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The Hypocritic Oath
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The Hypocritic Oath

The guiding principles of our Whataboutist Era.

President Joe Biden takes questions from reporters on classified documents. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images.)

Dear Reader (including any of you who woke up to a clouded leopard wandering your neighborhood this morning),

This is just a glorious moment to be a both-sideser. I’m laying back like a THC-gummy-chewing Matthew McConaughey in a beach hammock drinking a Corona at the spectacle (we can drink and chew at the same time).

Let me go down memory lane for a moment.

I remember being in the Fox greenroom in late 2019. I struck up a conversation with a very Trumpy military analyst. He was working himself up into a kind of giddy high—as if he were intoxicated by the ambient methane of flatulent partisanship (I’ve been informed that using the phrase “Fox News greenroom farts” makes me a liberal sellout or something). He excitedly explained that the allegations of what Joe Biden did as vice president vis-à-vis Ukraine show that Joe Biden was actually guilty of the same thing Trump was being accused of. You may recall that Biden was accused of pressuring the Ukrainians into firing a prosecutor who—it was alleged—was investigating Biden’s famously sketchy son, Hunter. 

The factual details don’t really matter for our purposes. At the time I was open to the idea that Biden acted improperly. Indeed, I remain open to it, even though it does seem clear that the charges at the time were overblown. 

Anyway, I asked the gentleman if he thought what Biden allegedly did made him unfit for president. He replied as if I’d asked the dumbest, most obvious question ever, on par with, “Do basset hounds have long ears?” or, “Was Aquaman a stupid movie?”

“Well, yeah!” he replied. “Of course.”

I then asked something like, “If Trump is also guilty of—in your words—‘the same thing’ as what Biden did, does that mean he’s unqualified?”

“What? No. Of course not.” If memory serves, he added a lot more words. But you get the point. I’m quoting all of this from memory, but I’ll always remember his physical reaction. It was like that irrepressible electric shudder that goes through you when your bowels send word up the nervous system that the bad clam you ate is going to be a big problem. 

He reminded me of that hitchhiker from There’s Something About Mary who had the idea of creating an exercise video called Seven Minute Abs that would steal the thunder of the wildly successful Eight Minute Abs video series. But then Ben Stiller’s character suggests that someone could beat him at his own game by coming out with Six Minute Abs. The hitchhiker goes into momentary catatonic shock because he can’t even compute the craziness of Stiller’s idea. “It’s like you’re dreaming of gorgonzola cheese when it’s clearly brie time, baby.”

Well, as proud Wisconsinite Steve Hayes might say, I’m dreaming of all the cheeses.

The news that Joe Biden—or his staff—mishandled classified documents is giving a lot of folks the bad-clam-six-minute-abs shivers. 

Before we continue, some caveats are in order. There’s a lot we don’t know. (The latest Dispatch Podcast has a good discussion of this.) Still, it seems likely, as of right now, that Biden’s classified document misdeeds—whatever they are—aren’t as bad as Trump’s on the merits. 

But notice I didn’t say “allegedly” mishandled. That’s because the evidence that the documents were stored inappropriately has already been established and admitted to. President Biden himself conceded that some of these documents were found next to his bitchin’ Corvette (the “bitchin’” is implied). As Thoreau said, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” 

As a legal matter, we just don’t know exactly how egregious Biden’s actions were. We have much, much more to work with in understanding the egregiousness of Trump’s actions, in part because he’s admitted to so much (and changed his story so many times). I think it’s pretty obvious that Trump deliberately flouted laws about classified materials and that he lied—or encouraged his aides—to lie and to obstruct an investigation. The fact pattern we have right now for Biden doesn’t suggest anything like that. But who knows what news will break next? After all, they were leaning into the defense that all of the documents were properly stored at his “think tank” until news broke that some were found in his garage in Wilmington. 

Also, it’s worth noting that Biden can’t claim the same declassification authority that a president can. The famous line from John Nance Garner, isn’t “The vice presidency isn’t worth a warm bucket of spit—except for the capacious declassification authority.”

But as a political matter, for Trump, this is like actually finding the Christmas pony you longed for behind the surprise pile of manure underneath the tree. That’s because one of the arguments Trump and his defenders made over and over again—often very dishonestly—was, everybody does it. I wish it were otherwise, but if you don’t think this development helps Trump make that claim, you’re wrong. 

But here’s the thing that’s getting lost in all of this. Even if we stipulate that what Trump did was worse, that doesn’t mean that what Biden may have done isn’t bad. 

I challenge you to scour the relevant criminal code. You won’t find a single sentence that says anything like, “If what you did isn’t as bad as what Donald Trump did, you’re in the clear.”

In this Whataboutist Era we’re living in, this is one of the most difficult distinctions for a lot of people to maintain. If Trump shot a bunch of people on Fifth Avenue, that wouldn’t create a safe space for Biden to beat up a lot of people on Fifth Avenue. The standard here isn’t what the guy you hate did. It’s what the law says. 

