In America 2018, whataboutism is the last refuge of scoundrels, and bothsidesism is the last refuge of cowards. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in the midst of a wave of hate crimes.
Just in the past few days, bombs were mailed to a number of prominent Democrats, plus CNN. Then, a gunman massacred 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Meanwhile, another gunman killed two African-Americans at a Louisville supermarket, after first trying unsuccessfully to break into a black church — if he had gotten there an hour earlier, we would probably have had another mass murder.
All of these hate crimes seem clearly linked to the climate of paranoia and racism deliberately fostered by Donald Trump and his allies in Congress and the media. Killing black people is an old American tradition, but it is experiencing a revival in the Trump era.
When the bombs were discovered, many on the right immediately claimed that they were fake news or a false flag operation by liberals. But the F.B.I. quickly tracked down the apparent source of the explosive devices: A fanatical Trump supporter, whom many are already calling the MAGABomber. His targets were people and a news organization Trump has attacked in many speeches. (Since the bombings, Trump has continued to attack the news media as the “enemy of the people.”) The man arrested at the Tree of Life synagogue has been critical of Trump, who he apparently believes isn’t antiSemitic enough. But his rage seems to have been fueled by a conspiracy theory being systematically spread by Trump supporters — the claim that Jewish financiers are bringing brown people into America to displace whites.
This conspiracy theory is, it turns out, a staple of neo-Nazis in Europe. It’s what our own neo-Nazis — whom Trump calls “very fine people” — were talking about in Charlottesville last year, when they chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” It’s also the barely veiled subtext of the manufactured hysteria over the caravan of would-be migrants from Central America.
The fearmongers aren’t just portraying a small group of frightened, hungry people still far from the United States border as a looming invasion. They have also been systematically implying that Jews are somehow behind the whole thing. There’s a straight line from Fox News coverage of the caravan to the Tree of Life massacre.
So how are Trump apologists dealing with this ugly picture? Partly through denial, pretending not to see any link between hateful rhetoric and hate crimes. But also through attempts to spread the blame by claiming that Democrats are just as bad if not worse. Trump supporters try to kill his critics? Well, some Trump opponents have yelled at politicians in restaurants! This whataboutism doesn’t stop with equating protests with violence. It also relies on outright lying.
The day after the Pittsburgh massacre, John Cornyn — the second-ranked Republican in the Senate — tweeted “Pelosi: If There Is ‘Collateral Damage’ for Those Who Don’t Share Our View, ‘So Be It’.” This is a lie, plain and simple. I know, because I was there. Nancy Pelosi’s remark about collateral damage came while I was interviewing her in front of a live audience; you can see the interview here. She wasn’t talking about punishing political opponents. She was, instead, talking about the economic impact of policies to fight climate change, which she conceded would adversely affect some industries even as it helped others.
Many people have pointed this out to Cornyn; as I write this column, he has not retracted his false claim. But here’s the thing: Trump supporters aren’t the only people trying to pretend that he’s only doing what everyone does, that Democrats are just as bad and equally liable for the explosion of hatred. False equivalence, portraying the parties as symmetric even when they clearly aren’t, has long been the norm among self-proclaimed centrists and some influential media figures. It’s a stance that has hugely benefited the GOP, as it has increasingly become the party of right-wing extremists. You might have thought that the horrifying events of recent days would finally break through that norm. But you would have been wrong.
Bothsidesism is, it turns out, a fanatical cult impervious to evidence. Trump famously boasted that his supporters would stick with him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue; what he didn’t point out was that pundits would piously attribute the shooting to “incivility,” and that Sunday talk shows would feature Fifth-Avenue-shooting advocates and give them a respectful hearing.
This needs to stop, and those who keep practicing bothsidesism need to be shamed. At this point, pretending that both sides are equally to blame, or attributing political violence to spreading hatred without identifying who’s responsible for that spread, is a form of deep cowardice.
The fact is that one side of the political spectrum is peddling hatred, while the other isn’t. And refusing to point that out for fear of sounding partisan is, in effect, lending aid and comfort to the people poisoning our politics. Yes, hate is on the ballot next week.