Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
“Moral equivalence” is a rhetorical device that equates two phenomena that are or appear to be equally moral or immoral. It generally is used in two ways. The first reflects, like the dying Mercutio’s “a pox on both your houses,” a disgust with both alternatives. Many voters, for example, believe the choice between Democrats and Republicans to be a false one, as both parties at heart serve the corporate and big-government interests of economic and social elites.
The other version of moral equivalence is more dangerous and insidious. It consciously ignores the fundamental differences, both factual and moral, between two contrasting political policies, factions, or ideologies in order to excuse or rationalize the more dangerous and destructive one. The Cold War and the Israeli-Arab conflicts are the most consequential––and dangerous––examples of this trope.
Both uses of “moral equivalence” are impediments to coherent thinking and moral clarity, though the “pox on both your houses” type is sometimes deserved. There are fundamental similarities that define the bipartisan, managerial elite establishment that for many justify rejecting both parties. That sentiment explains why we have a substantial number of voters who register as “independents,” as well as a substantial populist movement––and why Donald Trump was able to get elected president.
The Left’s typical habit of making Nazism and Soviet communism starkly opposed political systems illustrate the second type. This false contrast harmed our foreign policy by diminishing communism’s lethal totalitarianism and inhuman evil. In fact, Nazism and communism, whatever their superficial differences, in foundational terms were morally equivalent in their disrespect for human life, rights, and freedoms. As such, they were clear moral opposites to the liberal democracies that honor those unalienable rights.
This fact contradicts, for example, the Left’s false moral equivalence between the tyrannical Soviet Union and the free liberal democracies of the West. This canard was used to make the U.S. responsible for the Cold War, and to mask the role of Soviet aggression and subversion in fomenting the conflict. Oliver Stone’s 2012 “documentary” The Untold History of the United States is a textbook example of how a specious, ahistorical moral equivalence is used to make a moral condemnation of the United States as the instigator of the Cold War.
The result is Stone’s historical malfeasance and moral idiocy. As Robert Conquest, the great chronicler of Soviet tyranny, pointed out, “The Soviet assumption that all other political life-forms and beliefs were inherently and immutably hostile was the simple and central cause of [the] Cold War.” Thus there “was never any question of a permanent accommodation between the USSR and the ‘capitalist’ world.” Any “temporary relaxation, a reining back, of the ideology’s inherent expansionism” was strictly tactical, a delay made necessary by Soviet weakness in the period following World War II. As Stalin said in 1945, “We shall recover in fifteen or twenty years, and then we’ll have another go at it.”
This use of moral equivalence to promote a false comparison at best, and a dishonest moral censure at worst, also features in much of today’s “pox on both your houses” moral equivalence between progressives and conservatives, as we can see in a recent Wall Street Journal column. The headline makes the moral equivalence explicit: “Trump’s Supporters and Detractors Are Mirror Images.” This seems like Mercutio’s curse, but as the column develops the comparison increasingly becomes false.
The author Katherine C. Epstein claims that both sides “wish to ignore the desire to avoid acknowledging their unpopularity and taking responsibility for their choices.” To summarize, for Trump’s supporters, the casus belli is the “stolen election.” For Trump’s detractors, it’s the “Russia investigation, the tax-fraud investigation, the Jan. 6 investigation, etc.”
The first problem with Epstein’s take is she immediately disregards whether the charges are based on facts and are true. But the above catalogue comprise apples and oranges: no one knows for a fact that the election was or was not free of enough fraud to change the outcome. An investigation should be demanded to settle the issue, given the importance of electoral integrity.
But Trump detractors’ obsessions have been either debunked, like the Russia collusion hoax; are still under investigation, like the tax-fraud charges; or vitiated by the corrupt, politicized House investigation of the Jan. 6 protest, which is rife with doctored and hear-say evidence, the suppression of pertinent or exculpatory facts, and most important, with the lack of cross-examination to challenge claims made by witnesses.
