‘What-aboutism’: The Art of the Spiel

Growing up in Mt. Carmel, my friends and I were masters at diverting attention from our own failures, simply deflecting them to the real or imagined ones of others. For example, when I dropped a perfectly thrown pass in the end zone just inside the fire hydrant that served as an end zone hash-tag on Sixth and Vine Streets, and a team-mate was all over me about the dropped ball, I would respond provocatively with the usual: “Yeah, well, your Mom wears combat boots.” I knew that the deflection worked perfectly when the teammate whose Mom I insulted heatedly retorted with something like: “Yeah, well, your Pop is a drunk.” We were experts at this childish manipulation which is commonly called “What-aboutism.”

We Democrats are not exactly novices at such distracting maneuvers, but President Trump and his supporters are the greatest superstars at this game. That’s all they do. Kellyanne Conway, Sebastian Gorka, Boris Epshteyn, Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting, and the tiresome, over-simplifying “anti-swampers” are all all-stars at the game. Here’s how it works: A news outlet reports that “over a dozen women have alleged that Trump sexually assaulted them. Furthermore, he as much as admitted it was a pattern with him when he boasted about his signature greeting for women.” The immediate response? “Yeah, well what about Bill Clinton?” Bill Clinton had sex with a 22-year-old intern in the Oval Office, was charged by half a dozen women with sexual assault and, along with Hillary, for demolishing their reputations. He refused to resign, as I publicly said he should at the time. Does what Bill Clinton did make it right for Donald Trump to do the same thing…or vice-versa?

Bill Clinton was investigated for years by two different Republican prosecutors, impeached by a Republican House and tried by a Republican Senate. Do Trump supporters want President Trump to get the same kind of legal scrutiny even by his own party? No, quite the opposite. They do not think his campaign should be investigated by a Republican Special Counsel or by a Republican House or Senate for possible links to and coordination with the Russian government during the 2016 Campaign. For the President, it always comes down to something like this old exchange: “You’re fat.” “Yeah, Well what about you? You’re ugly.”

Reminds me of the old Churchill story: “When accused by a woman of being ‘disgustingly drunk’ the Conservative Prime Minister responded: ‘My dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.'” Though his retort was devastatingly clever, the good lady’s looks had nothing to do with his sloppy insobriety.

Now whenever anyone reports the indisputable fact that Russians manipulated our 2016 presidential elections to favor Donald Trump, we hear things like: “Well, what about Obama?” The Establishment? The Swamp? The Democrats? The Republicans? The media? The mess I inherited? What about the questions Hillary was fed before her debate with Trump? What about the questions about Hillary’s emails and server? What about the uranium deal in exchange for huge donations to the Clinton Foundation? What about everything else…except me?“” Even if all these accusations were true, what do they to do have with Russia’s successful attempt to subvert our electoral process, a fact which President Trump questions?

The main thing to remember about “What-aboutism” is that it involves deflections that typically have nothing to do with the original charge. Whether or not my teammate’s Mom wore combat boots or my Pop was a drunk had nothing to do with my dropping an easy touchdown pass. Whether or not Bill Clinton sexually assaulted women does nothing to change the fact that Donald Trump did or did not do so. And whether or not media manipulates Americans or Hillary Clinton was fed questions before a presidential debate has nothing whatever to do with whether or not the Russians violated our freedom and our laws by hacking during our last presidential election to help Donald Trump. To think otherwise is like saying that because Bill Cosby is a serial sexual predator, Harvey Weinstein is any less a despicable pig.

The purpose of “what-aboutism” is not to defend against charge, but to deflect to other matters…whether true or false. In the case of Russian hacking, the purpose is to justify Congressional inquiries into matters other than the Russian hacking and potential Trump campaign collaboration. After the dozen or more investigations and congressional hearings that led to no legal action on the Benghazi matter, Trump defenders demand other diversionary probes on Hillary like the new “Benghazi red herring,” Uranium One.

Hillary was subjected to over a dozen investigations including one by the FBI that lasted almost a year, grilled for almost 11 hours virtually uninterrupted by a Republican-dominated Congressional panel and not charged with anything.. Trump’s conclusion: Hillary should not only be investigated, but indeed, summarily jailed.” However, when President Trump approaches the pearly gates, St. Peter won’t be asking him about what Bill or Hillary Clinton did. The Clintons will have their own explaining to do, as will we all. No, St. Peter will be asking President Trump about what he did. At that point, a “What-about whomever” argument will not serve as a free pass.

President Trump’s supporters invariably invoke a “what-aboutism” argument whenever anyone criticizes his objectionable behavior. They never directly rebut or disprove criticisms of Trump on the basis of facts. Instead, they invariably respond with an ever-handy Kelleyanne Conway style: “Well, what about…?” This diversionary tactic is the clearest indication that the only defense of Trump’s outrageous behavior is the worst and most unoriginal, lazy excuse made up by adolescents who do stupid things. Trump defenders can’t help themselves. They’ve developed a sickness called “what about-itis.” If they were forced to abandon their “art of the spiel”, they would be reduced to thunderous silence. For them: “The buck stops there…way over there.

Mannello is a retired hospital executive and consultant residing in the Wiliamsport area.