W. James Antle III writes: It’s impossible in some quarters to discuss Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a shady Russian lawyer without being quizzed about similar bad things politicians from the opposing party have done.
This bit of rhetorical judo has become so common in our politics that it even has a name: “whataboutism.” Naturally, its origins have been traced back to the Russians, if not even further back. The Economist‘s Edward Luce described it as an attempt to “match every Soviet crime with a real or imagined Western one.”
More recently, the tactic has been deployed by diehard supporters of President Trump, as well as by his more removed “anti-anti-Trumpist” backers.
And you know what? Trump’s supporters are not wrong to urge us all to truly examine historical precedents. Because all too often, Trump’s fiercest critics declare his every utterance and action unprecedented without bothering to thoughtfully consider the precedents.
Now, when “whataboutism” is used to defend the indefensible, it is obviously wrong. But not every historical comparison can be dismissed as simple “whataboutism.” And there are good reasons why “What about … ” questions have so frequently been raised under this president. The case against Trump is not simply that he does things that are wrong or bad, but that he is bad in ways that are unprecedented and represent a sharp break from important political norms.
If we are going to chastise Trump for norm violations, shouldn’t we first establish how normal or abnormal his actions in a given area really are? If we are going to say he is guilty of doing the unprecedented, shouldn’t we look to see if there are in fact any precedents? Read the rest of this entry »