Instead of acknowledging these important distinctions, Epstein goes off on two-bit, question-begging, long-distance psychoanalysis of millions of strangers. Truth, she says, doesn’t matter as much as the psychological purposes of both sides’ passionate obsession with these alleged offenses: “to avoid searching their own consciences,” and stop “blaming others” so “they don’t have to blame themselves.”
Instead of weighing established facts, then, which would reveal the differences between truth and partisan propaganda, we get pop-psychology, as evident in this statement: “I’m arguing that the annoying question always asked by therapists—not ‘is that really true?’ but ‘why do you think or want that to be true?’—is a question that needs to be asked of Mr. Trump’s supporters and opponents. The answer is one they don’t want to hear.”
This infantilizing of both sides bespeaks the cognitive elite hauteur that has driven so many voters into supporting Trump. Whether or not a critical election was stolen is not trivial or a symptom of “repression.” It’s damned important, and the failure of both parties to settle the question definitively has alienated half of American voters, and eroded trust in one of the foundational function of government: to guarantee that we the people have a legitimate and trustworthy mechanism for holding elected officials accountable.
But there are also important differences that should be taken into account and that militate against moral equivalence. As Sasha Stone pointed out recently, “The problem [with the political cold war] is that these are not two equal sides. 65% of Twitter users are Democrats. The platform increased by 21% after Trump was banned. The media listens to Twitter; the Democrats listen to the media. Together, they have built an insular feedback loop that is increasingly out of touch with most Americans outside of it.”
But the disparity in influence that galls Trump supporters goes deeper than that: the Dems control the government agencies, the schools and universities, the corporate boards of numerous companies, the media, and popular culture––all filled with unaccountable partisans. That monopoly gives one side a huge advantage in controlling the narrative on everything from transgenderism to voting protocols, school curricula to women’s sports, politicized investment regulations to policing and prosecuting criminals.
And what has this monopoly delivered to the people? Inflation, more fiat money, more regulations, more tax-and-spend policies, a porous border, metastazing violent crime, damaged prestige abroad, and less freedom at home. This failure, not repression, explains the anger of Trump supporters, given how starkly it contrasts with the former president’s successes.
Finally, Epstein ignores another source of conservative anger: the blatant double-standards of our national investigative and policing agencies. The plenary indulgence given to Hillary Clinton’s abuse of her office and its protocols for handling classified information graphically contrasts with the recent unprecedented, probably illegal raid on Donald Trump’s home. Likewise, the unproven or debunked charges of Trump’s corruption contrasts with the pass given to Hunter Biden, despite the evidence from his computer that shows a corrupt exploitation of his relationship to the president.
Moreover, as Sash Stone points out about the village atheist Sam Harris’s harping on Trump’s legal trouble over Trump University, “Trump University was an ill-fated grift Trump launched a decade before he ran for office and for which he paid $25 million in legal settlements. It’s nothing to be proud of, but if Harris wants to get into a corruption contest, it pales by comparison with a president potentially compromised by millions of dollars in payments from China to the Biden family, as documented on the laptop and elsewhere.”
And what is even worse is the serial, widespread violation of the principle of “equal protection of the laws.” What is more morally idiotic than the continuing incarceration of hundreds of January 6 protestors, most of them held for a year-and- a-half mostly for misdemeanors, while a careless D.C. cop never faced even suspension, let alone prosecution, for shooting and killing an unarmed female veteran who was trying to keep protestors peaceful?
All these outrages account for the anger and passion of millions of Trump supporters, who need no dubious psychological analysis and flimsy moral equivalence in order to understand their anger. It’s the righteous wrath at injustice, censorship, double-standards, and politicized federal agencies.
Epstein’s attempt to be “fair and balanced” is vitiated by her spurious moral equivalence. But in the end what gives it away is her comments about Donald Trump, whom she castigates for “his narcissism, petty vindictiveness and America-first parochialism.” The first two epithets describe most presidents and politicians, the most recent being Barack Obama, who used the IRS to go after his political enemies, and kick-started the Russia collusion hoax against his successor. But calling patriotism “parochial” bespeaks the cognitive elite globalist who doubts her country’s exceptionalism and goodness is the epitome of moral idiocy.