In the depths of the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were locked in a global battle of ideas about how governments should treat their people and what political forms were best at delivering peace and prosperity, a particular style of argument became popular and was given the ironic name, “whataboutism.”
It worked this way: One side would accuse the other of misconduct. The other side would respond with a question meant to suggest hypocrisy on the part of the accuser. “Well, what about the time when your government did X?”
During the Cold War, whataboutism was generally the province of Soviet spokesmen and their defenders in the West. On Friday, though, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump took a page from the Kremlin playbook, seeming to defend the fact that journalists and political opponents who challenge the government of President Vladimir Putin have a habit of winding up dead or in prison.
In an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, host Mika Brezinski asked Trump about comments Putin had made about him the day before.
“[Trump] is a very flamboyant man, very talented, no doubt about that,” Putin said near the end of his annual marathon press conference with regional media outlets in Moscow. “He is an absolute leader of the presidential race, as we see it today. He says that he wants to move to another level of relations, to a deeper level of relations with Russia. How can we not welcome that? Of course we welcome it."
Trump responded, “When people call you ‘brilliant’ it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia.” (Some media outlets translated Putin’s first adjective describing Trump as “brilliant.”)
Taken slightly aback, host Joe Scarborough said, “Well, I mean, also is a person who kills journalists, political opponents and … invades countries, obviously that would be a concern, would it not?”
That’s when things got weird.
“He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country,” Trump said.
“But, again, he kills journalists that don’t agree with him,” Scarborough said.
“Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, also, Joe,” Trump said. “There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, Joe. A lot of killing going on, a lot of stupidity and that’s the way it is.”
“I’m confused,” Scarborough said. “You obviously condemn Vladimir Putin killing journalists and political opponents, right?”
“Oh sure, absolutely,” Trump said.
Brezinski moved on to a question about how U.S.-Russia relations would fare under a Trump presidency.
“I’ve always felt fine about Putin,” Trump said. “He’s a strong leader, he’s a powerful leader, he’s represented his country, and that’s the way the country is being represented. He’s actually got popularity within his country. They respect him as a leader, certainly over the last year they’ve respected him as a leader.
“I think he’s up in the 80s. You see where Obama’s in the 30s and low 40s and he’s up in the 80s so, I don’t know who does the polls. Maybe he does the polls. But I think they’re done by American companies.”
So, for those keeping score at home, Trump not only suggested that he’s not all that concerned about the state-sanctioned murder of journalists and activists, but thinks that the U.S. government is engaged in morally equivalent activities.
He also seems quite taken with Vladimir Putin’s style of leadership. For the good of the nation, let’s hope that doesn’t lead to Trump taking shirtless horseback rides.