There’s a style of intellectual laziness that ignores the merits of a proposition in favor of other considerations that obscure the differences among conflicting points of view. One version of this is called false equivalency, but I like the colorful term Whataboutism.
Whataboutism is used often in defense of President Donald Trump. For example, if you take exception to Trump’s unseemly bragging about the impunity that celebrity confers on him when he assaults women, a Trump defender will say, “Well, what about Bill Clinton?”
Touche. But whatever Clinton was guilty of provides no excuse for Trump. And more often than not the equivalence is, in fact, false.
For example, New York Times columnist David Brooks employed this technique last week during PBS’s “Shields and Brooks.”
He depicted negotiations over the current government shutdown as a “strange two-track phenomenon.” In the lower track, Republicans are asking for $5.7 billion for the wall, but they might accept $3 billion. Democrats are thinking more like $1.7 billion, but might go up to $2 billion. In other words, Brooks says, it’s a normal negotiation, “like you’re buying a house.” You meet somewhere in the middle.
But there’s a higher level of negotiation, which Brooks calls the “ego level, which is the Pelosi-Trump level.” He calls this an “absolutist ego position, my way or zero.”
In Brooks’ formulation, the lower-level, normal negotiation is constantly “crushed” by the “two towers of ego,” that is, Trump and Pelosi.
Two towers of ego? As if they were equivalent? As if one tower were not immensely taller than the other?
Trump’s immense ego prods him regularly to claim to know more about nearly everything than nearly anybody. Before he was elected, he claimed that “I alone can fix it.” It is impossible to picture such a statement from Nancy Pelosi.
Every politician needs sufficient ego to even run for office, but to imagine equivalence between the egos of Trump and Pelosi is the sort of questionable analysis that makes it possible to imagine that their two positions on the southern border wall are mere differences of opinion that can be easily negotiated, if only their egos didn’t stand in the way.
Further, a false comparison between Trump’s ego and Pelosi’s diverts attention from just how bad an idea a border wall is. If it were a better idea, Trump wouldn’t have to rely on such dubious arguments. He would not have to claim that previous presidents told him privately that he was doing the right thing about the wall (they didn’t). He would not have to claim that the wheel is older than the wall (it’s not), which is like claiming that the bow and arrow were invented long before the AR-15, which proves … well, nothing.
And if the wall that he proposed during the campaign — a massive edifice of hardened concrete as high as 65 feet and stretching across the entire border — had been a good idea he would not have had to make such an appeal to his base’s emotions to get them on board.
After all, Trump’s outrageous promise to make Mexico pay for the wall was based in spite rather than in any kind of practical economic leverage or logic. Not only will we wall off a country that’s causing us problems, we’ll even make them pay for the wall, as well. That’ll show ’em!
Emotion and Trump’s outsized ego drive his position on the wall. Pelosi’s ego may not be irrelevant, but she has better reasons for opposing the wall, including the fact that a significant majority of Americans oppose a wall that will offend and separate us from Mexico, a reliable democracy and trading partner.
Trump’s $5.7 billion — or a negotiated $2 or $3 billion — is merely a down payment on a very bad idea. It will never be enough until the wall is completed or until Trump and his base lose interest in it. In the meantime, imagining the government shutdown as a mere battle between two stubborn, hardheaded egos is a gross mischaracterization that clouds the issue.
John M. Crisp, an OpEd columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas.