If Only Whataboutism Could Defeat the Coronavirus
Last Thursday, on the final night of the Republican National Convention, President Trump broke longstanding American tradition by transforming the White House into a purely political venue… complete with platforms, stage lights, campaign banners, and rows and rows of seating on the South Lawn.
It was a controversial move for its inappropriate use of the people’s house, but it also wasn’t terribly surprising. If we’ve learned anything from Trump over the past few years, it’s that he loves creating splashy, norm-defying public spectacles that bring him maximum attention. And if those spectacles get his political opponents riled up in the process, that’s all the better (at least to the president and a good chunk of his supporters).
But rather than spend a dozen or so paragraphs carrying on about this latest indignity to the office, and detailing the type of meltdown Republicans assuredly would’ve had if Obama had turned the White House into a Democratic Party convention hall, I wanted to write about something that bothered me about the event even more.
CBS News’s Mark Knoller tweeted about my concern earlier in the day:
The result of the setup was a mass gathering of attendees (more than 1,500 people) crammed together in one area. There also wasn’t a mask requirement, and very few people elected to wear one.
Now, as we all know (or at least should know), outdoor events are less dangerous than indoor events of the same nature. I’ve written about this topic numerous times; it has to do with airflow. And for that reason, it’s fair to argue that Thursday’s episode didn’t quite reach the level of inanity as Trump’s Tulsa rally back in June. Still, it was bad enough, with the strong potential of that many people (in such close proximity to each other) creating a super-spreading event for the coronavirus.
There are several things that have angered me about the response of our political leaders to the global pandemic that continues to kill our citizens, devastate people’s lives, and cripple our economy. At the top of that list has been the societal disregard for the most basic (and thus far, most effective) of mitigation practices.
It’s one thing for a mask-less Grease Monkey employee to suddenly open your car door while you’re parked in line for an oil change, stick their head into the cab of your vehicle just a few inches from your face, and loudly ask what type of oil you prefer… (I’m using this obscure example because it unfortunately happened to me this morning; ugh).
It’s another for the President of the United States, who swore to defend our nation, and whose leadership the country needs during a national health crisis, to repeatedly (and very publicly) defy not only the CDC’s crisis guidelines, but also his own administration’s. It is the height of public irresponsibility, and it stokes needless confusion and carelessness (not to mention conspiratorial sentiment) in many of those watching.
Simply put, there is no legitimate excuse, six months and 185,000 American deaths into this crisis, for the president to be failing Pandemic Management 101 so badly. There is, however, a really terrible excuse for it — one that I’ve been hearing over and over again by those who feel obligated to defend the president on this matter. In fact, Lara Trump presented it earlier this week on Fox News Sunday
When Chris Wallace asked and pressed about the lack of social distancing and mask wearing at Thursday's convention speech, here’s what the president’s daughter-in-law brought the argument down to:
“… I’ll remind everybody that the folks that were spitting in the faces of our people leaving the convention that night were not social distancing. It was an absolutely disgusting display. The next day, there were thousands of people on the National Mall packed together as well. So look, we either say that everybody has to play by the rules, or we have to stop talking about it. Because whenever you’re talking about the president’s campaign, and how people weren’t specifically social distant, but the next day, thousands of people were on the National Mall, and that’s not a problem for anybody… It seems a little hypocritical.”
It’s the same sentiment that’s been shared by many on the political right, in regard to the mob violence we’ve seen in major U.S. cities this summer:
The logic may sound good to a particular type of partisan, but it’s really a garbage argument.
Let me rephrase that… It’s a garbage defense.
As a separate argument, it’s completely fair and appropriate to point out that many liberals in politics, the media, and even the medical profession have indeed been hypocrites on the issue of social distancing and mask wearing… specifically in regard to protesters whose views they happen to agree with. If the cause is righteous enough, in their view, they tend not to voice any concerns about scores of individuals congregating together in the streets. Some have even outright encouraged it, as we saw in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
These same folks weren’t nearly as kind, however, to the business owners and others who protested lockdowns and stay-home orders just weeks earlier, portraying such individuals as immoral and even “murderous.” And of course, they’ve done the same type of thing with Trump.
So, if the argument is purely about hypocrisy, the case for people on the right is actually pretty strong. But whataboutism is never a legitimate defense of anything, and its deployment as a rationalization of Trump’s recklessness during a global pandemic is particularly idiotic.
The fact of the matter is that COVID-19 doesn’t care about partisan hypocrisy, or partisanship of any kind. It doesn’t discriminate on who it infects based on the societal merits of whatever scenario led to that infection. From an epidemiological and public safety standpoint, a large gathering of church members helping to feed the poor is no different than a large gathering of drunken attendees at a Smash Mouth concert.
When Lara Trump says, “we either say that everybody has to play by the rules, or we have to stop talking about it,” she’s describing an abdication of leadership and public responsibility across the board, but most strikingly from the Oval Office. She and others who share her view are conceding that the president’s behavior isn’t qualified by what’s in the country’s best interests, but rather by partisan hypocrisy.
It’s basically the child’s argument of “They’re doing it, so why can’t I?” And the obvious answer to that question is: Because he’s the President of the United States during a global pandemic.
Trump should be practicing the sermons of his own administration’s guidelines. He should stop encouraging needlessly reckless behavior from those who believe in him. He should put the well-being of Americans before his personal ego and desire to make headlines.
Those would be the responsible and normal things to do. But Trump’s brand is largely built on shattering norms (even when it comes to simple stuff like preserving the sanctity of the White House during campaign season); it’s one of the things his base loves about him. Thus, there’s no reason to believe he’ll ever change.
This leaves Trump’s loyal defenders relegated to rely entirely on whataboutism at times like this. Unfortunately, whataboutism can't cure the coronavirus. And that's a shame, because we have such an ample supply.