One of the common refrains among liberals during the Trump presidency has been “gosh, imagine what they would be doing if Hillary were president.” They, in this scenario, are the Republicans, and I can tell you without a doubt that it wouldn’t be pretty.
I’m certain, for example, that impeachment proceedings would be underway in the House, if they hadn’t been completed already. The email scandal would be raging unabated. More likely than not, Mitch McConnell would have publicly adopted the same scorched-earth strategy he employed to devastating effect against President Obama’s legislative agenda.
But when people wonder what the world would look like under a Clinton presidency, it’s not just as a fanciful trip into the could-have-been. Most often, it’s meant as a reproach to the Republican side: “you’re acting differently than you would otherwise be.”
I see it as simply a fact that if a President Hillary Clinton did or said some of the things Trump has done, Republicans would have cried treason. The list of applications of this double standard is inexhaustible: friendliness (at best) towards Russia, stolen Supreme Court pick, executive orders, rushed healthcare reform. . . The list goes on and on.
But the Republicans put up with behaviour that they would otherwise abhor if Clinton were president. By all accounts, many, many Republicans are privately horrified by the President’s actions and attitudes, though very few say so publicly. Yet most continue to actively, or passively, support President Trump.
The reason for this double-standard is obvious: partisanship. Because Trump is a Republican, he gets a pass from Republicans. It’s clear that the GOP has fallen victim to an obvious double-standard. But while this is lamentable, it’s not really surprising — in fact it’s what we consider to be normal.
And, let’s be fair, Democrats weren’t going around criticizing Clinton too much, despite her share of obvious flaws. Democrats are partisans like anyone else. It just happens to be that Clinton lost the election, and so the Democrats in opposition are more likely to use the counterfactual challenge against the incumbent Republicans.
Of course, Republicans also employ the counterfactual. What if Obama were still president, they ask, would he be ridiculed like Trump? The President, for his part, is dogged about reminding us that he is treated very differently (that is, negatively) by the media than his predecessors were. The tweet pictured at the beginning of this piece is only the most recent example of Trump calling attention to the media’s perceived double standard.
Just minutes after I originally published this piece, Trump gave us another good example of a counterfactual or double standard challenge.
Is it even useful to talk in this way? Does presenting the counterfactual challenge even get us anywhere in a conversation with our opponents? What’s the point in imagining a scenario that doesn’t exist, and what can it tell us about our reality?
The purpose of imagining, for example, a Clinton presidency, is to try to get past the embedded partisanship and bias that we know exists in politics and in conversation. By bringing up the counterfactual challenge, one attempts to establish a sense of perspective, in the hopes of achieving at least an even standard of judgement, if not an objective one.
So instead of talking about how the Republicans are reacting to Trump, we think about how they would react to Clinton, and we try to decide from there whether their actual reaction is appropriate, or whether it’s tinged by bias. Invariably, of course, it is.
And we already knew it would be, which starts to get at the problem with bringing up the counterfactual to begin with. While its a strong rhetorical tool and might score you a few points in a debate, it hardly makes for productive conversation.
The reason for this is that people will almost always think one of two things. First, they may believe that they actually would change their behaviour between the two scenarios of a Clinton or Trump presidency. Good for them, I guess, but that’s often difficult to imagine and usually impossible to test out.
But the second belief, which clouds the whole issue, is that they believe they have good reasons for acting one way in one case, and a different way in another. For example, a Trump supporter might say “well of course I would act differently if Clinton were President, and she did similar things, because Clinton is so much worse.”
The essence of this second response is to invalidate the application of the counterfactual challenge itself. It argues that the counterfactual doesn’t apply because it’s impossible to have an even or objective standard in the given case. Since Clinton is actually worse than Trump, they might say, different behaviour on their own part is justified.
This is just a double-down on the biases that the “what if it were Clinton” challenge is supposed to undercut. Hence, as I mentioned above, the dubious productivity of the challenge itself in any conversation. Either you win outright by getting them to admit that, yes, they would act differently, or (more likely) they simply challenge the validity of equating the two people.
Still, an attempt to cut away bias is, I think we’d all agree, almost always worth the effort. A chance to gain some valuable perspective is a good thing. So maybe the counterfactual challenge can still be a useful thought experiment.
But I’m afraid that the counterfactual challenge has yet another flaw: we don’t apply it to ourselves.
Well, maybe a few enlightened people do. But for the majority of us, it’s easy to say “you wouldn’t be OK with this if Clinton was President” and leave it at that. But what happens if we subject ourselves to the same challenge to perspective with which we are attacking our critics?
In fact, what’s stopping a Trump supporter from asking the question right back at us? What’s the difference, they might say, between the deregulative executive actions Trump signed, and the environmental policies Obama enacted without Congress? Both, it’s clear, stretch the bounds of executive power. I know that I, for one, was excited about Obama’s executive orders but dismayed by Trump’s actions. But aren’t they the same thing?
“Obviously they’re not,” I respond immediately to my own question. I like one thing, I think it’s right, and I dislike the other thing — I think it’s wrong. In fact I can even acknowledge that executive actions in both cases are suboptimal means of creating policy, but I still think Obama’s was better.
Instinctively, we think we are ourselves inoculated against the counterfactual challenge because our position is right. Of course Obama’s use of executive actions was better, he was doing it to save the planet (which is good). Trump? He was only trying to lower costs for corporations (which is bad).
We don’t have double-standards, only they do. And even if we did have double-standards, ours are in the service of the good.
But — and this can be a controversial statement — the left does not have a monopoly over morality. Rather, the good functioning of a society relies on the balancing of and compromise between competing, equal values (where these are available and recognizable), not the domination of one over the other. What that means is acknowledging that many people on the right have a moral vision that is at least worthy of recognition and discussion.
There are obvious places where perspectives will clash, and that’s why things like reasonable conversation and the politics of decency are so important. It’s how we learn that our values can be reconciled and shared, or if need be, adapted or abandoned.
The problem with the counterfactual challenge is therefore that it both fails to push a conversation forward and is most often applied only to one’s opponents. The irony here is clear: challenging someone to gain some perspective does not often carry the same burden for the challenger.
The counterfactual challenge thus offers a false promise. It pretends to allow the conversation to move past the double-standards and biases of partisanship, and into the more objective field of pure comparison. It gives the appearance of favouring consistency and encouraging perspective.
But it does none of these things. Instead if simply exploits those virtues in order to shore up the same biased sense perspective that we sought to make our conversational opponent abandon. We accuse them of having limited, one-sided perspective, but we become guilty of our own charge.