To divert away from their own human rights atrocities, the Soviet Union used to point to other countries where atrocities also occurred. From this, we derive the term, “whataboutism.”
Whataboutism regained a resurgence recently under the Trump presidency. When a Trump critic would complain about Trump “locking kids in cages,” Trump supporters would retort that he was simply following a policy enacted under Obama. They would point to the fact that the cages were purchased under the Obama/Biden administration. The Trump critic would reply, “That’s just whataboutism.” They pointed out that diverting to the previous administration does nothing to soften the policies of the current administration.
Whether it would be Trump’s rhetoric on race (the Obama administration allowed for the reestablishment of the African slave trade in Libya,) his sexual allegations (in 2016, he was running against Hillary Clinton, whose husband was impeached for lying about sex,) or as noted above, his immigration policies, Trump supporters would always be able to cite that he was merely following a precedent established by his predecessors. And the Trump critics replied with the charge of “whataboutism.”
The Overuse of Whataboutism
Oftentimes the term “whataboutism” is overused. If I catch my child stealing, and my child points out that I steal on a regular basis, and they were merely following my lead, it would be inappropriate for me to charge my child with “whataboutism.”. The “whataboutism” charge is little defense against blatant hypocrisy. A better response would be to acknowledge the hypocrisy, admit I was wrong, and say how I would avoid falling into sinful ways again, and ask the child to move forward with me.
The same is true for most of the charges of “whataboutism” under Trump. People who never complained about Obama’s race record, or his spending record, or his diplomacy record, or his immigration record, suddenly complained when Trump did the same things. Whataboutism is little defense against that hypocrisy unless they acknowledge Obama’s failures as well. However, if they spent the Obama years criticizing his policies in those areas, then a Trump supporter cannot point out hypocrisy by bringing up Obama’s record. That would be a legitimate use of “whataboutism.”
For example, if Tulsi Gabbard charged Trump with spending too much American treasure on foreign wars, and a Trump supporter said, “What about Obama,” the Trump supporter would be engaged in a legitimate case of Whataboutism. Gabbard was critical of Obama, too. She is not caught in hypocrisy.
However, if Joe Biden criticizes Trump for wasting foreign treasure abroad, and Trump retorts with “What about Obama,” this would not be a case of “whataboutism.” This would merely be Trump calling out hypocrisy.
What Happened To Whataboutism?
Recently, I was engaged in a discussion about Biden lying to the American people about the number of Americans who would die of Coronavirus this year. I pointed out how wrong his predictions were, and that the media failed to hold him accountable for those lies. A few Biden supporters retorted with “What about Trump? He lied as well.” And Trump did indeed tell many lies. Those lies harmed his presidency and hindered his ability to accomplish his goals. And I was quite critical of Trump throughout his presidency. The Biden defenders used “whataboutism.”
I have a feeling that those who were using the phrase “whataboutism” in the past, will suddenly refrain from using it when Biden is the president. It will be a term sent to the memory hole.