- President Donald Trump and his allies frequently use “whataboutism,” an age-old Russian propaganda tool.
- Experts say it allows the user to deflect criticism by drawing false equivalencies and shifting the narrative.
- At its core, the main purpose of “whataboutism” is to “destroy the democratic values of the truth,” one analyst said.
A few weeks ago, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to slam Attorney General Jeff Sessions and special counsel Robert Mueller as the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation over whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow in 2016 gained traction.
“So many people are asking why isn’t the A.G. or Special Council looking at the many Hillary Clinton or Comey crimes. 33,000 emails deleted?” he tweeted.
“…What about all of the Clinton ties to Russia, including Podesta Company, Uranium deal, Russian Reset, big dollar speeches etc.,” he added.
It was just one of many instances where the president has taken criticism levied against him and pointed it in someone else’s direction. In doing so, Trump is utilising one of Russia’s oldest propaganda tools, which the Soviet Union used when its socialism was compared to other countries both inside the USSR and by the rest of the world.
Whenever the USSR was criticised for its crimes or flaws, defenders routinely pointed to grievances committed by capitalist or fascist countries, said Michael David-Fox, a professor at Georgetown University and an expert on modern Russia and the USSR.
Russia frequently used the technique, dubbed “whataboutism” by The Economist’s Edward Lucas in 2008, during the Cold War, and it was most recently revitalized by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The logic behind it went something like this: Russia isn’t that bad — what about all the misdeeds other countries have committed?
When Russia faced criticism from the West over Putin’s crackdown on protesters in 2012 after the election, the Kremlin shot back: “What about the United Kingdom? Breaking the law during public gatherings there could lead to a fine of 5,800 pounds sterling or even prison.”
Another classic example occurred more recently when NBC host Megyn Kelly interviewed Putin in June. In response to questions about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Putin replied: “Put your finger anywhere on a map of the world, and everywhere you will hear complaints that American officials are interfering in internal election processes.”
“Whataboutism” appears to serve Putin by enabling him to take the position that it’s not America’s role to “lecture Russia on democracy when it has had such a poor track record of establishing them on its own watch,” said Vadim Nikitin, a Russia analyst and freelance journalist. Most of all, Putin’s finger-pointing at the US’ own foibles is done in an effort to force others to “accept all sides as morally flawed,” he added.
But as the 2016 campaign kicked off, Putin gained a critical boost from an unlikely source: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
During a 2015 interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” co-host Joe Scarborough pressed Trump about Putin’s crackdowns.
“He kills journalists that don’t agree with him,” Scarborough said.
“Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing too, Joe,” Trump replied, without addressing the specific criticism aimed at Putin.
Trump doubled down on his defence of the Russian strongman after taking office in January.
During an interview with then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly shortly after being sworn in, Trump said he respected Putin.
O’Reilly pushed back: “Putin’s a killer.”
“There are a lot of killers,” Trump replied. “We have a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”
It was a shocking pronouncement from the leader of a country that had, up until that point, taken a firm stance against Putin’s documented attacks on human rights and basic freedoms. More importantly, in making those statements, Trump appeared to be doing the Russian leader’s job for him by echoing his own talking points.
An effort to force others to ‘accept all sides as morally flawed’
In theory, whataboutism’s biggest strength is that it allows the user to call out hypocrisy, Nikitin said.
But it’s unclear whether the tactic has proven that useful to Trump — as his administration continues to grapple with internal turmoil as well as external threats like North Korea, Trump’s approval ratings have cratered, and he’s also lost support from his base.
Whataboutism’s effectiveness, as with any propaganda, “depends on the packaging of the particular message, the context, and the receptivity of the audience,” David-Fox said.
When Trump and his loyalists turn to “whataboutism,” they wield it to shift the narrative when deflecting criticism over a number of issues, like Trump’s divisive rhetoric and, most notably, the ongoing controversy over whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to tilt the 2016 election in his favour.
That tendency was most recently on display last Sunday, when “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos pressed Trump’s senior counselor, Kellyanne Conway, on the White House’s shifting explanations on the role Trump played in crafting a statement about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting last June with a Russian lawyer.
At first, “the White House and the president’s lawyer said he wasn’t involved at all,” Stephanopoulos said to Conway. “They didn’t tell the truth.”
“Well, let’s talk about telling the truth,” Conway replied, going on to criticise former President Barack Obama. “Let’s talk about a president looking Americans in the eye, who are still suffering eight years later, who were lied to. If you like your plan, you can keep your plan. If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.”
She continued: “Benghazi happened because of a video. Go tell the families of those four innocent Americans … who were slaughtered in Benghazi that that lie mattered.”
Stephanopoulos quickly called Conway out for pointing to Obama’s actions in response to questions about the Trump administration’s questionable credibility.
“Kellyanne, you’re simply changing the subject,” Stephanopoulos said, to which Conway replied, “That is a subject. Let’s talk about credibility that impacts people.”
Trump himself has used the tool on numerous occasions — and he’s put a unique spin on it as well, often using the very words used to criticise him and turning them on his accusers.
Shortly after he fired former FBI director James Comey — who was spearheading the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign and former national security adviser Michael Flynn — in May, several Democratic lawmakers accused Trump of obstructing justice.
It was a theory that quickly picked up steam, so much so that Comey himself was asked during his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June whether he felt Trump had obstructed justice by firing him. Comey declined to provide an answer.
Three days after the former FBI director’s testimony, Trump tweeted, “The Democrats have no message, not on economics, not on taxes, not on jobs, not on failing #Obamacare. They are only OBSTRUCTIONISTS!”
Later that month, as questions about whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow continued to escalate and more of Trump’s associates began lawyering up, Trump tweeted, “Hillary Clinton colluded with the Democratic Party in order to beat Crazy Bernie Sanders. Is she allowed to so collude? Unfair to Bernie!”
‘You’re projecting onto others what you are afraid of’
But given his thin skin and tendency to deflect criticism, Trump appears to have shed light on one of the key dangers “whataboutism” can pose to those who use it.
A method in which “you’re always blaming someone else,” often reflects back on the accuser, David-Fox said.
Trump “routinely blames others for the exact missteps of which he is accused, even in advance, or preemptively, when something negative is forthcoming,” he added. “But if you do this too transparently, it becomes clear that you’re projecting onto others what you are afraid of.”
Trump leveled sharp criticism against his predecessor in June, saying in a pair of tweets, “The reason that President Obama did NOTHING about Russia after being notified by the CIA of meddling is that he expected Clinton would win … and did not want to ‘rock the boat.’ He didn’t ‘choke,’ he colluded or obstructed, and it did the Dems and Crooked Hillary no good.”
Dmitry Dubrovsky, a Russian scholar at Columbia University, characterised “whataboutism” and Trump’s use of it as “very childish.”
“That’s why the populist is speaking in this language,” Dubrovsky told Mother Jones. “Everyone understands it quite well. The strategy is to avoid any argument and to sound like you speak from your soul.”
Dubrovsky also noted that Trump and Putin are not alone in their embrace of “whataboutism,” and pointed to the far-right French nationalist, Marine Le Pen, and proponents of Brexit as other examples.
However, Russia was a “pioneer of this global shift in narrative,” Dubrovsky added.
There’s no shortage of instances during which Trump turned to “whataboutism” to draw false equivalences that sought to shift the narrative away from what was being discussed.
Shortly after his administration rolled out its controversial travel ban in January, for instance, Trump’s first line of defence against criticism was that Obama had done the same thing.
“My policy is similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months,” Trump said in a statement released shortly after he signed an executive order authorizing the travel ban. “The seven countries named in the Executive Order are the same countries previously identified by the Obama administration as sources of terror.”
The two policies, of course, were nothing alike. Among other things, Politifact noted that Obama’s policy had a much narrower focus, was not a ban, and was undertaken in response to a specific threat.
In another example, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions became a subject of scrutiny in March following revelations that he had not disclosed his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the US, Trump again pointed at the Obama White House.
“Just out: The same Russian Ambassador that met Jeff Sessions visited the Obama White House 22 times, and 4 times last year alone,” he tweeted.
‘Facts don’t matter’
Trump’s use of “whataboutism” — though uncharted territory for American media — was nothing new for Russian journalists.
Alexey Kovalev, a Russian reporter who writes about propaganda, fake news, and Russia’s state media, noticed the parallels between Trump and Putin and warned American journalists shortly before he took office that Trump may adopt Putin’s favourite propaganda tool.
“Facts don’t matter,” Kovalev said, explaining what Putin’s relationship with the media was like. If “you’re raising a serious issue, [he will] respond with a vague, non-committal statement,” Kovalev said.
“‘Mr. President, what about these horrible human rights abuses in our country?’ ‘Thank you, Miss. This is indeed a very serious issue. Everybody must respect the law. And by the way, don’t human rights abuses happen in other countries as well?'” Kovalev said, laying out a hypothetical question-and-answer scenario between Putin and a reporter.
He elaborated on the phenomenon in an interview with USA Today, saying:
“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, when you try to point out those inconsistences 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…”
Indeed, it seems clear that at its core, the purpose of “whataboutism” is “to destroy the democratic values of the truth,” Dubrovsky said.