So What About ‘Whataboutism’?

In my latest piece for Latterly,  I wrote about how President Donald Trump, in a recent interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, strikingly deployed the rhetorical strategy of “whataboutism” so often used by the Kremlin to deflect criticism and create uncertainty.


In a clip released Saturday of an interview between Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and President Donald Trump that aired Sunday, the two had the following exchange (transcript below):

O’Reilly: “Do you respect Putin?”

Trump: “I do respect him, but —

O’Reilly: “Do you? Why?”

Trump: “Well, I respect a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to get along with him. He’s a leader of his country. I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not. And if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS — which is a major fight — and Islamic terrorism all over the world, that’s a good thing. Will I get along with him? I have no idea. It’s very possible I won’t.”

O’Reilly: “But he’s a killer, though. Putin’s a killer.”

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

(The Kremlin has since demanded that O’Reilly apologize for his “unacceptable and offensive” statement.)


What’s most striking is the rhetorical technique Trump knowingly or unwittingly showcased in his interview — the classic Soviet (and now Russian) strategy of “whataboutism,” in which one deflects criticism by raising one’s opponent’s own failings or hypocrisy on the subject of the argument to discredit them. How can the U.S. ever criticize Russia for bombing hospitals in Aleppo, for example, when the U.S. has killed innocents in its own errant airstrikes in the Middle East? And how could Trump, as the president of the United States, criticize the president of Russia for any of his conduct if the U.S. isn’t perfect itself? (Putin has said as much about Western intervention causing the refugee crisis in the Middle East, for instance.)

Yet Trump appeared to use the technique to refrain from criticizing Putin to instead redirect scrutiny at the country he now leads. Effectively, Trump equated the United States to Russia under Putin’s 17-year rule, in which prominent activists, journalists, critics and opposition politicians have been prosecuted, imprisoned, forced to flee, poisoned, assassinated or who have died under suspicious circumstances, including within view of the Kremlin. (This also isn’t the first time he’s commented favorably on Putin’s leadership.)

The “killer” in question is a head of state. The violence used is state-sanctioned, whether directly or implicitly.Rather than taking the opportunity to condemn the abuses and murders committed under Putin, Trump jumped to moral relativism — a “who am I to say” from the new president of the United States.

The strangest part of Trump’s overly conciliatory rhetoric toward Putin is that it’s unwarranted. Putin hasn’t lavished Trump with overt praise. Though Trump claimed the Russian president called him a “genius,” Putin actually used the word yarkiy, which best translates as “bright” or “colorful” and refers to one’s personality or behavior, not intelligence.

Of course, one quote or poorly phrased argument is not enough to paint someone as a whataboutist. Yet in his campaign, and now in his administration, Trump and his advisers and spokespeople have blatantly cultivated and repeated and defended lies, or, as Kellyanne Conway prefers to call them, “alternative facts. Whether it’s Obama’s real place of birth, or the poor state of The New York Times, or the size of the crowd at his inauguration, or voter fraud, or international agreements, or whether the recent executive order on immigration is in fact a “ban,” Trump and his talking heads on CNN, Fox and other TV news networks used, and continue to use, the same tactics that make the Kremlin’s own propaganda so effective.

And how can you effectively combat untruths when they can make you question your own objectivity, your own reactions and emotional responses, even your own sense of reality? By denying and obfuscating and deflecting and circling, even when caught on the record and with evidence, the administration still slips past, claiming it’s out of context or edited or not even true—that you’re simply imagining or misinterpreting or overreacting to what Trump and his surrogates have said or done.

Beyond whataboutism, the Trump administration’s own proclivity for “alternative facts” and repeating falsehoods closely resembles the Kremlin’s own playb0ok. As Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian foreign and security affairs, wrote for CNN in September, the Kremlin has a reliable five-point planfor addressing any criticism or crisis: deny, counter-attack, confuse, equate and repeat.

“First, flatly deny everything, regardless of how conclusive the evidence looks,” he writes. Second, “Counter-attack: Question others’ motives, evidence and interpretation.” Third:

Try to confuse the issue as much as possible. Throw out as many rival theories and explanations as possible, however ludicrous. … Fourth, as a fallback, claim that even if the allegations are true (though of course they’re not), everyone else does it, too — especially the Americans. … Finally, keep on doing this. It is a firm conviction of the Kremlin, not without some justice, that the West is an attention-deficit disorder society that can be outraged by something today yet forget it tomorrow when some new crisis or scandal catches its attention.

Trump has shown himself to be a master conspiracist in U.S. politics. The Kremlin, meanwhile, is a master conspiracist on the world stage. Trump alleged that the U.S. electoral system was “rigged” against him and his supporters, that any coverage critical of him and his account is “fake news.” And besides controlling and wielding Russia media, the Kremlin casts independent organizations that receive foreign funding and participate in “political activity” as “foreign agents” intent on undermining Russia under the guise of Western values.

While the Kremlin’s past response to protests is to downplay their size and stage counter-protests of its own, Trump’s recent characterization of protests as being part of a wider, organized scheme reads more like a soundbite from state television in Moscow than from the president in Washington.

Trump’s misinformation may even be approaching the Russian term for a special kind of lying — vranyoReferenced by the U.K. defense secretary just last week when discussing how Russia is “weaponizing misinformation,”vranyo describes the following situation: a leaders lies; the public knows they’re lying; the leader knows the public knows they’re lying and continues to lie all the same. Often, as occurred in the Soviet era, and now under Putin, the public pretends to believe them.

Luckily, many Americans do not yet believe Trump or his administration’s claims or promises. Yet many genuinely do, and distrust the truthfulness or intent of anyone who attempts to verify or debunk those same claims and promises. Will there come a time when it’s simply too tedious and tiring to qualify every one of his statements, and separate the real from alternative facts? This exhaustion is exactly what the Kremlin relishes, and what Trump may come to embrace, as well: You may be too tired to try to argue the truth anymore, but they’re more than willing to continue with the lies.

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