Trump’s criticism of his enemies almost always takes the form of projection. ‘Projection’ here is not meant as psychoanalytic jargon. It is the relatively simple phenomenon of seeing in others a trait that is more plainly found in yourself. In politics it often takes the form of making an accusation that better or instead fits yourself. Let’s call it ‘political projection’.
Trump does not project positive or neutral traits. He displaces his flaws and areas of political vulnerability onto others. Here are a few of the many examples (along with the core flaws they are meant to illustrate):
- When he says “many don’t know” something (ignorance)
- When he says Clinton or Biden corruption is disqualifying (corruption)
- When he says the media is fake news (lying)
- When he says Democrats want to rig elections (cheating)
- When he says Biden uses his power to help his children (nepotism)
- When he say Biden doesn’t have the mental wherewithal to be president (incompetence)
It is easy to list more examples and jump to conclusions about Trump’s broken moral sense. I will explore a different point. Setting aside what is in Trump’s mind, I want to consider how projection relates to hypocrisy, another common characteristic of Trump/GOP/Fox, and how the two combine to be especially destructive to political discourse.
My goal is to understand how it takes only one side to destroy conversation, and how it then looks like both destroyed it equally.
Hypocrisy and Whataboutism
A straightforward goal of political debate is to highlight flaws in your opponent—their positions, arguments, character. When voters take note of the flaws, they will be more likely to support you. On that logic, it seems obvious that you would want to make accusations that don’t also apply to you. Otherwise, the reason the voter has to support you would undermine itself.
This is in part why people make accusations of hypocrisy. As I have outlined elsewhere, hypocrisy involves behaving in a way inconsistent with one’s principles, pronouncements, or values. To make an accusation of hypocrisy is to make an internal critique: it points out the inconsistency in your opponent and, fortunate for you, leaves your actions and principles out of it. Plus, you need not call either the actions or principles wrong. They simply must conflict.
A response to hypocrisy accusations is ‘whataboutism’, a familiar Trump/GOP/Fox move. (It can be used to respond to critiques of any kind, but hypocrisy is the focus here.) Whataboutism involves charging the accuser with hypocrisy of their own. “You think I’m a hypocrite? But what about you?” The move involves bringing your opponent’s actions and principles into the conversation. Now they must do more than point out your inconsistencies.
It is worth distinguishing two types of whataboutism.
- The two opponents can accuse each other of the same hypocrisy. For example, if two rival politicians both accept corrupt campaign contributions, anytime one brings up the topic the other can say, “But what about you?” The effect is supposed to be that since both have the same flaw, they (somehow) cancel each other out in the political debate.
- An opponent can respond with a different accusation of hypocrisy. This is often less effective because it is a blatant ad hominem attack (more blatant than type 1). If one politician says the other is corrupt and the response is, “But what about your cheating scandal,” observers are more likely to see it as an obvious dodge and deflection.
Whataboutism is taken to be a losing move among liberals. At the level of logic, it is. But it is rhetorically effective when used by people who don’t take their own hypocrisy seriously (or who might not be hypocrites at all, since they have no fixed principles).
Here is why whataboutism works. By making an accusation of hypocrisy, the accuser shows their concern for consistency. They are presupposing that consistency matters. The accusation works only on that assumption. Whataboutism weaponizes that concern against the critic. This results in two separate hypocrisies in the accuser: 1) the explicit content of the whataboutism (corruption, cheating, etc.) and 2) a type of meta-hypocrisy, involving caring about hypocrisy in the opponent but not in their own case. Not only have the tables been turned, but now there are two instances of hypocrisy against one. The person who invoked whataboutism is winning on the scoreboard. And the liberal has fallen prey to an illicit move; they are losing to a cheater.
Whataboutism and Projection
What about projection? The first type of whataboutism involves two opponents charging each other with the same hypocrisy. In this respect, projection and whataboutism are the identical. In both the result is two politicians who are ostensibly guilty of the same flaw.
How are they different? The answer, I believe, is the difference between proactive and reactive accusation.
In projection, you are going on the offensive against your opponent. You’re attempting to draw first blood. The projector is the accuser. Of course, you’re making an accusation that also applies to you, but I’ll turn to that in a moment. In whataboutism, you are making the second move. You are attempting to parry an accusation by making one of your own—trying to counter punch, shift from defense to offense. In the first type of whataboutism, the content of the parry and the original accusation are the same.
