Here's the thing about whataboutism: It is not a way of elevating the discourse, but of making more than one offensive action inherently relative, and thus excusable.
Take, for instance, the White House's response to a racist Tweet by crass comedian Roseanne Barr suggesting that the subject of her tweet, Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett: First, the president insisted that news reports that aired on ABC entitled him to an apology from Disney CEO Bob Iger (which Jarrett had received), and then, upon hearing that comedian Samantha Bee had referred to Ivanka Trump as a "feckless c***" in a segment, had the White House demand that her show also be cancelled (or else, it is implied, liberals were hypocrites).
It is, of course, a completely different dynamic for a woman to refer to another woman as a crass epithet and for a white woman to refer to a black woman as a racist trope but, more to the point, by comparing the two, Trump (and, to an extent, fellow Republicans) are explicitly suggesting that if the one isn't equally bad, then the first cannot have been as bad as it seemed. Neither is positioned as inherently condemnable; they're positioned as relative to one another.
The Trump era has erased decades of supposed GOP moral superiority and replaced it with an oversimplified view of free speech, anti-liberalism and ultranationalism.
But for the party of moral absolutism — and, notably, the conservative National Review stated that “anyone with a shred of respect or intelligence should think twice before defending a racist tweet from an unhinged conspiracy theorist” — relativism is a particularly vexing philosophical direction to take.
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In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan ushered in an era in which the Republican Party became the party of so-called "family values" and converged with the Christian "Moral Majority." They rejected all things they found to be immoral, including marijuana, abortion and LGBT rights, often through explicit policy. Though many of those in power at the time had a sordid history with race, only the most extreme elements of the party would go beyond racial dog whistles that involved welfare and crime.
The Trump era has erased decades of supposed GOP moral superiority and replaced it with an oversimplified view of free speech, anti-liberalism and ultranationalism. Most of all Trump has supplanted Republican morality with, well, Trump, and Trumpian relativism.
The irony of the president’s stance on Bob Iger and Samantha Bee is that he is the undisputed monarch of refusing to apologize.
The irony of the president’s stance on Bob Iger and Samantha Bee is that he is the undisputed monarch of refusing to apologize. He gave a half-hearted apology for his "Grab 'em by the pussy" comment before devolving into a deflection about Bill Clinton and eventually questioning whether it was his voice at all. When he was confronted in a face-to-face interview with Megyn Kelly after calling her a “bimbo”, he responded, “Over your life, Megyn, you have been called a lot worse” and claimed to be “fighting back” (again positioning himself as the true victim).
In this, he reflects a more modern-day Republicanism, the kind in which supporters wear shirts that say "F*ck your feelings" and cheer vulgarities. They applaud as protesters get assaulted, including women, and escorted out of rallies. They used to be the party of personal responsibility, but now the GOP fights tooth and nail to avoid and deflect accountability.
Unlike Reagan-era Republicans, Trump’s GOP is a moral relativist party that hinges on victimization. They make excuses for Trump’s racially charged comments like calling majority Black nations “shitholes”, calling Black NFL players “sons of b*tches” and tweeting about Latino immigrants “breeding.” They equate critiques and outrage over the President’s callousness domestic policy, juvenile insults and lack of professional decorum with the hate faced by people of color and the disrespect endured by women.
Unlike Reagan-era Republicans, Trump’s GOP is a moral relativist party that hinges on victimization.
The GOP of the 80s and 90s condemned infidelity on Biblical principle and slammed liberals and progressives because the latter preferred to gauge job performance and leave matters of the heart personal, calling that moral relativism.The Trump era GOP is not only unphased by the president’s alleged affairs (including one with porn actress Stormy Daniels), but also by campaign finance issues that are allegedly tied to it and the inability to give a straight answer on the subject.
Make no mistake — aside from it serving as amazing late night comedy fodder — the left still doesn’t ideologically care about any actual Trump affair any more than they did about Bill Clinton’s trysts; no political party, ideology, gender or sexuality has a monopoly on unfaithfulness. However, we are left scratching our heads about his overwhelming support among evangelicals, the moral absolutists who are the bedrock of the party. They called Hillary Clinton “crooked” and chanted to “lock her up,” but seemingly turn a blind eye to the close Trump associates being indicted by apolitical Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
This new Republican Party is strong in its rebuke of the Democrats and their leadership. However, they are much more tepid in their response to Nazis and other white nationalist terrorists who attacked counter protesters and left 32-year-old Heather Heyer dead in Charlottesville, Virginia. The party that once carried the problematic but consistent mantel of Ronald Reagan has now has adopted the day-to-day moral relativity and victim mentality of their current leader. (The economy and lower taxes seem to justify all of the president’s moral lapses and the dysfunction within his administration.)
The Republican Party needs to retrace its steps and look for where they dropped their moral compass. If they are truly still the Party of Reagan, it would behoove them to drop the deflection tactics and victim mentality. As of right now, they lack an identity. They once claimed to led by the teachings of Jesus, but now, they are led by the tweets of Trump.
Jason Nichols is a full-time Lecturer in the African American Studies Department at the University of Maryland.