Worst False Equivalencies of 2016
For all the dangers the rise of Donald Trump poses—to vulnerable communities, to world peace, to the planet’s ecosystem—the one silver lining of Trump’s candidacy is that it has completely exposed the limits and ideological impotence of established media’s “objectivity” myth. Faced with a unique and unprecedented threat in Trump, attempts to find “balance” between Trumpism and wholly unrelated phenomena to its left were tone deaf, and at times bordered on apologies for fascism. Here are some of the worst examples:
1. Clinton’s Emails vs. Trump’s Sexual Assault Allegations
The general election was a tale of two scandals, often lumped side by side: the ongoing FBI investigation into Clinton’s mishandling of government emails and Donald Trump’s ever-expanding list of alleged sexual assault victims. While Clinton’s email scandal was certainly newsworthy (most FBI investigations of candidates are), its relative importance to her fitness for office was dwarfed by the torrent of allegations against the GOP nominee.
Nevertheless, extreme center pundits like ABC’s Matthew Dowd could not resist equating the two, tweeting out, “Either you care both about Trump being sexual predator & Clinton emails, or u care about neither. But don’t talk about one without the other.” After getting pushback, Dowd doubled down with an equally dubious take: “The response to my tweet is what is wrong with the country. Partisans of each side are unwilling to look at the faults of their own candidate.” “Partisans” on “each side” were just too partisan—unlike Matthew Dowd, dispassionate arbiter of truth.
The debate questions between Trump and Clinton went beyond false balance, with two questions asked about Clinton’s email server and only one asked about Trump’s abuse allegations.
2. Violence by Trump Supporters Is Somehow Also Clinton’s Fault
The media often spoke generically about how “both sides” were fueling an acrimonious campaign. Despite the fact that Trump has called for journalists to be lambasted, promised to defend anyone who assaulted a protester, told one protester he’d “beat the crap out” of him, threatened to punch a protester in the face and insisted another be “roughed up,” the media still found the chutzpah to rope Clinton into it, despite her never once uttering an inciting word.
One of the worst offenders, a New York Times article (3/12/16) used the words “both sides” three times, without presenting any evidence Clinton was contributing to the problem at all. Though the article does briefly mention that “heated words” were “led primarily by Mr. Trump,” it framed the issue with false parity, and populated the piece with quotes to this effect:
The anger from both sides was so raw, they concluded….
…in which those on both sides of a widening divide have begun to see their fellow Americans as a threat to their economic future and basic dignity.
…Richard Daley, who presided over the violent 1968 Democratic convention. “Both sides are fueling this,” he added.
While it’s true anti-Trump protesters had confronted Trump supporters, there was no evidence they were either Clinton backers or had been incited by Clinton to attack anyone. Yet this important point was glossed over, with readers given the distinct impression that two equal halves were egging on their supporters to take matters into their own hands.
3. ‘Race Relations’ Instead of White Supremacy
One of the most common rhetorical tics employed by pundits when discussing Black Lives Matter, or in general conversations about racism, is the false equivalency term “race relations.” It implies that there’s a conflict between two equal parties who simply need to mend their differences—as opposed to one side (white supremacy) wielding power over the other (people of color).
Both Lester Holt and Elaine Quijano used the term in the presidential and vice presidential debates, respectively. Holt insisted we also need to “heal the divide” between the races, while Quijano framed the issue of police brutality by asking, “Do we ask too much of police officers in this country?” Viewers were left with the distinct impression racism was something two parties had to simply talk over and hug out, rather than a centuries-old system of subjugation.
4. Anti-Racism Is the Same as Racism
The New York Times’ most racially tone-deaf columnist, David Brooks, has spent decades belittling the threat of white supremacy and playing up the scourge of “political correctness.” In a recent screed against the rise of “identity politics” (11/18/16), he casually equated racists and those who fight them:
But it’s not only racists who reduce people to a single identity. These days it’s the anti-racists, too. To raise money and mobilize people, advocates play up ethnic categories to an extreme degree.
To extreme-center pundits like Brooks, joining together to fight your oppressors is just as bad as oppressing. By the same logic, hostages in a bank robbery plotting to overpower their captors are just as bad as the bank robbers themselves, since context and power dynamics are irrelevant to Brooks.
The New York Times’ own reporting isn’t much better. A December 8 piece about Trump fans needing “safe spaces” had this textbook example of runaway false equivalency:
Bias incidents on both sides have been reported. A student walking near a campus was threatened with being lit on fire because she wore a hijab. Other students were accused of being racist for supporting Mr.Trump, according to a campuswide message from March Schlissel, the university’s president.
Threatening violence against vulnerable populations is just like calling racists racist. Though the Times ended up changing the paragraph after a torrent of criticism on social media, the original paragraph perfectly captures the dangerous instinct to cry “both sides” in the face of wildly unequal power dynamics.
Sore losers protesting the democratic process are just as useless as hate-filled winners sneaking around towns painting swastikas and racist graffiti.
5. Left and Far-Right Parties in US and EU Are ‘Anti-Establishment’
Despite the fact that Trump is diametrically opposed to virtually everything British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stands for, the extreme center never missed an opportunity to conflate the two as part of the same, nebulous “populist” wave across the West. The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman (8/6/15), in her prophetically titled “Don’t Worry, Donald Trump Won’t Win. But I’ll Sure Miss Him When He’s Gone,” referred to Trump as “America’s answer to Jeremy Corbyn.” The Daily Beast‘s Maajid Nawaz (9/12/15) insisted Trump and Corbyn both represented the “new politics of spite.” Perennial “both sides”–monger Anne Applebaum over at Slate (8/21/15) linked Trump and Corbyn as the “voice of the bottom feeders.”
A recent New York Times article discussed “populism in the age of Trump,” posting a graphic that lumped leftist parties Podemos of Spain and Syriza of Greece in with far-right National Front of France and Freedom Party of Austria—although they have virtually nothing in common, aside from disliking “the establishment.” Of course, the extreme center misses that the left and far right have radically different definitions of “the establishment”: One side, broadly speaking, opposes the One Percent, the wealthy class; the other is railing against a conspiratorial elite, often Jewish or otherwise othered. One side hates multinational banks, the other hates (((the bankers))). These are not at all comparable, yet one wouldn’t know reading most tracts on the “rise of populism.”
6. Sanders Is Trump
2016’s most common and reliably dull take was that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were simply two sides of the same coin. This was typically done by pro-Clinton pundits or journalists in an attempt to position two extremes and position Clinton in the Reasonable Center.
- NPR: “5 Ways Bernie Sanders And Donald Trump Are More Alike Than You Think”
- Bustle: “5 Ways Bernie Sanders & Donald Trump Are More Similar Than You Think” [a different article!]
- Atlantic: “What Trump and Sanders Have in Common”
- Huffington Post: “How Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s Campaigns Are Similar”
- Guardian: “Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump Look Like Saviors to Voters Who Feel Left Out of the American Dream”
- Washington Post: “This Is How Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump Are the Same Person”
- Washington Post: “The Obvious Trump Running Mate? Bernie Sanders, of Course”
Never mind that, sans some vague notions on trade (if you don’t look too closely), Sanders is opposed to everything Trump stands for—or that in the wake of Trump’s surprise win, Sanders has emerged as his harshest critic—it was such a neat, politically expedient narrative, partisan centrists couldn’t resist. Free college is the same as a Muslim registry, single-payer healthcare is just like purging 11 million undocumented immigrants. Everything is the same, ideology doesn’t exist.