The “what about argument” has always been a popular strategy with children. I remember using it a few times during my own childhood, most vividly when I was in my late teens and got caught drinking alcohol by my mom.
I had been out with a couple of other adventurers getting acquainted for the first time with this fascinating liquid called “moonshine.” A friend procured some from an older relative, and the three of us took turns sipping it from a Mason jar until the jar was empty. We spent some time acting like the fools we were, and then they brought me home. I then discovered that I was unable to walk into the house on my own, so they escorted me inside and helped me into a chair in the living room, mumbling something about me "getting dizzy for some reason.”
Since I had no rational defense for my poor behavior, I tried the strategy of what about.
“Come on, mom,” I slurred indignantly. “What about the kids who do heroin? And I wasn’t driving! What about the kids who drink and then drive?”
Do you imagine that the “strategy of what about” was persuasive to my mother? It was not. I was grounded for about a month. Worse still, she made runny scrambled eggs for breakfast, which I had to eat.
If that approach didn’t work then, why should it work now? You hear it in conversations. You see it all over social media. You read it in letters to the editor. It has covered our national discourse like kudzu. Why do people have such difficulty holding their leaders accountable?
One reason may be that we are living in an age when party loyalty is perceived as the absolute highest virtue, even over other values such as principle, integrity and honesty.
We are also living during the age of Donald Trump. When he said during his presidential campaign that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any voters, it sounded like a preposterous boast. Two years later, it has the ring of truth. There is rarely a day that goes by that Trump does not do something, or say something, or tweet something that is so outrageous or so manifestly and empirically false that it cannot be defended on a rational basis. Since his supporters cannot defend it and since the virtue of party loyalty demands absolute fealty, all that is left is the strategy of what about.
You thought the Nazis in Charlottesville were bad? What about Antifa?
You think the deficit is bad? What about Hillary’s emails?
You think paying off porn stars to keep quiet about your extramarital affairs and then lying about it is bad? What about Bill Clinton?
You think the Mueller investigation has uncovered scandals? What about Benghazi?
If last week’s election taught us anything, it is that there is no “blue wave,” and no “red tide.” Our country is deeply divided, which is neither news nor new.
We are divided, and Donald Trump, one of the most polarizing political figures in American history, is president. Sure, it is easy to lay most of the blame at his doorstep, but in fairness he is more the apotheosis of the divide than the cause of it. Yes, he uses this division to galvanize his base. Yes, he has made the divide more intense. But the fracture has been there for decades. The left can no more accuse Trump of creating the divide than the right can accuse Obama of it. In both cases, the election of each of these men illuminated, rather than created, the division in America.
The left is not entirely blameless. When activists harass Ted Cruz in a restaurant or Fox News personality Tucker Carlson’s wife and children in their home by banging on their doors and making threats, they need to be condemned in the strongest possible terms. For the most part, that is what we have seen, with just a few exceptions. But the condemnation of this behavior needs to be louder and stronger.
On the other hand, we rarely see anything like this on the right, except for a few conservative columnists who walked away from Trump long ago because they recognized the truth about him and chose to base their view of him on other values than party loyalty.
His core supporters rarely, if ever, hold him accountable for anything he says or does. Harassing people in restaurants and in their homes is wrong. Inciting violence at political rallies is also wrong. Until Americans decide that party loyalty should not be the absolute highest priority, the divide will not be diminished and the “strategy of what about” will not abate.