President Trump has developed a consistent tactic when he’s criticized: say that someone else is worse.
This week, when the Congressional Budget Office estimated that Republicans’ health care plan would leave 24 million additional people uninsured in 2026, Trump’s first move wasn’t a direct response. Instead, he took to Twitter to blast the Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as Obamacare), criticizing how much was spent on promoting it and asking people to tweet their own criticisms.
@POTUS-If Obamacare is so great, why’d they spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to ‘hype’ it? BAD! #RepealAndReplacehttp://nypost.com/2017/03/13/obama-admin-spent-77m-to-hype-obamacare-in-2016/ …
Prior to that, when the floodlights were on communications between then-Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and the Russian ambassador, Trump’s tweets were all about Democrats’ contact with the Russians:
Famously, he even did a reverse version of this — defending not the U.S., but Russia — when he told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly about his “respect” for Russian President Vladimir Putin, as former Hillary Clinton State Department and campaign adviser Jake Sullivan noted in Foreign Policy in February.
When O’Reilly countered that “Putin is a killer,” Trump responded, “There are a lot of killers. You got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”
This particular brand of changing the subject is called “whataboutism” — a simple rhetorical tactic heavily used by the Soviet Union and, later, Russia. And its use in Russia helps illustrate how it could be such a useful tool now, in America. As Russian political experts told NPR, it’s an attractive tactic for populists in particular, allowing them to be vague but appear straight-talking at the same time.
A schoolyard taunt, brought to a global level
The idea behind whataboutism is simple: Party A accuses Party B of doing something bad. Party B responds by changing the subject and pointing out one of Party A’s faults — “Yeah? Well what about that bad thing you did?” (Hence the name.)
It’s not exactly a complicated tactic — any grade-schooler can master the “yeah-well-you-suck-too-so-there” defense. But it came to be associated with the USSR because of the Soviet Union’s heavy reliance upon whataboutism throughout the Cold War and afterward, as Russia.
Whataboutism — particularly directed toward the U.S. — was so pervasive in the USSR that it became a joke among Soviets, often in a subversive genre called “Armenian Radio” jokes, explains one Russia analyst.
“Armenian Radio would be asked, ‘How much does a Soviet engineer get paid?’ and they’d be like, ‘I don’t know, but you [in America] lynch Negroes,'” said Vadim Nikitin, a Russia analyst and freelance writer. Eventually, that punchline came to be synonymous with the whole phenomenon of whataboutism, Nikitin said.
But whataboutism extends beyond rhetoric, said Dmitry Dubrovsky, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
“It’s not only a narrative practice; it’s real policy,” he said. “For example, the Russians installed a special institute to cover the violation of human rights in the United States.”
Dubrovsky is referring to a branch of the organization called the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, which is widely considered pro-Kremlin. In fact, IDC shuttered its New York office in 2015 because it said it had achieved its goals, Buzzfeed reported: “The human-rights situation has improved in the United States,” IDC Director Andranik Migranyan told Gazeta.ru.
One big reason whataboutism is so attractive: it’s a simple way to shrug off criticism or even responsibility for any wrongdoings.
“You’re saying that in the negotiations we have, that no one is perfect, and no one can claim to be, and as such, what this does is let you off the hook,” Nikitin said.
So when Trump denigrated Obamacare amid heavy criticism of the GOP’s health care plan, he seemed to be saying that whatever the GOP plan’s flaws, at least it isn’t the worst they could do (the worst, in his eyes, being Obamacare). Instead of giving a reasoned defense, he went for blunt offense, which is a hallmark of whataboutism.
Trump and Putin’s common weapon
Whataboutism has been common in Putin’s Russia. The Atlantic cited one such example in 2014, noting that when the Kremlin faced criticisms of its treatment of protesters, government officials responded, “What about the United Kingdom? Breaking the law during public gatherings there could lead to a fine of 5,800 pounds sterling there or even prison.”
One reason that Trump and Putin might both find whataboutism useful, said one expert in Russian politics, is that they have common political impulses.
“[Putin and Trump] are both populist leaders. They always try to be as uncertain as possible. And for a populist that’s important,” Dubrovsky said. “Whataboutism is a very substantial part of populism rhetoric.”
The idea, Dubrovsky posited, is that a populist leader wants to keep his masses of supporters on his side. Getting too specific on a policy or a position risks creating rifts within that base of support. Pointing to a common enemy, on the other hand, is a great way to unify a group.
In addition, there can be an implicit toughness to whataboutism, in that it openly acknowledges that nobody is perfect.
“I think what the Russian discourse is [is] that it’s, in fact, very difficult to cleave perfectly to [a set of morals],” Nikitin said. “And anyone that claims to the contrary can be unmasked as, in fact, being just as flawed as anyone else is.”
Whataboutism flattens moral nuances into a black-and-white worldview. But in this worldview, it’s very difficult to be the good guy; idealism is the ultimate naïveté, and anyone who dares to criticize another can be “unmasked” as a hypocrite. This creates a useful moral equivalency, as Nikitin added: if nobody is perfect, there’s license to do all sorts of imperfect things.
The idea, he said, is that “you’ve got to be practical and kind of bloody-minded and get your hands dirty. Anyone who claims otherwise is lying.”
That closely mirrors what Trump told O’Reilly: “What, and we’re so innocent?”
It might come off as brash truth-telling, but it’s nevertheless a defense of a world leader who has been accused of killing his critics.
At least one Russian foresaw the Trump-Putin rhetorical parallels, even in the early days of the administration. In late January, Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev warned American journalists that Trump might take on some Putinesque media tactics:
“The thing is that when you think it’s your mission to make him [Putin] admit a lie, or an inconsistency in his previous statements [because he tends to make U-turns in his statements on policies], when you try to point out those inconsistencies or catch him red-handed lying, there’s no point because he’ll evade your question, he knows that he can just drown you in meaningless factoids or false moral equivalencies or by using what is called ‘whataboutism.'”
Kovalev was right on many counts: Trump has indeed proved to be inconsistent, make political “U-turns,” repeatedly state falsehoods, and, of course, engage in whataboutism. And while Kovalev (and perhaps others) may have foreseen it, it’s no less striking that while Putin’s Russia is causing the Trump administration so much trouble, Trump nevertheless often sounds an awful lot like Putin.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer defended the Trump administration’s decision not to disclose the White House visitor logs online on Monday by blaming the Obama administration for not being transparent enough.
“We’re following the law as both the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act prescribe it,” Spicer said. “So it’s the same policy that every administration had up until the Obama administration. And frankly, the faux attempt that the Obama administration put out where they would scrub anyone who they didn’t want put out didn’t serve anyone well.”
As for the argument that the public deserves to know who is meeting with the president and his staff ― whether lobbyists or dignitaries ― Spicer turned it on its head. “We recognize that there’s a privacy aspect to allowing citizens to come express their views,” he explained.
In all, the statement was a head-spinner, if only because it boiled down to a declaration that the current administration would be less transparent than the prior administration because the prior administration wasn’t transparent enough. But beyond that twisted logic, there was also a general misconception about the Obama White House’s visitor logs.
Investigations showed that the logs were poorly maintained and often contained holes. But multiple Obama aides pointed out that the scrubbing was done for several openly declared reasons. Names were kept off the list if they were personal family visits or involved particularly sensitive government matters (a potential Supreme Court nominee or a national security-related meeting). This did mean the logs were not entirely complete. Obama officials also had a propensity to host meetings at nearby coffee shops to avoid the logs entirely.
But the notion that the previous administration ducked all embarrassing revelations is wrong. Reporters routinely used the published visitor lists to write stories critical of the Obama administration. The logs were used to tell the story of how the White House crafted a deal with the pharmaceutical industry to gain support for Obamacare, to show how airline lobbyists influenced the White House during merger talks, to provide detail about the growing influence of Google in government, and to show the steady flow of CEOs and lobbyists coming to the White House.
And Spicer should know that since, after all, the Republican National Committee often used the visitor logs to attack President Barack Obama when Spicer was serving as RNC communications director. For example, here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here.
“President Obama’s visitor log policy was never perfect, but that fact provides the Trump administration no excuse whatsoever for abandoning the policy that had broad, bipartisan support,” said John Wonderlich, executive director at the Sunlight Foundation, a pro-transparency nonprofit.
Spicer was right in one regard on Monday. He noted that the Trump administration would be following the pre-Obama precedent for maintaining visitor logs. The previous White House was the first to actually post those logs online for the public to review. The policy was instituted early in the Obama administration as a fulfillment of his campaign pledge to bring transparency to government. From the get-go, it was clear that the system had flaws. Millions of visitors’ names were published over the course of eight years. But there were painfully few ways to sort through them, the logs included multiple people who didn’t end up going to the White House, and the database could produce false positives ― a visitor with the same name as another.
At the time, Trump was critical of Obama for not going further, arguing on Twitter that he was hiding something. Now in the White House, Trump has clawed back the progress ― however marginal ― that Obama made.