There was a time when one of the worst sins you could commit on the American Right was to buy into “false moral equivalence.”
During the Cold War, this usually meant saying that we were no better than the Soviet Union. For example, Democratic Sen. William J. Fulbright — Bill Clinton’s mentor — said of the Soviet Union in 1971, “Were it not for the fact that they are Communists — and therefore ‘bad’ people — while we are Americans — and therefore ‘good’ people — our policies would be nearly indistinguishable.”
My old boss William F. Buckley famously had the best retort to this kind of myopic asininity. “To say that the CIA and the KGB engage in similar practices is the equivalent of saying that the man who pushes an old lady into the path of a hurtling bus is not to be distinguished from the man who pushes an old lady out of the path of a hurtling bus: on the grounds that, after all, in both cases someone is pushing old ladies around.”
After the Cold War, the false moral equivalence arguments didn’t stop; they simply mutated to fit the times. The isolated abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were expanded into an indictment of America itself. “Shamefully,” Sen. Ted Kennedy declared in 2005, “we now learn that Saddam’s torture chambers reopened under new management: U.S. management.” Sen. Dick Durbin claimed American policies were indistinguishable from those of the Nazis, the Soviets and Pol Pot. Amnesty International dubbed the prison at Guantanamo Bay “the Gulag of our time.”
The problem with this sort of rhetoric should be obvious; however bad Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay may be in your eyes, logic and facts can’t make them the moral equivalents of genocidal mass slaughter (in Saddam’s Iraq, Nazi Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the Soviet Union). Nor is locking up terrorists and enemy combatants anything like imprisonment — or summary execution — of dissidents, intellectuals and other civilians.
Last year, President Barack Obama went for a personal best in the worst moral equivalence Olympics. At a National Prayer Breakfast, he argued that those who condemn the tactics of the Islamic State — the beheadings, the slavery, the mass rapes, burying people alive and so forth — must understand that Christians did some very bad things 10 centuries ago during the Crusades. So let’s not “get on our high horse” about all that.
Conservatives, including yours truly, ran to their respective rhetorical garages to get as many brickbats, crowbars and sledgehammers as necessary to demolish that specious nonsense.
So it’s interesting to see how conservatives have been responding to the Republican nominee’s own adventures in moral equivalence. Last December in an interview with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, Donald Trump was asked about his sometimes lavish praise of Vladimir Putin.
Scarborough noted that Putin “kills journalists, political opponents, and invades countries. Obviously that would be a concern, would it not?”
“He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader,” Trump replied. “Unlike what we have in this country.”
Scarborough persisted: “But again: He kills journalists that don’t agree with him.”
Trump’s answer: “I think our country does plenty of killing, also, Joe, so, you know.”
More than nine months later — a suitable period to rethink one’s absurd and ridiculous position, one might think — Trump was asked again about his so-called bromance with the Russian autocrat. In a “Commander-in-Chief forum,” NBC’sMatt Lauer confronted Trump with some of his past quotes about Putin, including Trump’s claim that, “in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A, our president is not doing so well.”
When Lauer ran through just a few of Putin’s offenses, including his alleged involvement in the hacking of the Democratic Party’s computers, Trump responded: “Well, nobody knows that for a fact. But do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?
I take a backseat to no one as a critic of Barack Obama, but this is repugnant. Barack Obama has done some terrible, foolish and deplorable things as president. But all of his transgressions are measured against the standards of our constitutional system and our political culture. For instance, in 2009, the Obama Justice Department outrageously monitored the phone calls and emails of my Fox News colleague James Rosen. In order to get the warrants, they hilariously named Rosen a “criminal co-conspirator” of one of his sources. That’s really bad. But it is not the moral equivalent of having Rosen gunned down in the street.
That Donald Trump cannot see such distinctions is no longer shocking. That many of his conservative supporters can’t either grows less shocking by the day.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by email at [email protected].