ince President Donald Trump's political rise， pundits and news junkies have learned what seems like an entirely new vocabulary to discuss his rhetoric: gaslighting， alternative facts， fake news. What about whataboutism？
During a press conference on Tuesday， Trump spouted a textbook example of the practice. In addressing his tepid， vague denunciation of the protests that led to fatal violence in Charlottesville， Virginia， over the weekend， he responded， “What about the alt-left that came charging at， as you say， at the alt-right？ … You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent.” That is to say， neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members may be bad， but people on the other side have also done bad things. What about them？
Whataboutism refers to the practice of deflecting criticism by pointing to the misdeeds of others. Oxford Dictionaries defines it as “the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.”
Essentially， it's an appeal to hypocrisy — a logical fallacy also known as “tu quoque.” Instead of proving that your opponent's claim is wrong on its face， whataboutism argues that it's hypocritical of the opponent to make that claim at all.
Fears of impending whataboutism do not appear to have been exaggerated. Pundits have been noticing Trump's proclivity for the “what about” defense for months. Even since taking office， the president has been quick to respond to accusations of collusion or corruption by pointing to the alleged misdeeds of his former opponent， Hillary Clinton.
He's also resorted， weirdly enough， to the inverse. In a February interview， Bill O'Reilly challenged Trump on his support for Putin， calling him “a killer.” “There are a lot of killers，” retorted Trump. “You think our country's so innocent？” In a Foreign Policy column， Jake Sullivan explained what he was doing: “The American president is taking Putin's ‘what about you’ tactic and turning it into ‘what about us？’” If we can do it， Russia can; if Hillary can， so can I. It justifies anything Trump or his allies might want to do， somehow or another.
To be sure， hypocrisy is bad. The Soviets were not incorrect in pointing out that the countries that criticized them often harbored their own systemic human rights issues. It's no wonder that whataboutism exists， to some degree， on （as Trump would say） many sides.
Political supporters of every stripe are eager to hold opponents accountable for their double standards， and that is a human and， to some extent， good impulse — especially during a campaign， when making clear the actual distinctions between candidates is useful. It is， however， unusual for an American political leader to engage in the practice so frequently and blatantly; deflecting accountability is for surrogates and supporters， not elected officials themselves.
The problem with whataboutism is that hypocrisy is a durable problem （humans being flawed and inconsistent）， but it is not the only problem. Forever circling around each other's hypocrisies pulls us away from necessary conversations about how to reach for and enforce the values we aspire to and hold each other accountable for wrongdoing. This is particularly crucial when it comes to our leadership. With all the power of the American government behind him， the president has every responsibility to reach toward our most aspirational ideals. Whataboutism provides an excuse for our most powerful to evade self-reflection and self-improvement. That's not an excuse the American president needs — not now， not ever.