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The actual dangers of Trump-style false equivalence

This week, Donald Trump, when asked why he could respect Vladimir Putin when he’s a war criminal and killer, said this:

“There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent?”

And it struck a nerve.

Democrats, of course, immediately attacked this quote as ridiculous false equivalence. But the more important thing was that Republicans chimed in too. Senators McCain, Sasse, Collins, McConnell, and other notable Republicans came out in force to immediately state that there was no “moral equivalence” between the U.S. and Putin’s administration of Russia.

But the more telling reaction from many ordinary American citizens was, “So what? What’s the big deal?”

Well, let me answer that question for you.

Danger #1: This is actually a Russian tactic, being used against us in a new way

It’s called “whataboutism”, and it was a popular tactic during the Cold War. To sum it up:

Any criticism of the Soviet Union (Afghanistan, martial law in Poland, imprisonment of dissidents, censorship) was met with a “What about…” (apartheid South Africa, jailed trade-unionists, the Contras in Nicaragua, and so forth).

Essentially, it’s an argument against morality. Everyone is guilty of something at some point so no one can judge. Therefore every dictator, despot, and tyrant should be free to exercise their villainy.

Let me put this insidious logic in another, more provocative way: You shouldn’t try to stop a rape from happening because you beat your wife.

This tactic fell out of favor for a while in Russia because it didn’t make any sense. During the worst of the Cold War in the Soviet Union, when you could be shot for trying to leave the country and political dissidents were literally banished to Siberia, whataboutism didn’t quite sink in for the average comrade. The West really didn’t seem that bad, despite the propaganda, and many tried to escape to the West despite the dangers (see East Berlin).

But whataboutism is back with a vengeance in modern Russia. Putin and his cronies brought it back. And it’s working. Many Russians seem to actually believe that there is no moral difference between their rulers and those of other countries. It helps when you have the impressive media capabilities of today’s technology, and it’s all state-controlled by former KGB agents and current FSB agents.

But here’s the devious aspect of Trump’s version of this tactic: he’s not using it to vilify Russia and prop up his own immoral policies in comparison. He’s elevating Russia’s despot and putting us down. The President of the United States is trying to demean and diminish our presence in the world to make a hated world leader look better.

This is borderline treason.

Danger #2: This diminishes our ability to act domestically, and our influence internationally

America is not perfect. We fuck up all the time. But we acknowledge those mistakes, adjust, and try to do better. Trump himself was in large part elected because of this phenomenon; his claim that he was always against the massive clusterfuck that was the Iraq war was built on a national awareness that we made a mistake, and our next leader would need the wisdom to not repeat that mistake. We strive for freedom and improvement of our systems. We fall short, but we keep trying.

If you’re American, you should never, ever ever take those things for granted. Because others are wishing for what we have.

And the statements of the American President are key for those people. They need to see that there is something better, that things don’t have to be the way they are in their country. But whataboutism weakens the resolve of the Russian citizen trying to change things in their homeland. “What’s the point?”, the thinking goes. “Even America can’t do it. Balanced laws, REAL elections, a free and critical media – that’s all just fiction. In the end they’re the same as us. THEIR PRESIDENT SAID SO.”

This destroys hope, and without hope there cannot be change.

This whataboutism also hurts us when it comes to domestic issues. As Jake Sullivan recently wrote at Foreign Policy

Remember what Trump defenders said when faced with overwhelming, conclusive evidence that Russia interfered in our election. You guessed it: we spy, too! The American president should do something about Russia interference in America’s elections because he is the American president. Full stop. But whataboutism takes away the responsibility to do the right thing.

Danger #3: It hurts the people fighting Russia on the front lines

Let’s play pretend for a moment. Imagine you’re a member of the US intelligence community. You’ve spent years, maybe decades fighting against Russia’s attempts to destabilize and weaken America in every way they can. You’re doing this because you believe in the cause. You’ve seen firsthand what happens to political dissidents in Russia, or journalists trying to expose government corruption, or protesters fighting for equal rights. Then the President of the United States comes out and says, essentially, “Yeah we’re actually no better than they are.”

Imagine how that would make you feel.

