In the span of eight days, Virginia’s government was thrown into a state of chaos and turmoil after its three top leaders were compromised by revelations about their past. As a result, they turned on one another in shamelessly opportunistic bids to either seize or hold onto power. And it all began when the governor, Ralph Northam, endorsed a ghoulish abortion bill — so horrific that it even gave moderate pro-choicers pause — that was put forth by a freshman legislator.
Last week, after receiving a tip from an associate of Northam’s that was reportedly upset over his backing of this atrocious bill, the website Big League Politics reported that the governor had displayed — more highlighted — a racist photograph of two men, one in blackface and the other dressed as a klansman in his medical school yearbook page. Later in the day, it emerged that Northam had listed his nickname as the highly-offensive and racially-charged “Coonman” in his Virginia Military Institute yearbook.
Amid calls to resign across the commonwealth and country, it came out that Northam’s successor, Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, had been accused of committing sexual assault in 2004. Not only did he deny the accusation, but Fairfax implied that Northam and his team were behind the leaking of it so that he could avoid resignation. Then, NBC News’ Kasie Hunt reported that when asked about the allegations in a meeting with lawmakers, Fairfax responded by exclaiming, “Fuck that bitch.”
The statement was quickly compounded by another major revelation: Attorney General Mark Herring, who would become governor if Northam and Fairfax both resigned, admitted to having attended a party in blackface himself when he was 19. Presumably, Herring was attempting to clear the decks and set himself apart from the governor and lieutenant governor, by being the only one to take responsibility for his actions. However, it was just another instance that helped to turn the Democratic-controlled commonwealth into a sad and farcical state of chaos.
Aside from initially calling for the resignation of Northam, Virginia Republicans have stayed out of the way and allowed the situation to play out as Democrats engage in self-immolation. Yet, Never Trump conservatives have not followed suit; opting to make use of the situation and bend it toward their own political purposes. Specifically, they seized on it and made these controversies into part of their crusade against the Republican Party, by calling the GOP out on what they saw as hypocrisy.
In doing so, they undercut their own argument. By minimizing and shifting blame onto Republicans, these commentators have elevated their own unrelated grievances with the GOP above the racially-charged scandals befalling Northam and Herring, as well as the sexual assault scandal of Fairfax.
Have Republicans often looked the other way or played dumb about the president’s racially-charged language? Yes. But they have been more forthright policing their own than Nancy Pelosi, who has been content to ignore and even elevate anti-semites in her caucus. So even if anti-Trump Republicans are technically right that some Republicans are being hypocrites, they protest too much. Yes, Republicans have work to do when it comes to matters of race, but to use the Northam situation to highlight that fact is blinkered and self-defeating.
Never Trump elements implemented the classic “whataboutism” argument — the same argument they’ve readily deployed against Trump apologists. What about Steve King? What about Donald Trump and his white supremacist agenda? The uniform message? Republicans have no right to be offended because they themselves are imperfect. The arguments and accusations were launched into the digital ether and the world of television punditry soon followed, blasting Republicans for a “hypocritical” and “half-hearted” stance on the entire ordeal.
Cui bono? Certainly not people that are truly concerned with stamping out racism and racially insensitive behavior or holding sexual assaulters accountable. All this accomplished was shifting the focus of our conversation from Northam’s endorsement of a perverted form of abortion, as well as his, at best, hamfisted attempt at contrician for his clearly racist conduct. All of a sudden, we were talking about the prior sins of Republicans. They are sins indeed, but unconnected ones.
Whataboutism is the argument made by those without one. It is the response of a person facing a fork in the road, but denying that only two options exist. Donald Trump and his legal defense team have frequently employed whataboutism arguments in their response to the Mueller investigation and they have come off as ridiculous as a result. What about all the crimes that Hillary Clinton committed? Goes their familiar refrain. (It is akin to O.J. Simpson’s defense attorney asking the jury why they aren’t hearing about other murders committed by other people). We saw it among Democrats too, when in May of last year, amid accusations of sexual misconduct against New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman. Many Democrats did not directly defend him, but chose to attack Republicans as hypocrites because “What about Trump and his sexual harassment?” So too did they do this when Republicans called on California Senator Kamala Harris to answer for the sexual harassment committed by her now former top aide.
These are all acts that are inexcusable. Republicans criticizing Eric Schneiderman did so along with Democrats because he beat and choked his girlfriends without consent in order to achieve his own sexual gratification. And Republicans joined Democrats in questioning why Senator Harris continued to employ her top aide after sexual harassment complaints had been lodged against him. There is nothing partisan about any of that.
The implication of any whataboutism is that the person who has gotten themselves in trouble is somehow being held to an unequal standard and thus unfairly targeted. It is a load of horseshit. Yes, the world is not a fair place and some people are able to avoid being held to the same standard of conduct as others, but that does not mean that we should excuse the completely separate ill-behavior of others. It is perfectly acceptable to be upset about such unequal treatment, but to use it as a response to the misconduct of somebody from one’s own tribe only foments further political polarization by being an indirect defense of the offending act itself.
Which brings us back to the turmoil in Virginia and those using it as a convenient excuse to further their own goals and put their thumb in the GOP’s eye. Their critique of Republicans might not be wrong, but they are extending Northam, Fairfax, Herring and their allies a lifeline by deflecting from their wrongdoing. Yes, Steve King is a racist who should be relegated to the dustbins of history, but his actions and how he has been held accountable (or not) should not be a factor in how we respond to Ralph Northam and his own sins. Anybody trying to tell you otherwise is not truly interested in holding Northam accountable, but in furthering their own private agenda.
This column originally appeared on evansiegfried.com.