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The trials of Donald Trump have far-reaching consequences for American politics and global affairs. With the former president facing multiple prosecutions, we are witnessing a surge in “whataboutism” around the world. Authoritarian governments now have a ready retort to Western criticism of their human rights record: “What about Trump?”
While it may be tempting to dismiss these arguments as insincere, doing so would be a mistake. Whataboutery can be highly effective, and refusing to engage in the debate could cost the US and its Western allies in terms of global opinion. Without addressing questions like “What about America’s invasion of Iraq?” it becomes difficult to rally support for causes like Ukraine.
Furthermore, whataboutism is not inherently illegitimate. Comparing different situations is a natural part of making political and moral judgments. It prompts critical thinking: “You think X is wrong? What about Y?”
I found myself grappling with my own internal “what about” debates in Hong Kong recently. As a supporter of the protest movement, I questioned the prosecutions of activists. However, when faced with the sentencing of pro-Trump activists who stormed the US Capitol, I had to consider the differences. The US rioters were attempting to overturn a democratic election, while the Hong Kong protesters were demanding democracy.
The prominence of Trump’s prosecution will continue to fuel similar debates around the world. When discussing Turkey, for example, critics may be reminded of American issues. Russian media is also capitalizing on Trump’s trials, making it harder for the Biden administration to criticize the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Such examples require nuanced distinctions and knowledge for proper analysis.
While reasoned arguments may not always win against whataboutism, the refusal to engage in the debate is a surefire way to lose. It is essential to confront these arguments head-on, armed with knowledge and the ability to make informed distinctions.
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