Whataboutism and Donald Trump


Danielle Kurtzleben has reminded me of a word I have been looking for ever since Donald Trump announced he was running for POTUS.  According to Wikipedia, “Whataboutism” is a “propaganda technique used by the Soviet Union in its dealing with the Western World during the Cold War.  When criticisms were leveled at the Soviet Union, the response would be ‘What about…’ followed by the name of an event in the Western world.”

This also sounds like the rhetorical tactic used by Southern slaveholders to justify their peculiar institution to northern critics.  Yes, we have slaves in the South, “but what about” all the poor workers in your northern cities?  George Fitzhugh was the master of this approach.  Check out just about anything written by historian Eugene Genovese for more on how slaveholders engaged in this kind verbal jousting.

Here is a taste of Kurtzleben’s piece at NPR:

This particular brand of changing the subject is called “whataboutism” — a simple rhetorical tactic heavily used by the Soviet Union and, later, Russia. And its use in Russia helps illustrate how it could be such a useful tool now, in America. As Russian political experts told NPR, it’s an attractive tactic for populists in particular, allowing them to be vague but appear straight-talking at the same time.

The idea behind whataboutism is simple: Party A accuses Party B of doing something bad. Party B responds by changing the subject and pointing out one of Party A’s faults — “Yeah? Well what about that bad thing you did?” (Hence the name.)

Whataboutism — particularly directed toward the U.S. — was so pervasive in the USSR that it became a joke among Soviets, often in a subversive genre called “Armenian Radio” jokes, explains one Russia analyst.

“Armenian Radio would be asked, ‘How much does a Soviet engineer get paid?’ and they’d be like, ‘I don’t know, but you [in America] lynch Negroes,'” said Vadim Nikitin, a Russia analyst and freelance writer. Eventually, that punchline came to be synonymous with the whole phenomenon of whataboutism, Nikitin said.

It’s not exactly a complicated tactic — any grade-schooler can master the “yeah-well-you-suck-too-so-there” defense. But it came to be associated with the USSR because of the Soviet Union’s heavy reliance upon whataboutism throughout the Cold War and afterward, as Russia.

Read the entire piece here.

4 thoughts on “Whataboutism and Donald Trump

  1. To even bring up Trump’s use of “whataboutism” may be an exercise in the same logical fallacy. “What about Trump using what-about tactics? Conclusion: Trump is using a common Russian rhetorical turn to divert from the truth.” Heck, I am doing it too! Essentially I am saying, “but what about others using what-about tactics to critique Trump’s use of whataboutism?” “Whataboutism” is a communication device everyone uses in one form or other even if they don’t say the exact words. It is indeed a logical fallacy if the user thinks that a diverted comparison in itself actually proves a point of fact–i.e., Trump blaming the press, Obama blaming Bush, everyone blaming the Russians, etc. Having said that, “what about?” (or the like) can be a legitimate question to effectively call out hypocrisy or simply provide historical context. “What about” Matthew 23?


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