‘Whatabouts’ in the age of Putin and Trump

During the Cold War, Russians often responded to criticism of some Soviet policy or another by asking about a questionable or heinous practice of the critic’s nation, whether real or imagined, new or ancient.

For example, an American reporter’s question about Soviet slave labor camps in Siberia would be answered by a bureaucrat asking, “What about Negroes being lynched in Alabama?”

The practice came to be known as “whataboutism,” and it is currently enjoying something of a revival, thanks to two accomplished patrons of the art, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and our very own Donald Trump.

Whataboutism, replying to one charge by citing the questioner’s own problems, is an easy way to shrug off criticism while sounding like a straight talker. It’s a slick way of dealing with your imperfection by pointing out no one is perfect, justifying our own bad behavior by comparing it to the other guy’s bad behavior. Answer his question with your question.

My favorite Putin whatabout came during the Russian annexation of Crimea. Putin was asked to answer criticism of his seizure of a neighbor and said, what about the annexation of Texas? The U.S. really did annex Texas, but it was a bit earlier than Russia seized Crimea — 172 years earlier, in 1845.

Or, when he was asked about mistreating peaceful protesters, Putin said, “What about the United Kingdom? Breaking the law there could lead to a fine of 5,800 pounds sterling or even prison.” There is, of course, no law in the UK against peacefully protesting.

Before the current president perfected Putin’s ploy with his own array of whatabouts, his predecessor occasionally took up the tactic. When President Obama’s economy and the slowness of the recovery were criticized into his second term, Obama sought to change the subject by reminding that the problems began when Bush and the Republicans were in power and “drove us into the ditch.”

And Obama’s initial response to the misdeeds of some Muslims, was, incredibly, “What about the Crusades?

“During the Crusades,” Obama noted correctly, but irrelevantly, “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” The Crusades began in 1095, even long before the annexation of Texas — 750 years before, to be precise.

But Donald Trump, as is his practice in most activities, is the hugest user of whatabouts.

Most recently, it was the Trumpian response to the pardon of the racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who faced sentencing, but maybe not prison, for refusing to obey a judge’s order to stop years of profiling Mexicans and other Latinos in his Arizona county.

What about Clinton? said the president, and most notably, what about his pardon of Marc Rich, a fugitive businessman charged with, among other things, illegally buying oil from Iran while it held American hostages?

“He was pardoned after his wife donated hundreds of thousands to the Clintons,” said Trump with a degree of correctness. (The donations were in the form of campaign contributions to Bill Clinton, not the plural Clintons.)

Was the president therefore saying, “My predecessor pardoned a crook who traded with the enemy in exchange for a contribution, so it’s right and proper for me to pardon an officer of the law who violated constitutional rights and refused to stop when told to do so by a federal judge,” or is it just me? The judge, by the way, is an appointee of George W. Bush.

And, of course, no discussion of whatabouts would be complete without citing the mother of all of them, Trump’s defense of Putin’s tendency to deal with dissidents, including journalists, by having them killed.

It happened during halftime at the Super Bowl, which was broadcast last February by Trump’s house organ, Fox. Bill O’Reilly, then the leading Fox News talker, pressed Trump about his tendency to praise Putin during the campaign.

“Putin’s a killer,” O’Reilly pointed out — to which Trump responded with the most breathtaking whatabout of all time.

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

In classic whatabout — and Trump — fashion, the President did not name the names of our not-so-innocent killers. And after O’Reilly, a self-styled historian, said he “did not know of any government leaders that (sic) are killers,” Trump provided a “whatabout the Iraq War” reply. 

“Take a look at what we’ve done, too. We’ve made a lot mistakes, OK, but a lot of people were killed. So a lot of killers around, believe me.”

Trump has yet to name names, but perhaps he can get the pardoned Sheriff Joe to put some of his crack team of investigators on the case — the same ones who went to Hawaii at Arizona’s expense and found proof Barack Obama was born in Africa. 


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.