President Donald Trump will doubtlessly continue to add more new phrases to the American political lexicon throughout his term in office. This weekend ― in an interview on Fox aired as part of the Super Bowl extravaganza, no less ― Trump made a downright astonishing statement, comparing America to Putin’s Russia. This was not an example of moral equivalence, instead it has to be properly called making the case for immoral equivalence.
Bill O’Reilly asked Trump about Vladimir Putin, and Trump was in the midst of giving a stock answer about how it’d be great if America got along with Russia, when O’Reilly interrupted to protest: “But he’s a killer. Putin’s a killer.” Trump’s response was jaw-dropping: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”
Now, just imagine for one tiny second what Republicans would be saying right now if President Barack Obama had ever said anything remotely like that. Or President Hillary Clinton, for that matter. Conservative heads would currently be exploding, to put it mildly. The denunciations would be loud and feverish. “Obama hates America” would be just one of the indignant responses from outraged conservatives. So, one wonders, where is the outrage now?
This wasn’t even an off-the-cuff gaffe. Trump has previously said almost exactly the same thing, in a Morning Joe interview, back in December of 2015. While praising Putin for running his country as “a leader” (unlike Obama, according to him), Trump continued: “I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe, so you know. There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, a lot of killing, a lot of stupidity.”
This all runs counter to a bedrock belief among conservatives ― the idea of “American exceptionalism.” According to this near-religious belief, America is the best country the world has ever been graced with, nothing America ever does is in any way wrong, and we are the greatest country in the world, by any measure. Period. Any facts to the contrary are nothing short of hatred for America, because America is so unquestionably exceptional.
To be sure, most of the American public believes this to some extent or another. Mostly this is ignorance ― simply not knowing that many other countries are, in fact, better in measurable ways that what we have here in America. This is why world travel is such an eye-opening experience for so many Americans, because they see for themselves the reality, unvarnished by the American exceptionalism veneer.
Those that have eyes to see (and the budget to afford foreign travel) can come to the realization that some things are actually better in other countries. But back at home, the very idea runs counter to the exceptionalism catechism. It is dismissed out of hand by the high priests of American exceptionalism. But what really enrages them is any suggestion that American motives and ideals might not have always been the highest and most moral on the entire planet. That is a direct attack on the exceptionalist’s faith.
Remember the conservative apoplexy in response to Barack Obama quite correctly pointing out (in a speech in Cairo, Egypt) that America had overthrown a popularly-elected government in Iran and installed the Shah as our puppet? Obama was on solid historical ground, but that simply didn’t matter. His speech (and others from the same time period) were derided as “an apology tour” ― which obviously ran counter to American exceptionalism on two fronts. First, America has never done anything wrong; and second, even if we had, we certainly would never apologize for anything.
So, once again, just imagine what the blowback would have sounded like if Obama had ever defended the leader of Russia by saying: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” The reaction would have been swift, and merciless. Now? Not so much.
Vice President Mike Pence had the unenviable task of attempting to clean up after Trump. Pence made the rounds of most of the Sunday morning political chatfests (he snubbed CNN), and he tried to make the case for up being down and night being day. He’s going to get a lot of practice at this over the next four years, one assumes. He rather unbelievably stated that he didn’t see Trump’s comments as any kind of moral equivalence, arguing in essence that it was just Trump being Trump.
Pence even had a very hard time answering a bedrock question on American exceptionalism: whether he considered the United States morally superior to Russia. Before Trump, this would have been answered by any conservative anywhere with some version of: “Of course America is morally superior to Russia.” To American exceptionalists, it would be downright un-American to even contemplate any other response, in fact.
The most astonishing thing about the O’Reilly interview is that O’Reilly failed to ask any sort of followup question to Trump’s statement. All O’Reilly would have had to do would have been to respond: “Wait... what did you just say?” But he dropped the ball and let it slide.
So we’ll just have to wait until an actual journalist can ask Trump about his rather strange comment: “Mr. President, what do you mean when you say: ‘There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?’ What, exactly, are you equating in American history to Putin, for instance, killing journalists with poison when they are critical of him? What has any American president done that is on the same moral scale as that?”
Mike Pence can deny it as much as he likes, but Donald Trump clearly believes there is indeed an equivalence between America’s history and what Putin is doing in Russia. He’s used virtually the same answer twice, in response to similar questions on Putin. He is making the case for America’s immoral equivalence with Putin’s Russia, plain and simple. So somebody really needs to ask Trump ― not one of his spin doctors, but Trump himself ― exactly what he means. If Republicans weren’t so terrified of Trump’s base right now, they’d be the ones loudly calling for such clarification. Conservatism is supposedly built around the ideal of American exceptionalism, and in normal times if the president of the country ― on Super Bowl Sunday, no less ― had made such a statement, they’d be denouncing it (and him) to the skies as loudly as they could. Indeed, the fact that they aren’t currently doing so is a kind of an immoral equivalent on its own. The rules for conservatives seem to have shifted, and now if a Republican president badmouths America, that’s perfectly fine ― it’s only when a Democrat does so that the outrage begins on the right. If not outright immoral equivalence, at the very least that is a rather stark double standard.
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