Now, you can argue that the law is bad and should be changed. I think that might be a good argument to make. But you can’t be righteous and sanctimonious about the vital importance of the law as it is when your enemies fall afoul of it, and just wave your hands when your allies do. 

I just can’t see how Biden escapes this problem. One of the central tenets of whataboutism is that hypocrisy is worse than consistent misbehavior, and there’s just no way Biden squirm out of the hypocrisy charge. On more than one occasion he offered sovereign contempt for Trump’s “irresponsible” actions. Here he is on 60 Minutes:

Tu quoque-palooza. 

But let’s get back to my initial point. One of my biggest peeves about the Whataboutist Era is that it makes hypocrites out of the people crying “hypocrisy!” A liberal Supreme Court nominee does X and conservatives shriek about X. Then a conservative nominee does X and liberals shriek about X. 

There’s already an “Impeach 46” hashtag trending on Twitter over this. And you won’t be surprised that many of the heroic Twitter warriors don’t think Trump did anything wrong but do believe that what Biden did is outrageous. It’s another “Biden is guilty of what they’re accusing Trump of” moment. 

Rep. Mike Turner waved away Trump’s scandal as a “bookkeeping issue” that didn’t warrant an FBI search. Now, he’s demanding that the director of national intelligence conduct an “immediate review and damage assessment” of Biden because the documents were of “the highest classification.”

Texas Rep. Ronny Jackson called the Mar-a-Lago raid “a coordinated WITCH HUNT meant to SMEAR Trump all along. Investigate EVERYONE responsible immediately!” He also said, “No one trusts the FBI or the DOJ anymore. I don’t trust them any further than I can throw that entire building.”

But now he says that “Biden has NO RESPECT for the rule of law!” And he’s wailing about how “while Biden was sending his DOJ goons to RAID President Trump’s home, HE HAD HIGHLY CLASSIFIED DOCUMENTS IN HIS OWN GARAGE. In boxes next to his Corvette!! OUTRAGEOUS! A special counsel is needed NOW!”

After the Trump raid, Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted an upside down American flag and a call to “DEFUND THE FBI!!!” But she says of Biden: “Joe Biden stole classified documents. This is a very serious crime. DOJ & NARA can’t sweep this under the rug AND persecute Trump.” She also said, “I think we need to investigate the Bidens nonstop. I’ve been very vocal [on] impeaching Joe Biden and hopefully, we can get that done this Congress.”

Elise Stefanik decried the Trump search as an example of “overreach” and “Joe Biden’s Department of Justice and the FBI targeting his most likely presidential opponent in 2024.”

But after the Biden story broke she said in a statement: “The American people have lost all faith in the purely partisan and politically weaponized DOJ’s ability to hold Joe Biden and his Administration accountable. The more evidence that is revealed shows the need for true oversight that will shine a light on any and all illegal activity. … House Republicans will conduct rigorous oversight and hold Joe Biden and the Biden Administration accountable to the American people, and we will end the two-tiered justice system in our nation.”

You could play this game all day long. When Trump got a special counsel it was proof “the regime” was out of control. When Biden gets one it’s proof the regime is protecting Biden. I can guarantee you that the Biden administration is not giddy about having a special counsel, never mind a Trump-appointed one on its back. 

Again, the differences between the two cases cut in Biden’s favor in some ways and against him in others. 

But as someone who would very much like to see both of these old men fade away into retirement that doesn’t matter much to me. Whether it’s gorgonzola or brie, it’s all cheese to me. 

Gaslighting the war on gas stoves.

In Suicide of the West I wrote:

There’s a deep confusion within progressivism. On the one hand, progressives take deep pride in their role as agents of “social change.” Often they have every reason to be proud. If you believe in the causes of, say, civil rights and feminism, why wouldn’t you celebrate your accomplishments? But at the same time, progressives want to claim that any effort to resist the forces of “progress” is an act of aggression in the culture war. From abortion and gay marriage to the hot fad for transgender rights, progressives want every institution and community to bend the knee to their movement. And when anyone refuses, the resisters are cast as the aggressors. 

When I wrote that, I did not think that one day I would need to include “banning gas stoves” to that list.

Here are some headlines:

No, The Government Is Not Seizing Your Gas Stove
Republicans want you to believe that President Biden wants to break into your house and disconnect your gas main. He, of course, does not

Republicans turn up the heat on a new culture war target: gas stoves
The possibility of the Biden administration regulating gas stoves due to new safety fears has the right wing fired up

MSNBC (opinion)
Republicans have found their new dumb culture war

The New Republic
How Right-Wing Gasbags Cooked Up a Fantastically Dumb Culture War
The incredible story of how conservatives took a consumer product warning about stoves and fried their brains to a crisp.

And here is Axios. While I’m ambivalent about the “smart brevity” fad, it’s useful in this case because Axios’ summary is pretty useful. 

