen despite being Cohen’s anonymous client, simply asked, “​What about George Stephanopoulos’ Clinton connections?” Rather than give an honest answer regarding journalism ethics, he simply avoided the question and shifted the question to someone else.

This should come as no surprise, given that the president himself is one of the biggest public purveyors of whataboutism. A quick look at his Twitter account brings up several examples of him accusing Clinton and Obama of many things that his critics scrutinize him for. In response to his ties to Russia he asked, “What about all of the Clinton ties to Russia?” When asked to condemn violent neo-Nazi demonstrators at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, he asked, “[W]hat about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt right?” When Russian President Vladimir Putin was referred to as a killer he said, “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”

For the party of “personal responsibility,” the rampant use of whataboutism seems like an easy way to avoid taking any responsibility for their own actions, merely shifting the blame to somebody else and acting as if this makes them morally justified. The subtext of this is that people should believe that if the other party is corrupt then, by extension, it’s alright and acceptable to be corrupt and that we should simply accept this as the way things are.

This is a hallmark of Russian propaganda, and this is no coincidence. In response to criticism for his 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, Putin simply deflected, saying that the West had been “permitted” to intervene in Kosovo. This dates back to the Soviet era, where any accusation of the USSR’s human rights abuses could be deflected by saying that the United States was just as bad.

The danger of this mindset is that it forces people into a state of complacency. To the Russian populace, the Russian government’s corruption is justified because every government is surely just as corrupt. Whataboutism forces a moral equivalency, even when the things being compared aren’t at all equivalent.

This is what cost Clinton the election. In the days leading up to the vote, Clinton’s email scandal was her largest topic of coverage. The familiar refrain of “What about her emails?” pushed a false narrative that both candidates must be equally bad. This ultimately led to a widespread apathy that lowered Clinton-voter turnout and drove would-be Clinton voters toward the Green Party ticket.

Political apathy comes at a cost. Pretending that “both sides are the same” is not only inaccurate, but it is also a dangerous pillar of Russian-influenced propaganda. Saying that we shouldn’t hold our leaders to any standards simply because someone else is supposedly just as bad goes against the values we hold as Americans. Whataboutism is a threat to our public discourse. The American public should be informed of this dangerous tactic, lest we unwittingly let the U.S. become more like Russia.

Edridge D’Souza is Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].

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  • J

    John aimoApr 24, 2018 at 5:52 pm

    “psychologists have found that people’s opinions often tend to be based on feelings rather than evidence. ” Wow what genius insight! It’s only common sense and been known practically forever.

    It’s so funny what the author is describing is donald trump exposing the double standard. Isn’t liberals all about a double standard? How one person is treated another but another person isn’t? Except they no longer care about a double standard when it comes to politics.

    President Trump is pointing about hypocrisy and a double standard. Hilary Clinton broke multiple laws and she was not charged, her attorney was treated fine and they were even allowed to withhold evidence from the FBI like laptops and her friends were given immunity, but donald trump’s attorney is raided by the FBI. There are so many double standards, another is that a military person was convicted of sharing information very similar to how hilary clinton did with her email server, that person went to jail, hilary clinton did the same thing but got away with it . Those are double standards.

    Another double standard is how the media and liberals treate the president in identical actions that he took versus his predecessor. President Obama issued travel bans and also towards muslim countries, trump does the exact same thing and it’s questionable. President Obama sends troops to the mexican border but when Trump does it’s questionable.

    Then the articles goes into a diatribe about Russia and ‘lest’ u.s become ‘more like russia’. What does that even mean/ I doubt the author knows anything about Russia and is so dim-witted to think that Russia is some great enemy of the united states and ‘hacked the elections’.

    First there is no proof that russia hacked the election, it’s confidential and the agencies who are making the claim have not released the supposed information. There is no way to actually know if Russia ‘hacked the election’, an intelligent person would form no opinion as they could not do with informatively.

    Second what harm has Russia demonstrably caused our nation? None. China has harmed our nation through currency manipulation and by stealing tens to hundreds of billions of dollars of corporate IP and miltiary technology. The main enemy of the united states has been radical Islam, which since 2001 has killed thousands of americans. How many americans have Russians killed? zero.

    Russia is floated by liberals as some ‘enemy’ of the united states but in reality has caused no harm to our nation. It’s just propaganda. It used to be the ‘masses’ or common people were easily manipulated by propaganda, now it’s the ‘educated’.

    • N

      NITZAKHONApr 26, 2018 at 9:51 am

      Say, remember when Imperious Barackus Rex dismissed Romney’s concern about Russia with “The 80’s called; they want their foreign policy back”?

      Oh, wait, he, er, HE is a Democrats. Never mind. Standards don’t apply to them.

  • N

    NITZAKHONApr 24, 2018 at 8:37 am


    What cost Clinton the election was that she was a corrupt elite snob and unindicted felon, playing the woman card instead of talking concrete policy.

    She let four men die and lied about it.

    And… to listen to your Leftist talk about honor, decency, and standards is like being lectured about chastity and fidelity by a prostitute. You have no moral standing to do so.

    • R

      RApr 24, 2018 at 4:41 pm

      haha, whataboutism graphically depicted…!

      • N

        NITZAKHONApr 26, 2018 at 9:50 am

        So how much of America’s uranium did Trump sell?

        So is Trump on video with a Russian President offering “flexibility” in exchange for their being quiet?

        So is Trump on record offering help to the Soviets in a media campaign (as Ted Kennedy did)?

        Democrats are traitors. They’ve been traitors since the Civil War, and I see no signs they’ve slowed down.