It’s clever enough on an abstract level in that, yeah, it has a literal truth to it. The United States’ hands were certainly not clean with respect to human rights and civil rights. But it’s also a logical fallacy of the most basic order. “Tu quoque” — Latin for “you too” — reasoning, which goes like this:
Fred: “You should stop drinking, Bob, it’s destroying your life.”
Bob: “You’ve been drinking since you were 21!”
The second assertion may be true, but it does nothing to address or refute the first assertion. Indeed, it’s a way of avoiding the first assertion. Bob may be a drinker, but maybe he’s not a problem drinker. And no matter what the case is with Bob, it doesn’t mean Fred isn’t ruining his life.
Tu quoque reasoning is designed to obfuscate and to create the illusion of false equivalency. It’s likewise a form of ad hominem argument, designed to throw attention on the one making an accusation rather than answer for the accusation. As many who lived under communist dictatorships observed — people like Vaclav Havel — it’s a favorite tactic of demagogues and dictators who use it and its superficial appeal to inspire surrogates to turn on their critics.
Donald Trump is a master of tu quoque reasoning. Indeed, a large part of his campaign was based on it. No matter the claim against him, he turned it into an opportunity to fire back at the media or whoever it was who made the claim, turning everything into a referendum on his critics while never being forced to contend with the substance of their claims.
Today, however, he may have topped himself in this regard, becoming the first American president to use the tactic to defend Russian despotism. Speaking to Fox News in his pre-Super Bowl interview, Trump drew an equivalence between Russia and the United States:
Asked by host Bill O’Reilly if he respected Putin, Trump replied: “I do respect Putin.” Told that Putin is a “killer”, Trump said: “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”
Putin, of course, has literally had political enemies killed, rendering Trump’s comments here one of the best examples of “А у вас негров линчуют” since Brezhnev died.
When I first heard this last night I thought that it may be a tough one for Trump to easily pull off. Indeed, even some Republican politicians immediately rebuked him for it. But not many. Indeed, during my time on social media today, I’ve seen far more people nodding at Trump’s fallacious little pirouette than criticizing him for it. People who spent eight years accusing anyone who didn’t wear an American flag lapel pin of being a Fifth Columnist suddenly eager to engage in a nuanced critique of America’s shortcomings. Or eager to argue that Putin may be bad but Obama was worse and Hillary would’ve opened up American gulags.
This is how a demagogue stays in power.