“Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”
Image via C-SPAN/YouTube.
A common deflection tactic used by President Donald Trump is to blame the other side of an issue with a false-equivalency argument, also known as “whataboutism.” On Tuesday, when asked by the press about the actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, he gave a textbook example of whataboutism: “What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at the, as you say, the ‘alt-right’? Do they have any semblance of guilt?” he asked reporters. “What about the fact they came charging with clubs in their hands swinging, in their hands?”
To create a sense that both sides were equal, he labeled the anti-racist protesters the “alt-left,” equating them to the bigots of the “alt-right,” a term embraced by some white supremacists in reference to their ideology. But the gaping hole in his logic is that the so-called “alt-left” was on-hand to protest bigotry, not promote it.
According to Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, “alt-left” is a “made-up term” used by the right to “suggest there is a similar movement on the left,” he told CNN.
George Hawley, professor of political science at University of Alabama agrees with Segal. “There is no such movement as the alt-left,” he told CNN. “Obviously, there are left-wing extremists but there is no congruence between the far-left and the alt-right.” Whereas no one considers themselves as “alt-left,” “alt-right” is used by people on the far-right and was coined by white supremacist Richard Spencer.
“I don’t use the term white nationalist to describe myself,” he said. “I like the term alt-right. It has an openness to it. And immediately understandable. We’re coming from a new perspective.”
Trump’s use of whataboutism to turn Charlottesville into a situation where everyone is wrong only works to benefit white supremacists. Chelsea Clinton pointed out Trump’s egregious false equivalency by tweeting a quote by author, Nobel Laureate, professor, human rights activist, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
"We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."-Wiesel— Chelsea Clinton (@ChelseaClinton) August 15, 2017\n
In her tweet, Clinton accurately uses Wiesel’s horrifying experience to illustrate how damaging it is when societies lose complete moral perspective to score petty political points. When Trump neutralizes the situation, he normalizes hatred, bigotry, and violence while encouraging the spread of such ideas. Trump clearly understands the power of whataboutism — he rose to power by defelcting his own wrongdoings by raising the question “What about her emails?”