Three weeks ago, Americans across the country watched in nearly real-time as our country was attacked.
Donald Trump stood before an armed, volatile crowd. “We will not take it anymore,” the then-President said, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
“There’s never been anything like this. It’s a pure theft … explosions of bullsh**.”
“Bullsh**! Bullsh**! Bullsh**!” he got the crowd chanting.
“March to the Capitol … demand that Congress do the right thing. You’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength. We’re going to the Capitol!”
Protestors stormed the Capitol doors. They tried to break through windows and climbed over barricades. They stormed into the house chamber making a mockery of it.
Our lawmakers fled to safe rooms, leaving their work to be trashed and stolen.
One of the attackers struck a police officer with a fire extinguisher, killing him.
In many ways, we’ve become desensitized to violence. But this was different. It’s not that someone somewhere in our country was under attack, but our nation itself—our seat of government. And not merely the physical location was under attack, but institutions that represent the core values of our nation: democracy and the rule of law.
For the first time in any of our lifetimes, we saw a foreign flag—the flag of treason—march down the halls of the Capitol. Americans were scared. A Colombian newspaper mocked, “Who’s the Banana Republic, now?”
Many people, myself included, saw the event this way. We used words like unprecedented, insurrection, attack, siege, undemocratic, sedition.
But many other Americans saw something entirely different. In a recent piece for Public Square, Thomas Eastmond described a massive peaceful protest in favor of democracy, with a few condemnable rabble-rousers getting out of hand, and running through lightly guarded doors.
They hear words like insurrection and think, “Did we watch the same thing?” while adding, “Didn’t we just endure a summer of violent riots that were shrugged off by Democrats and news media? How is this different? We need to play by the same rules.”
They might even conclude that the attack is best explained as a response to this increasing acceptance of violence and political hypocrisy.
For those who supported the protest at the capitol, their cause—protecting democracy from fraud—would be seen as perhaps the most important cause to preserve our nation.
These narratives are almost surely influenced by the bubbles we find ourselves in. Those who read the Washington Post or watch CNN will surely have been inundated with talk of an insurrection.
While those who watch Fox News or have a Sinclair-run local news station have had a steady diet of stories of race riots and election fraud.
When there is violence in pursuit of liberal goals, those within that bubble hear the Democratic voices condemning it and feel free to disassociate themselves from it. But those in conservative bubbles don’t hear those Democratic condemnations and grow suspicious. When the violence is in pursuit of conservative goals the pattern is reversed. Each side believes the violence on their own side is restricted to the extremes, while they see the other side embodying violence more generally.
In response to violence this summer, civil rights leaders told protestors not to riot, “that’s the other side’s playbook.”
In response to the violence, this January, Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson said, “That’s not our side, we believe in law and order. That’s what they’re about.”
No wonder the other side always seems like a hypocrite. The frameworks out of which we understand their actions are entirely partisan. Over the last month, I heard both a Republican and a Democrat exclaim that their own side had “always brought a knife to a gunfight.” And that it was (finally!) time for their side to get tough and fight back.
In one recent conversation, I argued that President Biden should pardon President Trump so that the nation could move forward. The person I was speaking to was confused about what he’d need a pardon for. “Whether or not you think he’s guilty,” I suggested, “the Mueller Report laid out a pretty easy case for a federal prosecutor to pick up and run with it.”
“The Mueller Report’s been entirely debunked,” he replied.
If you really believed that—that the Mueller Report had been debunked—and then federal prosecutors went after Trump, you’d be incensed. You might even be tempted to say, “What hypocrites! If they’d go after Trump for that, they’d better go after Biden for the NY Post report.” It is remarkably easy to see political hypocrisy everywhere we look.
It is remarkably easy to see political hypocrisy everywhere we look.
To which the other partisan would dutifully note, “The NY Post report has been entirely debunked.”
These bubbles also serve to focus which parts of the other side you pay attention to. After less than a month in the House of Representatives, Democrats all across the country have become fixated on a Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia, it’s no surprise that she is likely the most extreme member of her caucus.
Similarly, if the only member of the House of Representatives outside the speaker and your own district that you can name is Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez and her squad, you’re a victim of a bubble that’s presenting a version of the other side that is far from reality.
Because the facts we are operating on are so different, it is remarkably easy to see political hypocrisy everywhere we look.
We can’t even agree on simple definitions.
Over the last month, I have heard in two separate conversations both of the following:
“No honest informed person could say Trump incited the violence.”
“You can’t listen to what Trump said and honestly say he didn’t incite the insurrection.”
Not only did these two partisans come to the opposite conclusion, but they also concluded it was the only possible honest conclusion.
Partisanship is a ferocious drug. And America is high as a kite.
Many Americans are sick and tired of hearing about whataboutism, describing it as little more than a silencing technique. They see their side getting attacked for behavior that the other side gets a free pass on, and they need to say something. And then as soon as they criticize the other side, they get attacked for using whataboutism, when in their minds they were responding authentically to hypocrisy.
Whataboutism works a little bit like an immune system to preserve our worldviews. If ever some evidence arises that our side may have done something wrong, whataboutism can quickly reassure us that the other side is still worse and help restore balance.
When Democrats are criticized for their burdensome budget proposals, they are quick to say “what about the military budget?” When Republicans are criticized for not caring for the poor, they are quick to say “what about abortion?”
While whataboutism helps deflect, it also serves to distract. When Trump engaged in talks with Kim Jong Un, for example, the left was all too happy to use whataboutism techniques on Republicans who had discouraged talks under Obama, rather than engage these new talks on their merits. But in the early days of his presidency, Trump would likewise frequently distract from his own controversies by criticizing Hillary Clinton instead.
But ultimately whataboutism is at its most insidiously effective when it’s amplified through the viewpoint of our distinct political bubbles.
Let’s take for example 2012 Republican Senate Candidate Todd Akin. He made a reprehensible comment about sexual assault, dismissing those that result in pregnancy as not being “legitimate rape.” Democrats were furious. But it’s worth pointing out where they first saw it. Were they watching the local Missouri news station? Probably not. More likely they came across it on outraged segments on CNN, or when it was used by left-wingers to craft an entire “war on women” narrative.
Republicans, for their part, within days condemned the comments and even tried to force Akin out of the race. To Republicans, this was a dumb thing one dumb politician said. But to Democrats, this represented who conservatives deeply were.
This fault is hardly unique to the left. Let’s take for example the book, In Defense of Looting. The book became popular this summer for its outrageous title and equally outrageous content.
Many frustrated conservatives look at a book like that from a leftist as proof positive of hypocrisy.
But where did they see the book? Did they come across it on the library shelves? Was it recommended to them by a good liberal friend? Or, more likely, did they come across it in a Ben Shapiro Facebook polemic or a stinging Fox News segment or a clickbait article designed to profit off their outrage?
The actual book had been published and ignored two years before.
What did actual liberals say about the book? Staff writer for The Atlantic, Graeme Wood, a liberal who once suggested Trumpists need “mental hygiene,” wrote plainly in response that in fact, “there is no defense of looting.”
The grand majority of liberals gave the book exactly the reception it deserved and ignored it.
In the end, “In Defense of Looting” is nowhere in the collective memory of the real-world left, and yet is ascribed to them powerfully by those on the right.
When our view of our opponent is warped through the lens of sensationalized headlines outraged at the worst excesses of the other side, no wonder they would always seem like hypocrites every time they criticize us. Don’t they know that their side is worse?
Whataboutism reliably makes the other side seem worse by ensuring you’re never truly comparing things on an even playing field. It accomplishes this in a few ways.
The first is by removing the context. For example, Nancy Pelosi says “People will do what they do” referring to violence. Donald Trump says “These are the things that happen” also referring to violence.
These certainly appear similar, but Pelosi’s comments referred to tearing down statues and Trump’s to the Capitol occupation.
To a conservative who viewed the riots as a few stray crazies that were quickly taken under control, and tearing down statues as attacking the heart and soul of our national history, Pelosi’s comment must seem hypocritical.
But to a liberal who viewed the insurrection as akin to a civil war and tearing down statues as minor property damage that would have been done by local governments anyway, it is the Republicans who are acting hypocritically.
This is compounded by efforts to compare unlike things: one political figure to multiple different figures, a minor figure to a major figure, a policy to a remark, etc. When we look at the other side through a distorted lens, we shouldn’t be surprised when they look ridiculous.
When we look at the other side through a distorted lens, we shouldn’t be surprised when they look ridiculous.
It’s also common to overlook the response from the other side, much as liberals ignored Republicans’ repudiation of Akin. In Eastmond’s recent Public Square piece, he cites the mayor of Seattle who made comments downplaying this summer’s violence, without noting that after the comments her popularity went down so much, she’s not even going to try to run for reelection in that far-left city.
Combining this all makes it easy to paint the other side as out-of-control hypocrites, no matter which side the “other side” happens to be for you. When we look at the other side through a distorted lens, we shouldn’t be surprised when they look ridiculous.
Ben Shapiro wrote of whataboutism, “It’s all dumb. And it’s making us all dumber. When both sides play the distraction game, all we have are distractions. There are no facts, merely alternative facts.”
Calling out whataboutism when we see it isn’t an effort to prevent both sides from being held accountable, but a tool to ensure we are treating both sides by the same set of rules in our rhetoric.
This doesn’t mean we can’t make good faith arguments about hypocrisy. But when we do, we have a strong obligation to make sure our rhetoric is responsible. We must be wary of why we have initially perceived hypocrisy. We must do our best to ensure that our efforts to point out hypocrisy treat both sides fairly and avoid comparing unlike things. And when we choose to argue about hypocrisy, we need to ensure that it’s the proper time and place, rather than merely an effort to try and distract from national conversations that may be uncomfortable for our side.
An Obligation to the Truth
So far, I’ve largely used language that presents these issues as bipartisan. That both sides’ truths are co-equal and deserve equal respect.
Many appreciate this kind of non-judgmental approach. But in other ways, this kind of political multiculturalism should perhaps raise some alarm bells.
Many religious and conservative thinkers have for decades recognized the incoming trouble from “moral relativism.” Larry W. Gibbons, then a senior leader of The Church of Jesus Christ said in its semi-annual conference, “In this day of moral relativism, we must be prepared to take a stand and say, ‘This is right, and this is wrong.’”
Some things simply are false regardless of how many partisans believe them. Fifty-one percent of Democrats reportedly don’t believe that the Earth revolves around the Sun once a year. They are wrong. And they’d still be wrong if that number was one-hundred percent.
Being able to identify truth is a crucial skill in our ever-more partisan world. As long as liberals can convince themselves to sincerely think that conservatives believe in illegitimate rape and conservatives similarly allow themselves to think that liberals believe looting is defensible we won’t be able to move forward because our ideas are false.
Today, may I suggest there is one specific question of fact that is tearing our nation apart. And it can’t be both ways.
And until we can get that lens right, both sides will sit in mutually exclusive bubbles complaining that the other side is undermining the basic bargain of democracy.
If you believe it is likely that widespread election fraud stole the election from the proper winner, of course, you would be outraged. How could you not be? There may be no more direct threat to democracy. You might even see the Capitol riot sympathetically, even if you ultimately disagree with their means.
By contrast, if you believe these theories are entirely made up for political ends by an authoritarian desperately clinging to power, the attack was perhaps the most alarming in our nation’s history. And there would be no hypocrisy in treating it as the unique act it was.
But only one of those can be true.
After winning the presidency, but losing the popular vote in 2016, Donald Trump stated that the election was beset by fraud—arguing that he had, in fact, won the popular vote as well. He set up the “Voting Integrity Commission” to prove the claims. Two years later the commission shut down having failed to find evidence.
But the failed commission didn’t stop President Trump. And election fraud became a major theme of his 2020 campaign.
Event after event he primed his supporters to look for and anticipate fraud. It was coming; he promised.