Now imagine how much harder your job is going to get when you need ordinary Russian citizens to give you information, or you’re trying to enlist their help to undermine a dangerous politician in their area. Why should they help an American? You’re just as bad.

Of all the dangers of Trump-style “whataboutism”, this is perhaps the most damaging – the undermining of the efforts of those who are fighting on the front lines and know exactly what the real score is. They know the enemy, they have done battle with them, and they have found the opposition’s tactics unacceptable, inhuman, and decidedly un-American. To have a President who denies all of that is demoralizing and crippling for people who already sacrifice so much for the safety not just of Americans, but other world citizens stuck in Russia’s path of destruction.

This is dangerous.

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We all look past what others focus on

Sunday thoughts again. No analysis, just pondering. This time, what’s on my mind is the concept of “I’m willing to look past that.”

I think one of the most interesting traits you can learn about a person is what they’re willing to look past as long as the subject in question fulfills other needs.

No area exemplifies this more in today’s world than our politics. Trump voters who are not extremists (and there are many) were willing to look past his prejudice (“He’s Mexican!”), his pandering to the extremists, his thin skin, and his complete lack of actual political experience. Those voters looked past all that to achieve some other personal goal. For some it was simply a protest vote, for others it was a “We need SOMETHING different” vote, and for many it was simply not caring because they didn’t fit in one of the groups targeted by Trump’s rhetoric.

But, regardless of the exact reason, they were willing to look past the worst of him.

This was true for Hillary voters too, and I think it’s important for Democrats to understand this and come to terms with it. As someone who once had Top Secret clearance, I knew Hillary’s email scandals were going to grind a lot of gears within governmental circles and make her vulnerable to attacks, both fair and otherwise. We can’t deny the truth: she screwed up and should have known better.

But I was willing to look past it.

I knew that Bill Clinton’s “coincidental” meeting with Attorney General Lynch was bad optics at best, and complete corrupt cronyism at worst. I was willing to look past it. I knew that Hillary’s campaign slogan, “I’m with Her”, was characteristic of the unbridled ambition and hubris of the Clinton machine and her inability to connect with the needs and desires of the people she supposedly wanted to serve. I knew Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” comment was insensitive, and un-Presidential. I remembered Hillary’s infuriating (to me) support for the Iraq War and her insufficient explanations for it. I was willing to look past all that.

I knew that people who knew her, and endorsed her publicly, despised her privately (just read those leaked emails, Colin Powell’s in particular). I still filled in her bubble on the ballot. I did not do it with the glee and confidence I felt when I voted for Obama in 2008. Instead, I felt I’d made the responsible choice, albeit an imperfect one.

But disappointing Democrat turnout on Election Day showed that millions of Obama voters couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary, and while I am disappointed in them for putting principles over practicality, I can’t fault their reasons for feeling that way. I just wish, perhaps selfishly, that they could have compromised in the same way we all do every day.

Human beings are complex, and no one is perfect. We are all criminals and liars. If you’ve ever fibbed on your taxes, or bought an illegal drug, or driven too fast, or pirated a movie, or gotten behind the wheel when you knew you’d probably had a bit too much to drink, you have consciously broken the law. If you’ve ever believed something about a person simply because of a group they’re in, you are guilty of prejudice. None of us is innocent.

The people closest to us are flawed too. Your parents may have cringe-worthy views, but you still love them. Your spouse or your kids or your best friend may have that one really bad trait or done that really bad thing that truly tested your relationship. You may despise the people who run the place where you work, but you still show up to work and put money in their pockets. You look past it. You choose the lens you want to view a person through, and everything else falls out of focus.

In my mind, the biggest factor in this election was this: generally speaking, one group could look past a lot of shit, and one group couldn’t. I can’t say that one is better than the other, or smarter than the other, or more righteous. I can only say that one group’s willingness to look the other way won them the day. Only time will tell if putting party, or politics, over principle was a good move for them.

But it’s also important to keep in mind that we just had an election with the two most hated candidates in history. As we navigate this latest fork in our path and try to keep the heavy wheels of progress moving forward, our collective challenge as Americans may be to demand more of our representatives, so that we can all see our future clearly without blurring the parts we want to ignore.