In the raucous finale of Last Week Tonight’s fourth season, John Oliver promised to puncture the haze of our President’s post-truth apocalypse by elucidating the “three key techniques” that Donald Trump has created to avoid consequences and demolish the “norms” of American politics. The second move the celebrated comedian described was “an old Soviet propaganda tool” called “Whataboutism.” He isn’t the first liberal Trump critic to bring it up. The New York Times first mentioned the tactic in a February editorial by Masha Gessen, and the Washington Post called attention to the Russian connection in an August piece entitled “Whataboutism: The Cold War tactic, thawed by Putin, is brandished by Donald Trump.”
So what is this Stalinist barb that poses such a grave threat to American democracy? Fortunately, John Oliver tells us, “Whataboutism” is simple. When some brave journalist or judiciary committee or general public consensus tries to hold Trump accountable, all the President (or whatever other Kremlin operative trying to subvert our way of life this time) needs to do is say “What about [some perceived liberal hypocrisy]?” Immediately our mass consciousness will be diverted, realizing our own flaws will render our critique meaningless, and we will all sink into a state of helpless moral relativism.
How does this “Whataboutism” play out in reality?
Easy example: When Donald Trump was asked about the “alt-right” white nationalists who murdered a woman while chanting his name in Charlottesville, he responded, “What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? Let me ask you this, what about the fact they came charging…with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.”
John Oliver’s formula played out to a certain extent in this high profile case. Most media outlets, like most Americans, did not look for an “alt-left,” but condemned the President, rightly, for tacitly endorsing neo-Nazis and terroristic violence on American soil. But Trump loyalists like Breitbart and Fox News spent enough time repeating the President’s “what about” (with variations, e.g. what about antifa, what about Black Lives Matter, what about ISIS) a substantial portion of the country somehow accepts the absurd premise that there exists some anti-Trump radical faction as destructive as the alt-right he inspired.
So yes, President Trump and his sycophants subvert truth to avoid responsibility to their supporters. But was it the “what about” that did it, or was it the barefaced fabrication that followed it? I would argue that Trump and the Right’s crime wasn’t trying to look outside of the established narrative, but doing so by pointing to something that never happened. There is no alt-left. The contemporary American left is not funded by Wall Street, or advocating genocide, or given a platform on mainstream television, or armed, or represented by a political party – in other words, not remotely comparable to the alt-right. Even more objectively, they were not charging at the fascist wannabes with clubs. When the President of the United States claimed they were, he employed a propaganda tool much simpler than whataboutism: he lied.
Is spreading deliberate misinformation distinct from answering a criticism with “What about the other guy?” Oliver and other liberal critics of the administration seem to argue no, insofar as both can be used by authoritarian leaders to marginalize dissent. In fact, John Oliver never addresses the fact that the absurd whataboutisms he cites (all from the administration or Fox News) are all structured “What about [false claim]?” Furthermore, he implies that the President’s whataboutisms do point to actual errors, and that this is exactly why they threaten to undermine our civilization. He imagines the ultimate conclusion of whataboutism to be “since nobody is perfect, all criticism is hypocritical, and everybody should do whatever they want.” His thinking closely mirrors the Gessen editorial, implying without subtlety that this theoretical discord is part of a macabre plan by Putin, the imp of the perverse, to bring the United States to its knees.
Imagine some public voice responded to a question about Trump’s support for white supremacist terror in Charlottesville this way: “What about the seven people killed by an American airstrike in Somalia the same night as the violence in Charlottesville? Are black Africans murdered in a war white Americans will never care about not victims of white supremacist terror? How is the United States military any less terroristic in practice than neo-Nazis? Why does the media glorify one and condemn the other?”
In this case, a whataboutism would point not to a lie, but an actual hypocrisy in liberal media and mainstream politics. Drawing attention outside of the dialog’s previous limitations – to the glaring inconsistency in mainstream media coverage of violence and terrorism – of course wouldn’t absolve Trump and his followers of their dangerous bigotry. But it would illuminate the fact that liberal news organizations are much more interested in attacking Trump, the individual, than attacking state violence, the institution. Suddenly, asking “what about” undermines both wings of authoritarian power – the lunatic junta who control the government, and the composed professionals who control the flow of information.