And then the unthinkable happened. The candidate who hid in his basement, not answering questions, the candidate with no one showing up for his rallies and no Twitter followers, actually won.
And when we consider our political bubbles it’s easy to understand just how unthinkable his win was. If almost everyone you know supports one candidate, how in the world could the other candidate win?
But President Trump had primed his followers with an answer to that question. There was only one possible way Biden could win: Fraud.
The first evidence was clear. When we went to bed on election night Trump was ahead, and when we woke up he was behind. Where did the votes come from?
The answer was equally clear to political observers and election officials. Since Trump discouraged his voters from mail-in voting, they voted in person, and in-person votes were counted first. But the stage had been set.
One single reporting agency clicked a wrong button that was fixed within moments, but for days unvetted stories about 100% vote drops for Biden floated about social media.
And then the Trump election legal team began. They released a video of election workers taking out their next box of ballots and claimed without any reason or evidence that these were fraudulent ballots. And that video began circulating across social media.
While each individual piece of evidence was easy to dismiss one at a time as not credible, the sheer number of them created a gish gallop effect that swept in the many who needed an answer to how this loss could have happened.
Soon social media began to recognize their own culpability in spreading these claims and shut them off. But Pandora’s box had been opened and trying to silence the claims only generated even more suspicion.
News agencies were at a loss. Certainly, the national legacy outlets were more than happy to fact check the claims, but conservative media such as Fox News and Deseret News were faced with a dilemma: meet their journalistic obligations to explain the truth behind the fraud claims or meet their audience? When these outlets reported that the fraud claims ultimately did not stand up, much of their audience was no longer willing to listen and abandoned them for news startups like Newsmax and OANN that were willing to report what their new audience already knew was true—there was fraud.
But soon the rubber hit the road and these allegations met the courts. And they lost. And lost. And lost. Sixty cases, including one at the Supreme Court and many with Republican-appointed judges. Trump’s own official called the election “the most secure in American history” and was promptly fired. One of President Trump’s most loyal and prominent advisors William Barr refused to support the claims of fraud and was pressured to resign.
Many Republicans began to move on. Everyone’s side loses elections sometimes. But those who weren’t ready to move on needed new answers. Why did the judges rule against Trump? They didn’t rule on the evidence. Why are people abandoning ship? They were never really Trump supporters anyway. And the number of signed affidavits of people claiming fraud was growing.
But then the rulings began to come in. Judges deciding on the evidence itself:
And then we began to read what the affidavits actually said, people claiming that someone else said they saw something. Or suspicions of what someone was up to, without evidence of anything.
And then the votes became official. States certified results. Electors were chosen. And the electors voted. Each step along the way, a few gave up hope or changed their minds.
But those who remained knew there was fraud, and nothing could convince them otherwise. And it was those who gathered together on January 6th to hear their President tell them to march to the Capitol and fight like hell.
When traced back, each and every piece of evidence of widespread election fraud amounts to nothing more than a suspicion from a primed Trump supporter, or a purposeful misstatement from the Trump election legal team, or an easy-to-solve misunderstanding. That’s the truth. After so much painstaking review, there is simply no credible evidence.
Yet a joke has been told. A Trump supporter dies and goes to Heaven. He gets an audience with God and asks, “How did the Democrats commit widespread fraud during the 2020 election?”
“Actually,” God responds, “They didn’t.”
“Geez” the Trumper concludes, “This goes higher than I thought.”
The truth matters.
It is certainly possible we will one day find evidence for widespread election fraud. Just like it is possible we will find evidence for any of a large number of ideas. Lack of evidence does not mean that something did not happen.
But, lack of evidence does mean that thoughtful people should stop acting like something happened until after such evidence appears.
And if in the wake of the Capitol insurrection your focus continues to be downplaying the events, and pointing fingers at Democrats as complacent hypocrites, it is because you are viewing the event through the lens of an election fraud idea that it is time to let go of.
Dear Americans, we have a country to run and so many problems to face. We need to work together. Please, it’s time to move on.