American election cycles are all that’s good and all that’s bad about democracy. They are loud, mean, and long, filled with hyperbolic accusations and skeletons marched from closets, set to horror music, and made to dance. The 2016 election–more than a year in the making already with less than four more months left to go–feeding off economic worries, global crises, and long-simmering frustrations, has been particularly contentious.
Donald Trump’s now-official candidacy as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee has been critiqued and criticized from nearly every angle. The U.S. foreign policy community–an amorphous network of experts, pundits, and journalists–has been particularly concerned with Trump’s tenuous relationship with the truth, blatant dismissal of core U.S. allies, and downright despicable rhetoric aimed at immigrants, minorities, and women.
But one more concerning aspect of Trump’s candidacy is his tendency to use a rhetorical device perfected during the Cold War: Whataboutism.
In a recent interview with two New York Times correspondents regarding foreign policy issues, Trump responded to questions regarding the attempted coup in Turkey, subsequent crackdowns, by deflecting the question with criticism of the United States:
SANGER: Erdogan put nearly 50,000 people in jail or suspend them, suspended thousands of teachers, he imprisoned many in the military and the police, he dismissed a lot of the judiciary. Does this worry you? And would you rather deal with a strongman who’s also been a strong ally, or with somebody that’s got a greater appreciation of civil liberties than Mr. Erdogan has? Would you press him to make sure the rule of law applies?
TRUMP: I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country. We have tremendous problems when you have policemen being shot in the streets, when you have riots, when you have Ferguson. When you have Baltimore. When you have all of the things that are happening in this country — we have other problems, and I think we have to focus on those problems. When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.
Pressed on whether he would lecture allies about what goes on within their borders, Trump replied, “I don’t know that we have a right to lecture. Just look about what’s happening with our country.”
Though not exclusive to the Cold War period, whataboutism as a propaganda tool rose to prominence as the Soviet Union sought to deflect criticism with criticism. In response to Western critiques, the Soviet answer would be, “Well, what about…”
Criticisms of human rights in the Soviet Union were often met with what became a common catchphrase: “And you are lynching Negroes.” The Soviet Union often pointed to racial inequalities in the United States when challenged with its own civil rights sins, post-Soviet Russian leaders have done the same.
The core problem is that this rhetorical device precludes discussion of issues (ex: civil rights) by one country (ex: the United States) if that state lacks a perfect record. It demands, by default, for a state to argue abroad only in favor of ideals it has achieved the highest perfection in. The problem with ideals is that we, as human beings, hardly ever live up to them.
In recent years, the delusion that the United States had achieved, through the struggles of the civil rights movement, a colorblind society has been ripped away. Systemic racism, baked into the very economy and embedded in the criminal justice system, persists and moreover, thanks in part to the development of communications technologies that allow the rapid and unfiltered dissemination of information, more Americans are aware of what’s happening in their own communities. Discrimination based on race, gender and religion continues. The government overreaches, particularly in pursuit of counterterrorism objectives. These facts, however, do not nullify the ideal of a free, open society where all can prosper regardless of race, gender, or religion. Other states are as far from the ideals of liberty and equality as the United States is, and many are much further.
If the United States waited to become a utopia before arguing in favor of liberty abroad, it would never happen. What matters is the set of ideals–that all are created equal with rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”–not that we have managed to perfectly live up to them. This is a struggle the United States shares with the world: to try and fail and try again. The United States may not be a “very good” messenger, but there may never be a better messenger. It’s the message that truly matters.