Right’s new fight: Gas stoves

Despite official insistence that fears of a ban are unfounded, conservatives are suddenly championing gas stoves in a new culture war.

Why it matters: Mounting scientific evidence points to a link between a higher risk of respiratory problems and gas stoves — the prevalent means of cooking in roughly 47 million American households.

  • State and local governments have battled over proposals to ban gas appliances in new construction because of their health and climate impacts.
  • Some cities, like New York, have already enacted such bans — but federal officials hadn’t weighed in until this week.

All of these stories acknowledge that this flare-up was ignited by a Bloomberg interview with Richard Trumka Jr., the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, in which he said banning gas stoves was “on the table.” But they conveniently leave out the headline of the Bloomberg article

“US Safety Agency to Consider Ban on Gas Stoves Amid Health Fears”

How dare all of these idiot conservatives think the government is considering a ban on gas stoves. I mean, where would they possibly get that idea? These poltroons read a Bloomberg headline accurately, the fools!

The Axios summary is even funnier. It states plainly—go back and read it—that states and cities are making efforts to ban gas stoves. New York has already implemented a ban! But it wasn’t until Trumka said a federal ban was “on the table” that anyone thought a federal ban might be—checks notes—on the table. The piece links to another Axios article explaining how this idea has been percolating across the country for years: “A growing number of climate-conscious cities — from San Francisco to Brookline, Massachusetts — have voted to ban natural gas hookups in newly-built apartment and commercial buildings, putting an end to gas-powered stoves, water heaters and clothes dryers.”

So in other words, there’s a national movement among liberal policymakers to ban gas appliances, and this week the federal government said it was considering a similar ban on a national level. 

And when conservatives—though not just conservatives—complain, the unanimous response from liberal journalists is that conservatives are making it all up!

Go back to the Axios opener:Despite official insistence that fears of a ban are unfounded, conservatives are suddenly championing gas stoves in a new culture war.” They make it sound like Trumka started out with a statement taking any gas stove ban “off the table” but conservatives freaked out anyway. The subheadline of the Washington Post story says, “Regulators have no plans to ban gas stoves, but Republicans are slamming the Consumer Product Safety Commission for announcing it will examine the health impacts of the appliances.”

No, the Republicans were slamming the CPSC for saying a ban was “on the table.”

Now, I think the research behind this movement to ban gas stoves is shot through with bad, politicized science. But I’m fine conceding that there’s a colorable case—that I disagree with—that gas stoves are bad. But this is simply not an argument that the right started. It’s an argument that the right responded to. In fact, the claim that the government had no “plans” to ban gas stoves was issued in response to the utterly predictable firestorm. It’s like they’re all sportswriters treating the third round of a boxing match as the first. 

They have to do that in order to paint the right as aggressors in the culture war and peddlers of illegitimate boob bait. It couldn’t be that there’s a colorable argument in defense of gas stoves. It couldn’t be that there’s a constitutional argument that it’s none of the federal government’s business what kind of stove I use. It just has to be proof that any objection to liberal policymakers is illegitimate and mockable.

Don’t get me wrong. I think some of the right’s “from our cold dead hands” rhetoric about all of this has been over the top. But overreaction is still, you know, a form of reaction to the thing that started it. 

Just imagine for a moment if a policymaker in a Republican administration said a national ban on late-term abortion was “on the table.” I doubt we’d see headlines like “How Left-Wing Gasbags Cooked up a Fantastically Dumb Culture War.” 

Now, I concede that’s a bad hypothetical. Abortion is a particularly explosive issue. So how about if a Republican administration similarly proposed a ban on electric stoves. After all, as Charlie Cooke notes, electric stoves cause a lot more home fires and poor and minority communities disproportionately die from them. Would left-wing opposition—based presumably on climate change hysteria—be denounced as a culture war farce?

Journalistic skepticism is a good thing when properly applied. There’s very good reason for skepticism about the science behind the war on gas stoves (that’s right, I said it). There’s also very good reason for skepticism about this kind of power grab by the federal government. But for a lot of reporters, skepticism about the pronouncements of climate and health experts is illegitimate. They reserve their skepticism for conservative skepticism. Because conservatives just have to be wrong about anything that makes them mad. 

Various & Sundry 

Canine update: I’m alone with the beasts while the Fair Jessica drives my daughter back to school in California. It’s increasingly becoming fraught to be left alone at home with the animals because they get incredibly needy with the missus away. Maybe it’s the same amount of neediness, but it’s concentrated all on me absent the division of scritches that come with two bipeds around. Pippa in particular is showing signs of spaniel rage again as she tries to protect her place next to me on the bed or couch. Zoë still has no idea how to deal with it. The good news, though Pippa won’t see it that way, is we finally found a mobile groomer that will do Pippa’s coif. Pippa hates our normal groomer more than she hates the vet or mean people. 


And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.