The false equivalence of ‘false equivalence’

Comparing Trump to his predecessors doesn’t have to mean equating them

During the Wars of the Roses, English subjects were forced to pick sides in an ongoing dispute over the throne. Edward IV, the Yorkist candidate, and Henry VI, the Lancastrian candidate, each ruled England for two separate periods in the 1460s and 1470s. The Wars divided families, intensified regional rivalries, and accorded special political power to members of the nobility–such as Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, who switched allegiances twice.

The intensity of political partisanship in the 1460s in England was remarkable, but in 2017 in the United States a similar partisanship is normal. The two-party system has polarized public opinion on a wide range of issues. The laundry list of political and especially social topics on which voters must now hold fierce opinions doubtless would have struck early 20th-century Americans (not to mention 15th-century English citizens) as bizarre. There can be false equivalence between positions on either side of the partisan divide; but there can also be false equivalence between criticizing both sides and ‘false equivalence’ itself. The second point is important, because it opens space for historical analysis.

The polarization of public opinion is constantly enforcing the presumption that every issue has two sides. So people imagine an “alt-left” to mirror the (self-styled) alt-right. (There is no alt-left.) So people cling to a scientifically grounded denial of anthropogenic climate change to neutralize the scientific consensus that humans are heating up the Earth. (The very few scientists who deny climate change tend to be bankrolled by the fossil fuel industry.)

Thus, with good reason, the charge of false equivalence. Yet in other cases, the charge of false equivalence obstructs meaningful analysis.

Take, for example, Egyptian authoritarian Sisi’s visit to the White House last month and Trump’s praise for him. Liberals were horrified by the visit itself and particularly by Trump’s effusive comments. Republicans, leftists, and independents, meanwhile, recalled Obama’s sale of billions of dollars of military weapons to Egypt under Sisi, after briefly suspending the arrangement. Republicans, as I take it, made this argument cynically, to exculpate Trump. Leftists and independents, as I take it, made the argument critically, to highlight continuity in the U.S.’s hypocritical stance toward Egypt under both the Obama and Trump administrations. As Sharif Kouddous put it:

I think [Sisi’s recent visit] also begs the question of how much the actual U.S. relationship will change, because we have to realize that Obama, before him, echoed decades of U.S. policy towards Egypt, which prioritizes perceived national security interests over human rights and rule of law.

Both arguments, from the left and the right, were met with charges of false equivalence from centrists who oppose Trump. But there is no real equivalence between the Republican argument in this case, which is false equivalence, and the leftist/independent argument, which connects Obama and Trump not to equate them but to place Trump’s actions in historical context. It’s only the hyperpartisanship of public discourse in 2017 that makes criticism of Obama seem like it must entail assent to Trump.

Rather, for many observers, better than Donald Trump is too low a bar at which to set evaluation of political leaders. Between better than Donald Trump and good Kouddous and others see a vast space in which to wreak havoc at home and abroad.

This is an important argument to advance if you believe that Trump is not an alien incursion into the status quo–a belief shared by the U.S. center-left and center-right (glumly) and by the far right (joyously)–but is in fact a result of the status quo. If you believe Trump is the distilled expression of militarist impulses that have always defined U.S. foreign policy, then you will want to be able to point that out without ceding ground for dissent in less flagrant cases.

Political discourse in the comparative mode (better than…, at least s/he’s not…) will always be limited by the pieties and blind spots of partisanship. In the 1460s and 1470s, English subject whipped themselves into a fervor supporting one of two candidates for the throne (whose policies, from this historical retrospect, appear more or less interchangeable). It is urgently necessary that it remain possible to hold in the mind two analogous but different criticisms, one on each side of the aisle, simultaneously.

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