I have friends who are supporters of Donald Trump. When I ask why or how they could be supportive I get vague and hard to understand reasons that usually start with: “I don’t like what he says. I don’t like his style. I wish he didn’t Tweet so much. Yes, some of the things he says are offensive and problematic. But I like what he’s done.”
I truly respect people who have different opinions than I do. As they say that’s why Baskin-Robbins offers 31 flavors. After all, I confess that ice cream is one of my few addictions but I wouldn’t eat coffee flavored ice cream if I were stranded on a desert island and coffee ice cream was the flavor one available.
So it’s perfectly fine with me that there are those who support Trump. But what confuses me and just as often exasperates me is that people are willing to set aside all the things they profess to dislike about him and accept that what he has done, presumably for them, is reason enough to want four more years of Donald Trump.
The irony, of course, is that when pressed for specifics, Trump fans will point to any number of promises made but not kept. Or, in the rare case of a promise fulfilled there are those who fail to analyze for themselves how a particular policy, legislative accomplishment, or executive order actually works out for them personally or for the nation and even the world more generally.
In the rare cases when I try to dialogue with them I discover that to be a hopeless effort. I can attempt to litigate Trump’s countless fact-checked lies, failures, bad policy choices and examples of shameful behavior. But seldom do his supporters offer any real evidence that my assertions are wrong. There is rarely a brief that they can present to support their belief in his many accomplishments. But what I do often get is a pivot to whataboutism.
So what is this debate tactic of whataboutism all about and what’s up with whataboutism anyway?
Whataboutism, also known as whataboutery, is a variant of the tu quoque (Latin for “you also”) logical fallacy that attempts to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument. It is a method of responding to an argument or an allegation without speaking to the facts of the matter but instead pivoting to another line of discussion.
Trump supporters will often respond to a charge against their guy by saying: “But what about…?” and then complete their sentence by naming someone of equal position or stature. Pointing out Trump’s flaws often elicits a response like: “But what about Barak Obama, or Hillary Clinton or Bill Clinton?” or any other public figure that a Trump loyalist believes committed detestable acts equal to or greater than their man.
Why do people use whataboutism to defend or deflect criticism of someone they support? Is it because they are not in sufficient command of facts to refute claims made? Is it because they are incapable of waging a battle where the ammunition is logic and facts? Is it because they have bought their guy’s propaganda hook, liner and sinker? Is it out of blind loyalty? Or is it out of fear of being proven wrong or the consequences of their own inability to fairly adjudicate the case based on facts? Or perhaps is it a little bit of all of the above?
There was a time when it was common to enter the polling booth as a registered member of a political party and proceed to make thoughtful selections based on the merits of each individual candidate. Sometimes voters pulled the lever for candidates of their party but frequently they voted against type and cast a vote for a member of an opposing party in the belief that she or he was the best choice for that office at that moment.
As an example of this ticket-splitting practice I offer my home state of Massachusetts. Despite being one of the most solidly Democratic states in national elections, Massachusetts elected Republican governors in 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2014, and 2018. In 2018, Republican Governor Charlie Baker was reelected in a landslide, winning about two thirds of the vote and sweeping every county. Meanwhile, at the exact same time, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren won reelection by over 20 points, and all 9 Representatives of Massachusetts (all Democrats) won their reelections.
In the 2004 elections in Montana Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brian Schweitzer was elected governor 50.4% to 46.0%, while incumbent Republican President George W. Bush defeated Democrat John Kerry 59% to 39%. This suggests that a large number of the electorate voted for a split-ticket, selecting a Republican presidential candidate and a Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate. Another example is the 2016 West Virginia gubernatorial election, in which Democrat (now Republican) Jim Justice won by 8 points while Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump won in the state with 68% of the vote.
FiveThirtyEight, a polling aggregation website reports that ticket-splitting is on the decline. That is to say that whether you enter the polling booth as a Republican or a Democrat the odds are you are increasingly likely to vote a straight party ticket. Republicans vote for Republicans. Democrats vote for Democrats. Not always but in ever increasing percentages.
So what should we conclude from this? Voters are increasingly aligned with a political party’s ideology and philosophy and less inclined to be thoughtful and to be discriminate and differentiate one candidate from another. Facts seem to matter less and voters are increasingly likely to “dance with the one who brung ‘em”.
We seem to be living in a “don’t confuse me with the facts” era that results in an ever increasing use of the whataboutism card to provide a sense of self-forgiveness to those unable or unwilling to get out of their comfort zone. We hear the faithful talking about the need to reject the suggestion that they should “change horse in midstream”. But when the horse is lame and not likely to see you through to the end of a journey then changing horses may be the prudent thing to do.
I’m hopeful that American voters will retreat from the comfort of responding to those who indict their candidate by the easy but hollow argument of whataboutism. Merit can certainly be in the eye of the beholder. But as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
No one should be blamed for making what, in hindsight, could be reasonably said to be a bad choice. But as Albert Einstein taught us, repeating the same mistake and expecting a different outcome is the very definition of insanity. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
So this year, instead of honing the not so fine art of whataboutism why don’t we try to practice howaboutism? How about we abandon our tribal behavior and habits and think about ways we can use critical thinking and act independently from the herd.