This is an odd moment, and it’s important that we preserve it for posterity.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: If in the next election someone from a foreign country offers you information, do you take it or do you call the FBI?
DONALD TRUMP: I think maybe you do both. I think you might want to listen, there isn’t anything wrong with listening. If somebody called from a country, Norway, we have information on your opponent—oh. I think I’d want to hear it. […]
It’s not an interference, they have information—I think I’d take it. If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI. If I thought there was something wrong.
STEPHANOPOULOS: The FBI Director says that’s what should happen.
TRUMP: The FBI Director is wrong.
Now that Donald Trump has publicly put a For Sale sign on our government, millions of Republican voters are working overtime in their little heads, on their way to work, in their homes, or at the grocery store, rethinking their relationship to the country they formerly felt an allegiance to. Same thing for every Republican lawmaker in Congress.
Because two contradictory thoughts—such as, “I am a patriot” and “I support Donald Trump, who is a traitor”—cannot coexist in a single space, and for those who continue to support Trump after his statements yesterday, some reconciliation, some reordering of basic concepts, has to occur.
To understand this, it’s important to first understand what’s not happening.
His base’s prior support of Trump was most definitely, most assuredly not a mistake. Let’s get that one out of the way right now. Because none of his fans are ever going to admit they threw their enthusiastic support behind a traitor. That would bring their own judgment (or motives) into question.
No, their support for him is and was fully justified. Now, as to what he said, well, the thinking goes (as it must), Did he say anything untoward or wrong? Really?
There’s only one way for Republicans to answer this question—with Whataboutism.
Whataboutism (also known as whataboutery) is a variant of the tu quoque logical fallacy that attempts to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument, which in the United States is particularly associated with Soviet and Russian propaganda. When criticisms were leveled at the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the Soviet response would often be “What about…” followed by an event in the Western world.
In March 2017, NPR correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben explained that Trump always employs this classic Russian propaganda tactic when criticized.
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.)
She illustrates her point with several examples:
[W]hen the Congressional Budget Office estimated that Republicans’ health care plan would leave 24 million additional people uninsured in 2026, Trump’s first move wasn’t a direct response. Instead, he took to Twitter to blast the Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as Obamacare), criticizing how much was spent on promoting it and asking people to tweet their own criticisms.
[W]hen the floodlights were on communications between then-Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and the Russian ambassador, Trump’s tweets were all about Democrats’ contact with the Russians…
Kurtzleben notes that one of the more striking examples of this tactic was used when Trump was confronted by Putin’s murderous record as Russian dictator. When Bill O’Reilly pointed out that “Putin is a killer,” Trump responded by saying, “There are a lot of killers. You got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?” Classic whataboutism there.
So, after they figure out that there is really no way to reconcile Trump’s statements with the conflicting idea that their support of him is somehow an expression of patriotism, Republicans’ absolutely certain, 100% guaranteed, go-to fallback will be, “What about Hillary?” or “What about Obama?” The right-wing Wurlitzer of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and talk/hate radio will spin into overdrive until they settle on an acceptable Whatabout narrative. Expect it to be some fabricated misinformation about the DNC and the Steele report, for example, or some variant on the Hillary emails trope. Anything to get their base away from the idea that their Dear Leader has just admitted he would sell out the country (again) given half a chance.
Republicans cannot acknowledge the real import of Trump’s statements. That goes directly to the core of their being—their entire self-image as patriotic Americans. They can’t just look in the mirror and say, “I admit I would betray my country to a foreign government.”
They should do that. But don’t hold your breath.