Let’s take a moment to look at the fallacy of “Two Wrongs Make a Right,” which I used to teach in my debate classes, and which has now morphed into what Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman calls “Bothsidesism.” That's the fallacy of thinking that we need to attack both sides equally. We’re hearing a lot of this fallacy ever since President Donald Trump’s close associates Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort were convicted this past Tuesday of serious crimes. The incorrect argument that too many conservatives make goes like this: prosecutor Bob Mueller has investigated and convicted quite a few Republicans. He has not, however, investigated or convicted any of Trump’s real or imagined political opponents. To many conservatives, this seems unfair. The possibility that the Republicans are guilty and maybe the Democrats are not never seems to enter their thinking. At the end of this blog, I’ll explain why some conservatives make this argument and why it is faulty.
First, however, let’s look at some examples. President Trump himself just issued two tweets of blatant bothsidesism.
In the first of these tweets, Trump says, responding to a report by Attorney General Jeff Sessions:
“Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.” Jeff, this is GREAT, what everyone wants, so look into all of the corruption on the 'other side' including deleted Emails, Comey lies & leaks, Mueller conflicts, McCabe, Strzok, Page, Ohr......”
His following tweet says:
“....FISA abuse, Christopher Steele & his phony and corrupt Dossier, the Clinton Foundation, illegal surveillance of Trump Campaign, Russian collusion by Dems - and so much more. Open up the papers & documents without redaction? Come on Jeff, you can do it, the country is waiting!”
Although there is much wrong with these tweets, let’s focus on bothsidesism. These tweets refer to conspiracy theories that have circulated in conservative media. I talked about Strzok conspiracy theories in an earlier blog post. The supposedly illegal surveillance of Trump’s campaign was discredited long ago; apparently Trump campaign officials sometimes interacted with people who were under surveillance and were accidentally caught up in it. Mueller has no known relationships that legally constitute conflicts of interest. Trump's argument is that his opponents and critics should be investigated, just to make things fair and equal.
In an even more brazen example of bothsidesism, Wall Street Journal writer Kimberly Strassel writes “The country has watched the FBI treat one presidential campaign with kid gloves, the other with informants, warrants and eavesdropping.” She continues: “Yes, the former FBI director deserves credit for smoking out the Russian trolls who interfered in 2016. And one can argue he is obliged to pursue any evidence of criminal acts, even those unrelated to Russia. But what cannot be justified is the one-sided nature of his probe.”
In other words, she thinks that Mueller should investigate the Democrats, even without probable cause, just to keep things equal.
But this is mistaken thinking. Let us make a few analogies: the FBI investigates the Mafia, but is it unfair that they don’t also investigate businesses that the Mafia attacked? Now, would that make any sense? Of course not. Here’s another one: the Pennsylvania Attorney General investigated accusations that the Catholic Church covered up child abuse, but is it unfair that he didn’t also investigate churches against which there are no credible accusations of child abuse? Would that make sense? Of course not.
So, why do seemingly reasonable, decent people think that we need to criticize both sides? Here are three possible explanations:
1. People think that the universe needs to be in moral balance. If Republicans are investigated, many people think that it is only fair to investigate their investigators to see if they are conducting a witch hunt. This makes no sense unless there is cause to think that the investigators have done something wrong. Or, if Republicans turn out to be guilty of things, it is also necessary to find the Democrats guilty of something. Anything. Otherwise, the world will go out of balance.
That makes very little sense, because it omits the possibility that the investigators and the Democrats committed no crimes. Some people, apparently including Mr. Trump and Ms. Strassel, think that fairness means that you treat both sides the same. Other people, like me, think that fairness means that you punish the guilty and acquit the innocent.
2. Another possible explanation is that many Republicans are not ready to think that Mr. Trump is more crooked than other politicians. Now, yes many politicians are crooks. Still, falsely believing that both sides are equally evil helps Republicans soothe their consciences as they witness Mr. Trump’s cronies being convicted of serious crimes, one after the other.
3. The third possible explanation is that this is just dirty politics. Seeing Mr. Trump’s presidency under stress, Mr. Trump and his defenders lash out. Their supporters would find this credible only if they are convinced that all politicians and government officials are equally evil, venial, and guilty. In our cynical age, many people are quite ready to believe just that. Mr. Trump’s campaign slogan, “Drain the Swamp!” aimed directly at people's feeling that the establishment was so corrupt that unethical measures need to be taken to root it out.
The problem with those explanations – or should I call them excuses? – is that people who think that way cannot recognize honesty when they see it. The evidence against Mr. Trump’s cronies seems to be overwhelming. A number of them confessed and pled guilty. That conclusively disproves the "witch hunt" theory. The accusations against Jeff Sessions, Hillary Clinton, Bob Mueller, and so forth have at this point stalled at the level of being unjustified conspiracy theories. People believe these conspiracy theories only because their mistrust convinces them that evidence must exist in some mysterious place, if it is yet known.
What is deeply wrong about all of this? First, bombarding one’s opponents with false accusations does not excuse one’s own wrongful behavior. Second, even if the accusations turn out to be true, it is a fallacy to think that it is okay to support evil people if the other side is also evil. In real life, the only way to restore moral balance is to stop doing bad things. Two wrongs don’t make a right; two wrongs just make two wrongs. Always.