President Donald Trump fends off criticism with a simple tactic: He dismisses anyone who disagrees with him, often linking the person to prominent Democrats. During an interview on Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace asked the president about his portrayal of “the fake-news media” as “the enemy of the American people.” Wallace tried to bring up a quote on that subject from retired Admiral William McRaven, the Navy SEAL and special-operations commander who led the operation that captured Osama bin Laden.
Trump interrupted. “Hillary Clinton fan,” he said, as if that should end the conversation. Wallace tried to continue. “Excuse me,” Trump interrupted again, bouncing his head to emphasize each word: “Hillary. Clinton. Fan.”
McRaven had warned last year that the demonization of a free press “may be the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime.” Then, in August, after Trump revoked the security clearance of the former CIA Director John Brennan, a fierce critic, McRaven asked Trump to revoke his clearance so that he could join the ranks of those who have spoken out against Trump’s presidency. In an open letter to Trump published in The Washington Post, McRaven wrote:
Like most Americans, I had hoped that when you became president, you would rise to the occasion and become the leader this great nation needs.
A good leader tries to embody the best qualities of his or her organization. A good leader sets the example for others to follow. A good leader always puts the welfare of others before himself or herself.
Your leadership, however, has shown little of these qualities. Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.
If you think for a moment that your McCarthy-era tactics will suppress the voices of criticism, you are sadly mistaken. The criticism will continue until you become the leader we prayed you would be.
After Wallace brought up McRaven’s quote about demonizing the media, Trump dismissed the widely respected flag officer through guilt by association and abruptly pivoted to question his achievements. While many politicians deploy abrupt pivots, “whataboutism” is one of the most important devices in Trump’s rhetorical toolbox.