The result of both accusations is perceived to be two equally bloodied opponents. But if that is true, wouldn’t projection be self-defeating? Why not (only) accuse your opponent of failures that are distinctive to them? Projection seems like a self-inflicted wound. (It could be called the ‘projection paradox’.)
Leaving aside that projection might hardly, if ever, be a conscious strategy, it is a useful tool for destroying political discourse and heightening partisanship. It therefore makes perfect sense for Trump and his followers. The goal is not to contribute to political debate. It is to break it.
For starters, projection enables you to minimize the public relevance of your flaws. If you do not care much about truth, it always makes sense to accuse your opponents of your own flaws and failures, even if you have to make them fairly abstract (dishonesty, corruption, incompetence, weakness). The result is two political opponents making the same accusations of the other. You say I’m corrupt. I say you’re corrupt. “No, you’re the puppet.” Many will simply see two politicians with equal flaws.
Voters need to know that Trump is the corrupt one. But what they see is each side calling the other corrupt. Cynicism starts to take over. False equivalency will reign and the issue will appear less decisive to voters. They will revert to other, often purely partisan reasons for their support.
Recall that a goal of debate is to highlight the distinctive flaws of your opponent. The move assumes that you are not guilty of the same flaw. Projection short circuits the debate. It becomes challenging to find distinctive flaws in opponents who are prone to projection. They have already turned their flaws into accusations of you! This robs your possible accusations of their rhetorical effectiveness, even though they might still be perfectly accurate.
In short, accusations usually make two assumptions: 1) asymmetry: only your opponent has the flaw; and 2) value: the flaw matters. Political projection turns the two assumptions against each other. The accusation no longer seems asymmetrical, and because the accusation concerns important potential flaws, the target of projection must now spend their time trying to exculpate themselves. Once they try to defend themselves, they’ve lost the high ground. Now they’re on defense.
Projection and Hypocrisy
It is tempting to think that you can simply point out that your opponent is projecting. Here is where hypocrisy and whataboutism are crucial. It is becoming all the more apparent that accusations of hypocrisy are ineffective, especially when made against the GOP/Fox. The hypocrisy is baked in at this point. In my view, it is a feature, not a bug. What Trump’s projection does is force Democrats to respond with accusations of hypocrisy. What’s more, the accusation takes the form of whataboutism. “You’re saying I’m corrupt? What about you?!”
The key feature of my analysis is the sequence of accusations. Since only a few will witness the sequence in order, most people will see equal and opposing accusations. But consider two purely hypothetical exchanges between politicians. I name the politicians with random variables.
B: “Hey T, you’re a hypocrite. Look at this corruption.”
T: “What about your corruption?”
T: “B is so corrupt. Everyone knows it.”
B: “No, T, you’re the corrupt one.”
In the first example, B comes out with an accusation of hypocrisy. Supposedly T claims to be anti-corruption elsewhere. T then responds with whataboutism (of the first type). B and all the observers who dream the dream of functioning political discourse can interpret T’s response as a fallacious deflection. In example 2, assuming T is actually corrupt, the exchange starts with projection. B’s response is a deflection, but given that T is projecting, the deflection is wholly legitimate. The problem, however, is that B’s response looks a lot like whataboutism.
This is the effectiveness of projection. Not only does it shift the debate into mere accusations of hypocrisy (which hardly ever change anything), but it forces Democrats to resort to a move they find illegitimate. This makes them hypocrites with respect to the values they take to underlie real debate. Now they are behaving no differently than the enemies intent on tearing conversation apart. Democrats become, at best, complicit in or, at worst, active contributors to the destruction of discourse.
As far as I can see, there is no way out of this bind, which makes it an ideal move for Trump/GOP/Fox.
As a final point, the same analysis holds when the projection involves projection itself. Right wing pundits will say that the liberal accusations of the right—involving, for example, violence, intolerance, or racism—are in fact projection. Then they will say that liberals are projecting when they accuse the right of projection. Are they being hypocrites? Who is actually guilty of projection?
It feels awfully difficult to figure that out, doesn’t it? Who has the energy? It is easier to say everything sucks and just pick a side or sit out entirely.