This year’s final episode of Last Week Tonight aired this Sunday, and John Oliver devoted the main segment of the show to a recap of the Trump Presidency thus far. The whole thing is worth watching, but of course, since this is John Oliver, that goes without saying.
Oliver details three tactics used by Trump and his minions that are doing lasting damage to American political norms: delegitimizing the press, whataboutism, and trolling. All of these are worth discussing at length, but it’s the second—whataboutism—that I want to talk about here. And that’s because it’s prompted me to think about something that’s been on my mind for a while now.
Whataboutism is the colloquial name for the tu quoque fallacy, and put simply, it means to deflect criticism by accusing your critics of doing whatever it is they’re criticizing you for. Lately, Trump and conservatives have provided endless examples of whataboutism—from allegations that Roy Moore molested children (“What about Bill Clinton?”) to Trump admitting to grabbing women by the genitals (“What about Harvey Weinstein?”) to Robert Mueller’s probe indicting former Trump campaign personnel (“What about the Uranium?”) to honest-to-God Nazis murdering people (“What about Antifa?”).
Importantly, the goal is not to actually deny the criticism, which would be impossible for someone as vile and corrupt as Trump. The goal is to make yourself immune from criticism entirely. This makes sense when you consider that the originators of whataboutism were Soviet propagandists, something Oliver notes around the 7:15 mark where he references a New York Times piece from earlier this year.
Soviet propagandists were experts at explaining away their own country’s atrocities with using whataboutism. Stalin purged thousands of rivals? “Well, what about Jim Crow?” The Soviet Union set up puppet regimes in Eastern Europe? “Well, what about Western colonialism?”
To see the Republican Party under Trump emulating Soviet propagandists speaks, I think, to a fundamental truth about the party.
The Republican Party is not a conservative party.
Bear with me. I am not saying the Republican Party is not a right-wing party. It definitely is. Its leadership styles and its positions on the issues clearly mark it as an entity of the political right. But right-wing and conservative are not identical. And when you consider conservatism not as a buzzword but a political philosophy, the Republican Party cannot be described as conservative.
Without getting too deep into political philosophy: generally, conservatism is regarded to go back to Edmund Burke. Burke lived through both the American and the French Revolutions, and in the case of the latter, witnessed significant political change accompanied by violent upheaval. This hardened his skepticism of radical social or political transformations. Philosophically, he was fine with gradual change, so long as it was not inspired by Utopian ideology and subordinated itself to tradition.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy highlights the importance of this distinction to philosophical conservatives.
Unlike reactionary thinkers, they regard traditions not as static, but as in a gentle and gradual flux, encouraged by the astute reformer. For Burke, the English revolutionaries of 1688 achieved restoration as opposed to “innovation”. Reform corrects the inadequacies of ancient institutions in light of contemporary needs—conservatives such as Disraeli might want to create a broader suffrage, for instance—but one must disdain “the blind and furious spirit of innovation”.
I am not the first to make this observation. Mike Lofgren, and ex-Republican and a former staffer to John Kasich, made it back during the primaries:
To be a Party of No or at least, after long delay, a heavily qualified Yes, is to be conservative in the classic tradition of 18th century statesman and political theorist Edmund Burke. It is respect for tradition and the status quo and a thoughtful belief in patience, prudence and the law of unintended consequences… It is President Dwight Eisenhower not repudiating but accepting the New Deal as established history and even consolidating it…
Contrast that with any number of statements by the current crop of Republican candidates and we can understand that the GOP is no longer in spirit the party I remember in my youth…
The Republican Party of today may hope to accomplish many things: tax “reform,” building the wall, deporting millions, gutting financial regulations, increasing fossil fuel extraction. The one thing Republicans in their own words are not committed to is preserving norms, or the system, or the status quo. Rather, Republicans, even ones less radical than Bannon, are committed to upending almost all of them, or if not upending them, at least disregarding them when inconvenient. This is not the the behavior of a conservative party; there is little in common here with Burke and Disraeli’s Tories. This is the behavior of a revolutionary party.
Moreover, this was evident to several observers long before November of last year. Lofgren said of the party:
Because of its militant rhetoric, Manichean worldview, demand for ideological purity and bare-knuckle Leninist tactics, it is the GOP that fits the bill of a revolutionary party. To the erstwhile party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, politics is now war in all respects except the shooting. In a post-9/11, post-financial meltdown atmosphere of lingering crisis, the GOP is well positioned to wage such a war.
In a 2012 op-ed, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein famously wrote:
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
Predating even the relentless obstruction of Obama, Paul Krugman referenced Henry Kissinger’s concept of a “revolutionary power” in the introduction to The Great Moderation.
It seems clear to me that one should regard America’s right-wing movement—which now in effect controls the administration, both houses of Congress, much of the judiciary, and a good slice of the media—as a revolutionary power in Kissinger’s sense. That is, it is a movement whose leaders do not accept the legitimacy of our current political system.
Between Trump and the rest of the Republican Party, consider how many norms the American right has degraded. Congressional Republicans have created a de facto rule going forward that a Supreme Court seat will only be filled when the same party holds the Senate and the Presidency. This was after refusing to even hold a hearing for a nominee they had formerly praised as a consensus pick. Trump has still not released his tax returns. He has repeatedly tried to meddle in the Department of Justice, and is apparently wishing they’d begin going after his political enemies. Election results that leave Republicans dissatisfied are chalked up to conspiracies of massive voter fraud.
Also consider how most right-wing voters receive information. Four in ten Trump voters claim their primary source of information is Fox News, and Breitbart absolutely dominated the right-wing twitter sphere in retweets. The propaganda bubble is real; the editors of Pravda would be jealous of right-wing media’s influence among Republicans.
Of course, Republicans inevitably try to whatabout this too. “What about the liberal media?” they say. “It’s an arm of the opposition party!” Of course, the notion that the mainstream media is in cahoots with the Democratic Party is psychotic. One of the most prominent pundits at the Washington Post wrote 50 stories about Clinton’s email server before the first Democratic debate. The New York Times, meanwhile, ran a story titled “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. sees no clear links to Russia” while simultaneously giving wall-to-wall coverage of Comey’s October letter. Unless Fox News was obsessing about Donald Trump’s tax returns for months on end, the claims of a “liberal” media can be rightly dismissed as preposterous.
So to recap, what we have is a major party dedicated to the destruction of norms and the overthrow of the system, a party that refuses to accept any information unless it comes from the party propaganda machine. This is, put simply, radicalism—radicalism hell-bent on destroying civil society and democratic norms in the name of returning to some lost Golden Age. And unless liberals wake up to the fact that the party currently in power in the federal and most state governments is simply not interested in playing by any rules whatsoever, they will continue to underestimate the very real danger the Republican Party is doing to the country.