WASHINGTON – Call the CDC. Alert the surgeon general and put the National Institutes of Health on standby.
We’re having a severe outbreak of whataboutism.
In mild forms, the primary symptom is a vulnerability to false equivalencies. Virulent strains, such as the current one, can cause victims to lose all moral perspective.
After I wrote about the grotesque spectacle of President Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway throwing their support behind accused child molester Roy Moore in Alabama’s Senate race, Trump fans answered with a flurry of whatabouts:
What about Al Franken?
What about John Conyers?
What about Bill Clinton?
“You write these words without even mentioning Conyers, Franken (who both need to go) and of course Bill Clinton,” writes a retired Air Force colonel. “Crickets from you on a louse like Bill.”
Another (of many) asked: “Where was your indignation and outrage due Bill Clinton? And how can you justify electing his enabling and complicit partner Hillary?”
I would have thought the best treatment for this faulty logic would be to ignore it, but it seems to be infecting the commentariat, too, to some extent: We are now hearing that the Conyers and Franken cases are muddying the waters and causing Democrats to lose the political high ground.
But there should be no muddiness here, and it has nothing to do with politics. Here’s “what about” Moore that is different: He has been accused, credibly and repeatedly, of sexual misconduct with children. Franken, Conyers and Clinton (Bill and Hillary), and, for that matter, Republican Joe Barton, have not. As Ivanka Trump put it: “There’s a special place in hell for people who prey on children. I’ve yet to see a valid explanation, and I have no reason to doubt the victims’ accounts.” (Her father, the New York Times reports, “vented his annoyance” over these words, asking aides, “Do you believe this?”)
I don’t excuse Franken’s alleged groping of women or Conyers’ alleged sexual harassment, and I disagree with Nancy Pelosi’s “due process” defense of Conyers. As for Bill Clinton, I wrote in 1998 and 1999 about his “sleaziness,” his “chronic dishonesty,” his “moral problems,” his “moral lapse,” his “unconvincing” argument that he didn’t commit perjury, his inability to “show real contrition,” his “puny” stature in the presidency, the way he “humiliated himself by his own conduct,” the unseemly spectacle of feminists turning “a blind eye to the president’s behavior,” and the “personal hostility” Clinton deserved.
But it shouldn’t be controversial to say that sexual misconduct is worse when it involves children. Until now, accusations of sexual abuse of children have been met with swift, severe and bipartisan responses. Recall the revulsion over Denny Hastert and Anthony Weiner, Mark Foley and David Wu. Predators aren’t solely Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives. No partisan or ideological lens applies – only a human one.
The presumption of innocence has its place, of course – in a courtroom. But this isn’t about whether Moore should go to prison; it’s about whether he belongs in the Senate. Many women who didn’t previously know each other and who didn’t have anything to gain by coming forward have said he pursued them when they were teenagers as young as 14 and he was a grown man. Moore denies the allegations of sexual misconduct but has not denied that he was involved with girls half his age when he was in his 30s.
Weaker strains of whataboutism had already found many hosts this year, as criticisms of Trump are invariably met with a so’s-your-mom rejoinder. What about Hillary’s emails? What about the Clinton Foundation? (Answer: She isn’t the president.) But surely even the most ardent make-America-great-again nationalist can recognize that child molestation has a unique status among cliches of awfulness.
That’s why Republican Ed Gillespie, in his Trump-style gubernatorial campaign in Virginia, ran an ad falsely accusing his opponent, Democrat Ralph Northam, of calling “restoring the rights of unrepentant sex offenders one of his greatest feats.”
The conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, a Trump favorite, was so concerned about a nonexistent pedophile ring operating out of a D.C. pizza restaurant that he kept hammering at it until an armed man showed up at the restaurant to investigate.
Now Trump and his whataboutist followers would turn credible accusations of child molestation into just another both-sides-do-it argument. But both sides don’t do it. Nobody else has been accused of what Moore has been accused of – and nobody so accused has been granted the privilege of high office. Yet.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.