The cultural mainstream is already using the spectral threat of “whataboutisms” to shut down dissenters doing just that. In 2015, Salman Rushdie called Noam Chomsky a member of the “But Brigade” after the visionary culture critic insinuated American violence in the Middle East could be relevant in discussions of Islamist violence. Teju Cole’s New Yorker piece about the “Unmournable Bodies” of imperialism’s victims was dismissed as “an extraordinary exercise in whataboutism” by the Times’ Ross Douthat. Journalist Jeremy Scahill recently responded to accusations of whataboutism after suggesting that George W. Bush’s opposition to the Trump regime doesn’t erase his criminal past. And just this week, Russia Today was forced to register as a foreign agent (while other state owned media platforms Al Jazeera and BBC America are not) after a report by the Director of National Intelligence accused them of “depicting…the current US political system as corrupt and dominated by corporations” and “highlighting environmental issues” in response to criticism of the Russian government.
Liberals like John Oliver claim this strategy is a fallacious ad hominem that implies “all criticism is hypocritical.” And for a media that propagates a binary liberal-conservative spectrum, faulting both sides in an argument does imply that nothing is right. But in a world rippled with reality and its nuances, only hypocritical criticism is hypocritical. A serial predator like Donald Trump sounds absurd condemning Al Franken for his record of sexual assault. But that doesn’t change the fact that both men should face consequences for their well-documented violence against women. If a and b are both unacceptable, the correct answer isn’t to toss up your hands in nihilistic despair. The correct answer is to write in c: none of the above.
A “none of the above” solution is terrifying to the corporate dictators of liberal capitalism, who have spent decades undermining the potential of democracy by perpetually framing themselves as the “lesser of two evils.” That is why we see such a desperate rush to connect any Leftist alternative to the ultimate enemy, the Russians, in the popular imagination. Their McCarthyite innuendos of “old Soviet propaganda tools” collapse under any scrutiny – no, the far left and far right did not join forces to tear the United States apart and serve it up to Vladimir Putin, nor has Trump’s policy towards Russia been any less antagonistic than Obama’s. Media moguls stir the xenophobic hornet’s nest of Cold War nostalgia, defaming any and all sincere politics with a clarity of vision. They understand that there is a non-hypocritical solution to the crisis of capitalism, and (spoiler alert) it involves them losing quite a lot of money.
The Left should not assume our solutions transcend critique. Oliver is correct at least when he warns that “nobody is perfect.” But since Plato wrote Republic, we have known that justice can be measured by its proximity to perfect consistency. This proximity can only be improved through the dialectic process of argument, through thesis, antithesis, synthesis, again and again rejecting the inconsistent as obsolete, establishing a new and broader context in which we have the capacity to act.
“What about” is a rhetorical device that establishes a broader context through rationality’s only extension, contrast. When the media attacks “whataboutisms,” they are actually attacking context itself. Because the President can create a false context by lying, they hope they can convince those who rightly fear his regime to abandon context altogether, replacing it with a capitalist realism of their own creation.
But context is everything. It’s how we know when the President says “The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes all day,” he is a racist, not an expert in headgear for accountants. It’s how we know the so-called “free press” actually operates as a propaganda wing for its corporate owners, protecting their interests through patterns of manipulation than can be and have been mathematically quantified. It’s how we know the climate is not following natural patterns, the poor are not getting less poor, the heroic social movements of the last century did not create an egalitarian society. And it’s how we know, as Walter Benjamin argued before he died fleeing the Gestapo, “Every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution.”
As the political and corporate state facade shows no signs of crumbling, we must spend every waking moment in a battle for basic lucidity. Their delirium will not protect us from the material reality that is plummeting towards global war, economic meltdown, and environmental catastrophe. Survival means, first and foremost, understanding our own position in the face of hegemonic power. To every person welcoming us into their illusion, from Donald Trump and his billionaire class to John Oliver and the sprawling corporate conglomerate paying him, we must answer “What about the future?”