Andrew Bjelland: What about ‘whataboutism?’

(Photo courtesy of the White House) Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, posted this photo on Twitter on Nov. 5, 2019, of a meeting with President Donald Trump.

I admire Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) for placing his wife’s healthcare above his own political career and pray for his well-being and that of his wife and family. I must admit, however, when I review Stewart’s political career, I remember him first and foremost as a master “whataboutist” and stolid defender of former President Donald J. Trump’s often outrageous and quite possibly criminal behavior.

The conjunction of Stewart’s resignation and the heating up of Special Counsel Jack Smith’s inquiry into Trump’s alleged illegal retention of classified documents has led me to recall both Stewart’s and Trump’s initial whataboutist responses to the Aug. 8, 2022, judicially authorized FBI search of Mar-a-Lago.

Whataboutism is the first refuge of those who attempt to defend the indefensible. It is a mode of distractive manipulation. The Soviets utilized it throughout the Cold War whenever criticized for human rights violations. For example, when cited for the ill-treatment of inmates in the prison camps of the Siberian Gulag, the Soviets offered stock responses: What about Americans’ treatment of Blacks? What about all those past lynchings and present unjust incarcerations?

Whataboutists are adult children whose mothers never taught them: Two wrongs do not make a right.

Rep. Stewart, in response to the legally authorized FBI search of former President Trump’s residence, tweeted the following whataboutisms:

“[What about] the U.S. Intelligence Community and FBI’s politicization. Yesterday, we saw the culmination of that weaponized politicization…Where is the raid on Hunter Biden’s home? Where is the demand for documents regarding Speaker Pelosi’s alleged insider trading?”

Stewart concluded his comment with a thinly veiled threat: “The American people deserve answers, and I look forward to demanding those answers from Attorney General Garland and the DOJ when Republicans take back the House.” Other GOP politicians, most notably GOP House Leader Kevin McCarthy, voiced similar threats.

Former President Donald Trump’s Aug. 12 allegation exemplifies whataboutism at its scurrilous worst:

“President Barack Hussein Obama kept 33 million pages of documents, much [sic] of them classified. How many of them pertained to nuclear. Word is, lots!”

In a detailed response, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) promptly refuted Trump’s lie: “The NARA assumed exclusive legal and physical custody of Obama Presidential records when President Barack Obama left office in 2017, in accordance with the Presidential Records Act (PRA). NARA moved approximately 30 million pages of unclassified records to a NARA facility in the Chicago area where they are maintained exclusively by NARA. Additionally, NARA maintains the classified Obama Presidential records in a NARA facility in the Washington, D.C., area. As required by the PRA, former President Obama has no control over where and how NARA stores the Presidential records of his administration.”

Trump continues his campaign of mendacious deflection. As recently as his June 1, 2023, townhall meeting with Fox News’s Sean Hannity, Trump falsely accused President Joe Biden of having almost 2,000 boxes of classified documents, “seven or eight” of which he had stashed in Chinatown, in Washington, D.C.

Trump and far too many Republican elected officials misinform the public and, without the least bit of evidence to support their claims, by falsehoods and innuendos inflame the passions of their base. They then direct those negative energies against the FBI and the Department of Justice.

For example, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) chairs the House Special Sub-Committee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. This sub-committee has institutionalized whataboutism in its efforts to supply the GOP’s populist base with a steady diet of red meat.

Stewart, Trump, Jordan and other Republican officials knowingly stoke the fears and animosities of those who are willing to die for Trump and to engage in violence on his behalf. The seditious Jan. 6 assault on our nation’s Capitol exemplified the consequences of this demagogic practice.

Why anyone would vote to re-elect Trump, a proven pathological liar, an alleged national security threat and an alleged seditionist, to the highest office in America is totally mind-boggling. Sen. Mitch McConnell correctly and publicly stated that Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the Jan. 6 insurrection. McConnell recently assured reporters that if Trump is the 2024 GOP presidential nominee, he will “absolutely” support the former president. Why anyone would ever again vote for those who actively and often mendaciously enable and empower Trump is well beyond baffling.

Andrew Bjelland

Andrew Bjelland, PhD, is professor emeritus, Philosophy Department, Seattle University, where he held the Pigott-McCone Chair in Humanities. He resides in Salt Lake City.