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.