On Whataboutism and Moral Equivalence in the Age of Trump

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Tony, a regular commentator at this blog, an evangelical Christian, and a lawyer, writes in response to my post on Trump’s speech this morning (I copied it from the comments section below):

“Trump needs the teleprompter because he does not possess the moral resources to be able to speak extemporaneously or off-the-cuff about shootings like this. He needs others to give him the words of empathy, sympathy, compassion, righteous indignation–the stuff that comes from the soul of a virtuous man.”

This is an amazing critique — let’s accept, solely for the sake of argument, that it is true — given that the guy who preceded Trump, and about whom John had nary a negative word to say, and who John deems infinitely more virtuous in every way — was wedded to his teleprompter. The most carefully scripted president we have ever had. In good times and bad. But that was then, when habitual, almost comical reliance upon other people’s words (and he sure could deliver them) told us nothing about one’s soul, and this is now, when it signifies a sucking moral vacuum.

The selectivity of the dudgeon is its most noteworthy characteristic.

And let’s be clear: John’s objection is not really to the “pathetic” speech. It’s to Trump himself. Meaning: Churchill could pen the oratory, and John would still object, because Trump is unworthy to deliver it. This is precisely what John is attacking when he dismisses Trump’s appeal to bipartisanship and his comments about human dignity. Those would be acceptable words from anyone else, but not from Trump, because his malevolent character renders them clanging gongs and clashing cymbals. The argument is: no matter how worthy or aspirational the sentiment, the words are empty coming from this man, and must be rejected.

Fair enough. But then let’s stop pretending that there is anything — literally, anything (other than: “I am a wicked, orange man, and I resign.”) — Trump could say which would satisfy John. So why even the pretense of evaluating what has been said? Simpler to write: “Trump gave a speech. I did not listen to it, for there was no need. It was by definition awful, noxious, gormless and without any redeeming quality, because Trump uttered the words.”

John has become the mirror image of those who found every spoken word, every mannerism, every single thing about Obama — including his heinous lack of lapel flag pins — teeth-grindingly intolerable. Yes, yes, I get it: their loathing was based on vile –Isms and without basis, whereas the all-pervading, Manichean Trump animus is entirely justified.

I decided to post about this comment because Tony’s remarks allow me to clarify a few things.  Here is how I responded to Tony:

“Here is where we differ Tony. You presuppose some kind of equivalency between Trump and all other politicians. This is why you are constantly saying “Well, what about Obama?” (And this is why I consistently reject this whataboutism). You believe that Trump and Obama (or any other recent president) are playing on the same moral field and thus must be evaluated in the same way.  I do not. Trump has sacrificed the moral integrity necessary to deliver a speech like he did today. I agree with Jeff from Maryland when he says: ‘Trump could recite the Gettysburg Address’ and I would not believe him.

So Tony–at what point does a person lose all credibility in your mind? At what point does a person’s actions damage his or her attempts to deliver moral rhetoric to a public audience? I admit that different people will come to different conclusions about when a public figure has reached this level, but I find it hard to believe that it would not happen at some point. I have reached my point of no return with Trump. You, apparently, have not.”

25 thoughts on “On Whataboutism and Moral Equivalence in the Age of Trump

  1. Jeff,
    Would you also say someone is submitting to the authority of the GOP in their church when fear of republicans in their congregation/leadership stops them from speaking a truth that conflicts with the GOP? If so, this distinct type of submission to the authority of the GOP needs to be identified and labeled because it seems to be just as significant as those who actually desire the personal relationship between the church and the government.

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  2. John,
    You and I are mostly in agreement here. There are statutes mandating so-called “truth in lending” within the financial community. While we don’t need a law requiring historians to disclose their political associations, it’s still prudent for the reader to do his/her homework before jumping into a history book headfirst.

    “…be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” Matthew 10:16

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  3. Waldman is an excellent historian and popular writer. I strongly recommend both his book *Sacred Liberty* and his book on religion and the founders. Of course we must always watch for bias from Democrats–Republicans and Trump supporters are never biased. They just speak straight truth! 🙂

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  4. Jeff,
    I agree with Tony that you try to be an “honest broker” and to show great civility to others.

    I would be mildly skeptical of a book by Mr. Waldman, however. He has had past association with a DEM presidential administration if I am not mistaken. His new book probably has some interesting historical facts but it is only human to present facts to accord with one’s own presuppositions. I would be alert for certain biases when reading the book. You might want to check out several book reviews of it to provide an inoculation against any subtle DEM influences.

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  5. I guess I need context on the Feinstein thing.
    I am reading “Sacred Liberty” by Steven Waldman right now. The history of religious liberty in North America. I am not expert enough to know if it’s a definitive work by any means. Anyway I am getting to modern times. Seems there is a whole lot of unnecessary hype in our ranks. I love, (sarcasm) when Trump informs us we are saying “Merry Christmas” again! Thanks to him of course. A made up problem with a made up triumph. Unfortunately too many of us eat that stuff up. I don’t know that we don’t prefer being victims to being more than conquerors.

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  6. Jeff: I agree with pretty much everything you said in that post. I also appreciate your thoughtful and gracious commenting style.

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  7. Jeff,

    In theory you are correct. In practice people of faith have been abused by the government and by elected authorities. For example, Senator Feinstein of the Judiciary Committee had the audacity to tell a female Catholic nominee to the federal bench, Amy C. Barrett, that church doctrine lives strongly in her or words to that effect. The statement was made pejoratively. There are many other examples, also.

    We are no longer living in the days when faith was viewed with respect. The opposite is becoming true. Christians, traditional Jews, and even Muslims are simply exercising the same political rights afforded to all citizens go defend their interests.

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  8. I believe what the scriptures tell me to do is pray for government authorities and obey the laws unless they are diametrically opposed to God’s will as best as I can discern that. I think I can exercise rights and privileges my government grants provided they do not oppose God’s will.
    That means to me kind of keeping the government at arms length as far as its potential dominance over my heart, mind, and life go. Something like a working relationship rather than a personal one.
    Many of today’s Christian leaders want a personal relationship with the government. They get excited by contact with the President. They want influence. They think being in bed with the power is a protection of their influence maybe. Or protecting the church from outside forces. They don’t realize the separation of church and state is the church’s best protection, not joining forces with the state.

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  9. Tony,
    For starters it’s backwards to say you “disagree” with facts and that an opinion is “false”.
    My evidence is simple. I’m identifying a tree by it’s fruit and the church I currently attend is producing GOP nuts.

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  10. Alex,

    I think you will have a hard time getting people to agree with you on that one. In fact, the qualifications you cite would disallow not only Trump but also Obama, G.W. Bush, Clinton, and most others in the past 100 years. Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter might squeak by, but that’s not certain.

    James

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  11. James,
    Because the leader of a christian nation aught to meet the qualifications for a leader of The Christian Nation (the Church).

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  12. There is nothing these evangelical “leaders” could say that I would ever again ascribe any moral or theological weight or credence to. They have gladly and willingly chosen to kneel before Caesar and seek after his kingdom.

    Bent the knee, burned the pinch of incense on the altar, and taken The Mark on both forehead and right hand.

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  13. Thanks Alex,

    May I ask what the two quotes from the pastoral epistles have to do with Trump? I don’t think he will ever be a candidate for pastor, deacon, elder, bishop or whatever title different churches use.

    James

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  14. On principle, I try to avoid media/information echo chambers, which I think have contributed mightily and dangerously to the deep divide in politics and culture today. Therefore, I am glad that John permits comment that is arguing against his own viewpoints. I appreciate hearing different, even opposing, viewpoints *IF* they are well-stated and thoughtful and are not just rehashing party-line rhetoric, engaging in ad hominem attacks, or creating “straw man” arguments. (It is up to each person to judge whether the counterarguments presented here fit that bill.) When presented in good faith, opposing arguments can be thought-provoking and helpful to making me clarify my own understanding and my grounds for having that understanding. It also can be helpful in trying to understand others, and to some degree put myself in their shoes.

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  15. “A critical mass of the leaders of the church I currently attend have submitted themselves to the teachings and authority of the GOP.”

    This is patently false. There is no leader — by this I take it you mean Elder, Pastor or any member of the ministerial staff — at your church, Alex, who has submitted himself to the authority of a political party. Disagreement with you over climate change (or any other issue) does not in any way constitute acceptance of an authority other than God. Your accusation is baseless.

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  16. James,
    Your hypothetical is helpful for me to see where I differ from John, and also explain my position. I would not be as critical of a liberal Trump clone because he would have no authority in the Church. However, a critical mass of members and leaders of the church I currently attend have submitted themselves to the teachings and authority of the GOP and Republican Trump. I know this because climate denial is pervasive at the church I currently attend and the only other place climate denial is found is in the GOP. It’s also the logical outcome of efforts to make America a Christian Nation, as detailed by John in his books and on this blog.
    So I would only be critical of Trump (D) as the leaders of America. But I am critical of Trump (R) as the leader of Christian America, and as such I hold him to the standard below:

    Timothy 3:1-7: Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap. NIV

    Titus 1:5-9: The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

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  17. John,
    I appreciate your candor. By the way, I own your book and even read parts of it twice.

    I am not trying to be polemical here——just honest———in saying that I do not understand how a Christian could vote for Democrat. I am not saying that a vote determines a person’s standing with God; please do not misunderstand me. I just see the DEMs as representing a morally bankrupt postmodern agenda and cannot understand how a Christian could support it. The platforms of the major parties far override the personalities and foibles of the respective politicians who are pledged to enact them.

    Were Trump five times more wicked than you apparently think he is, I would still vote for him against a Democrat saint if the Democrat supported his party’s 2016 platform. I know that sounds inconsistent in view of the fact that many Christian Republicans did fault the moral lapses and character failings of Bill Clinton. I suppose a measure of Realpolitik comes into play here. As Emerson said, “A dogged consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

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  18. James:

    If we had a Democratic candidate who behaved like Trump I would have the same criticism. If I disagreed with policy I would push back. Please stop trying to twist me into some kind of moral contradiction.

    Second, if you read *Believe Me* you know that my initial reaction to Trump was shock and disappointment. I was shocked and disappointed that my fellow Christian supported this man. But I dug deeper and I realized that I should not have been surprised. Evangelicals have been fearful, power-hungry, and nostalgic for a long, long time. So, on your second point, you are correct. But you don’t give me enough credit. Trump started out with more than “one strike against him” on the day he was elected. I had been blogging and writing about him for over a year–from the moment he came down the escalator and called all Mexicans rapists and criminals. I knew he would be bad for America and bad for the church back then and he has done nothing to change my mind. In fact, he has done things that are far worse than what I though he was capable of.

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  19. John,

    How would you feel about Trump if he displayed the same personality he does now but also advanced a liberal DEM political, judicial, economic, and social agenda? In other words, what if we had a President Donald clone who was a liberal? Would your tolerance have greater elasticity? I bet it would.

    In BELIEVE ME you indicated that you were shocked and disappointed as the 2016 election results came in. The Trumpster started off with one strike against him in your book, did he not? He never had a chance with you because of policy and not personality. Correct?

    James

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  20. I am in the camp of extreme doubt of the President’s capabilities. I don’t feel I have a great handle on what goes on in his head. I honestly don’t feel confident he does.
    So my posts reflect that.
    But I have to say I feel that we should try to understand one another here. It’s kind of a microcosm of the bigger public debate. At least not get too personal. I don’t think any who posts here comes across as very intellectually challenged.

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  21. I have reached my point of no return with Trump. You, apparently, have not.

    Or worse, he HAS reached the Point of No Return.
    In the OPPOSITE direction.

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  22. I often wondered why Tony (and James) posted here. Their comments are always pro-Trump and anti Dems. After a while I decided to ignore them because I knew that whatever they said was simply warmed over rhetoric. Nothing new, just the same ole recycled stuff.

    Now that I know Tony is an attorney I wonder if he posts here simply to practice his right-wing debating techniques. If so, he lost that debate a long time ago, in my opinion. Anyone who has the ability to judge character could see how empty Trump is. So empty that he needs constant validation, constant adulation, constant reassurance.

    And those Trump evangelicals who chose Trump as their “Alpha-Male Savior” are in for a rude awakening. Sooner or later they will pay the price for their unequivocal support for their “savior.”

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  23. As an evangelical myself, because I am especially concerned with how significant portions of evangelicalism has wedded itself to a political entity and to the exaltation and idolization of a political leader, I personally find your questions, “at what point does a person lose all credibility in your mind? At what point does a person’s actions damage his or her attempts to deliver moral rhetoric to a public audience?” directly relevant to how I view the evangelical “leaders” who have chosen to do so.

    There is nothing these evangelical “leaders” could say that I would ever again ascribe any moral or theological weight or credence to. They have gladly and willingly chosen to kneel before Caesar and seek after his kingdom.

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