President Trump has earned near-universal condemnation for the excesses of his first week in office, ranging from falsehoods about the size of his inauguration crowd and about millions who supposedly voted illegally for his opponent to the implementation of his slap-dash executive order on immigration. Even immigration restrictionists were aghast at the chaotic way in which the immigration order was handled.
While White House spokesmen ridiculously claim that everything couldn’t be better, the president’s more thoughtful conservative admirers have invoked a more subtle and slightly more plausible defense: They claim that the media are practicing a double standard by holding Trump to account after not having done so for Obama. In other words, they are trying to deflect from Trump’s sins by citing the shortcomings of his predecessor.
Does Trump tell whoppers, they ask? Sure, they will grudgingly admit, but so did Obama. There was what PolitiFact called the Lie of the Year in 2013: “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it.” Or there was the false “narrative” that Obama’s National Security Council staffer Ben Rhodes used to sell the Iran nuclear deal, which included lying about when the negotiations began.
Is Trump giving inadvertent aid and comfort to the enemy with his overly broad immigration edict, which gives the appearance of being animated by anti-Muslim animus? Is he turning his back on Syrians who are victims of civil war? Sure, some of his more honest defenders will acknowledge, but Obama did even worse by doing nothing to stop the slaughter in Syria, which resulted in the deaths of some 500,000 people and by abandoning Iraq in 2011, thus allowing Islamic State to arise. Obama’s action, or more precisely inaction, created a rallying cry for Sunni jihadists, as did the general perception, fed by the Iran nuclear deal, that Obama was putting Shiite interests over those of Sunnis.
Is Trump causing widespread consternation with his executive order temporarily barring visitors from seven Muslim countries and indefinitely barring all Syrians? Trump defenders claim, falsely, that Obama did something similar by supposedly stopping all refugees from Iraq for six months in 2011. In reality, the Obama administration only slowed down refugee admissions after a security breach — it did not stop them entirely, much less bar all visitors from various countries.
Is Trump needlessly provoking a crisis with America’s third-largest trade partner and neighbor with his demands that Mexico pay for his border wall? The smarter Trump defenders will admit that’s the case, while suggesting that Trump is treating Mexico no worse than Obama treated Israel by, for example, refusing to veto an anti-Israel resolution at the United Nations.
Trump’s defenders are hardly wrong in noting that the media were besotted with Obama and are not enamored of Trump, and thus they hold the current president to a higher standard than his predecessor. But the charge can also be turned around on Trump’s fans: Why are they holding Trump to a lower standard than Obama?
In any case, while a useful rhetorical device, cries of “hypocrisy” hardly excuse what Trump is doing. While Obama, like all politicians, told his share of falsehoods and made promises he couldn’t keep, Trump is a mendacity-producing machine the likes of which we have never seen in the White House. And he repeats falsehoods, such as his claims about the size of his inauguration crowd or the number and effect of illegal voters, even when their lack of factual foundation has been repeatedly exposed and even when, for political purposes, he would be far better advised to let the whole subject drop.
It’s true that Obama shamefully turned his back on American security interests in the Middle East, but Trump is making a bad situation far worse with his needlessly provocative language (such as his repeated claims that the U.S. should have stolen Iraq’s oil or that torture works ) and his overly broad executive orders on immigration, which play directly into the jihadist assertion that the West is at war with Islam.
In the end, there simply isn’t any comparison between the two. Obama may have been maddeningly cautious and self-righteous, but he was much more thoughtful, dignified and restrained than his bombastic and erratic successor. Obama’s presidency was a failure in many respects — most especially in the rise of Islamic State and the collapse of Syria into civil war — but it did not uproot+ 70 years of alliances and trade partnerships as Trump threatens to do.
And even if you judge Obama more harshly, let’s keep in mind this hoary adage: Two wrongs don’t make a right. Conservatives would be well advised to stick to their principles and not become apologists for Trump’s excesses if they want to emerge from his presidency with their dignity and integrity intact.