The Problem of “whataboutism” and False Equivalence in Recent Commentary on Violence
Hugh Hewitt, a right wing radio personality and pundit, is one of the current masters of “whataboutism.” This term refers to the excuse that Trump supporters use whenever their hero yet again does something heinous (Yeah, Trump did this but what about….). The most current version of this is Hewitt’s and others’ claims that Trump’s rhetoric has nothing to do with the most recent episodes of political violence and domestic terrorism.
Hewitt’s Argument (from the Washington Post)
“After the arrest of a Florida man for sending homemade bombs to former president Barack Obama, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and other Democratic leaders, many on the left — and not a few allegedly neutral reporters and pundits — predictably attempted to assign blame for his deranged and dangerous acts to President Trump. They pointed to “lock her up” chants at Trump’s noisy rallies, to the “fake news” charges and to a long list of Trump lines that left-wing activists and some mainstream media voices have categorized as beneath the dignity of the president.
The truth is the spectrum of violent behavior runs from the far-left extreme of the Bernie Sanders-supporting shooter at an Alexandria baseball field to last week’s mailing of pipe bombs to prominent Democrats to Saturday’s stomach-turning massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue by a Trump-hating neo-Nazi, which made an already awful week even worse. That is the whole range of criminality at the fringes of American politics, a left-right full spectrum of angry, hate-filled obsessives. The threatening envelopes sent to both Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Vanessa Trump, like those received by members of the media and no doubt by elected officials on the left, means crazy figures on the fringes of the far left and far right are a permanent part of the political terrain.
We are now arguing over what is properly considered “incitement” to violent action of all segments of that fringe. Consider the moron who accosted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao in a Louisville restaurant, or the mobs that chased Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and his wife or Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen or Stephen Miller from their eateries: Who is responsible for inciting that behavior? For the physical attacks on two GOP candidates in Minnesota? For the Portland Antifa gang harassing motorists and a woman in a wheelchair? The reasonable apprehension of physical violence is assault, not free speech. Who is responsible for the assaults and the far worse violence of the bombs and the shootings?”
Hewitt is correct in that “crazy figures on the fringes of the far left and far right are a permanent part of the political terrain.” The shooting of the members of congress are evidence of that.
But, he steps deeply into the weeds as he responds to the argument “over what is considered incitement to violent action.” The conclusion Hewitt would have us draw from all this is a conclusion based on false equivalence that absolves Trump of any responsibility for his vile rhetoric.
For him, somehow yelling at a Republican official in a restaurant or sending hate letters to them is somehow seen to be the same as mailing pipe bombs or shooting people down in a parking lot.
Saying “when they go low, we kick them,” is the same as congratulating and making admiring statements about a man who “body slammed” a reporter.
Two Republican candidates in Minnesota were physically assaulted. That should not happen, but those two were not called out by name by any Democrat, and they were not targeted by the current occupant of the bully pulpit of national office.
A candidate who says he wants to smash someone in the face and claims he will pay the legal fees of those supporters who physically harass protesters at his campaign rallies is not the same as Hillary Clinton saying that one can’t be civil when debating some people about politics.
What does, Mr. Hewitt, our master of false equivalence conclude?
“But if we go down the road of assigning blame for violence to political figures, that trail travels in both directions and public figures left, right and center will never be certain which words they use will set off which single one of their millions of followers to violence. One standard: Don’t blame political figures for violence they don’t specifically encourage and intend, and don’t confuse rally rhetoric with criminal behavior because you don’t like the speaker or the message. Prosecute criminals, not speech.”
Dr. Michael Dyson of Georgetown provided an instructive image to help us understand this current way of violence against vulnerable people. He noted that a farmer or a horticulturist may tend a plant and bring it to maturation. But, the atmosphere in which that plant is grown is equally or even more determinative of the plant’s success. Trump did not wield a gun in Pittsburg or Kentucky. He did not build a pipe bomb. What he created was an atmosphere in which fear and violence against vulnerable populations can flourish and incite the crazies that inhabit the right wing fever swamp.
Trump announces his candidacy by saying that immigrants are killers and rapists. At the Republican convention, he used the families of those few homicides perpetrated by undocumented persons as a backdrop for more of his slanderous, racist accusations. He says the caravan in Central America, which is still hundreds of miles from our border, is an invading force filled with criminals. It is such a serious threat he is sending thousands of US Army troops “to meet that caravan.” He claims (oh, that’s right he simply says that “some people are saying”) that the marchers in the caravan are being paid by Democrats or by George Soros, a Jewish financier (e.g., the global Jewish conspiracy strikes again.).
That message is heard loud and clear. How can he or anyone else, including Hugh Hewitt, not see the connection between the President’s rhetoric and a killer who was fixated on the caravan and claims that he had to kill Jews who were funding the caravan to save “people like me.” How can he lionize those who use violence on members of the mainstream media (the Enemy of the People) and those who protest at his rallies and not expect some hardcore nutjob to take him seriously and send explosive devices to those he calls out by name at his rallies?
Given the uptick in hate crimes since Trump’s election, less violent but nonetheless harmful events are now a regular occurrence. Just flipping through the recent news, I found a story of a man who aimed a rifle at his Latinx neighbors and threatened to “blow them back to Mexico.” Yet another story had a woman verbally abusing Guatemalan tourists in a restaurant in Virginia, demanding to see their passports and telling them they weren’t going to “freeload in this country.” The fact that one doesn’t usually come across freeloaders in restaurants seems not to have dampened this woman’s racist tendencies. All she knew was that they were speaking Spanish and that was enough for her to identify them as threats.
I suspect that Republican commentator and Trump critic, Charlie Sykes, is probably (okay, undoubtedly) correct.
“So, America,” he tweeted, “perhaps the greatest danger we face is not a caravan 1000 miles away. Maybe it’s already here.” (quoted in Washington Post)
NOTE: For an analysis of Trump’s tweets and anti-Muslim violence see https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-trump-tweets-spur-hate-crimes1/