The fallacy of ad hominem tu quoque is that of identifying an inconsistency either between what’s said and what’s done or between what’s said in one case and in another. It’s sometimes a strategy of criticism, but it can also be used as a way of deflecting criticism.
The deflection strategy is one that goes after the authority of a speaker for a critical point. So that I smoke can be a point someone may make back at me when I say one shouldn’t smoke. For sure, it’s an uncomfortable fact, and one that makes me subject to my own critiques. So I’m a hypocrite. And that’s why it’s got the pull it does — it’s a matter of making someone uncomfortable in their critical role. Again, it’s just a deflection strategy, and it still holds that one shouldn’t smoke, even if the person delivers the message with a cigarette in their mouth.
Now, consider Donald Trump’s defense against the critique of his exchange with Kim Jong-un. Apparently, there was no discussion about human rights in the meeting. When asked about it by Bret Baier of Fox News, Donald Trump replied:
Baier: “But he’s still done some really bad things.”
To which Trump said: “Yeah, but so have a lot of other people done some really bad things. I could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done.”
The strategy here is to say: Look, lots of people do bad things… why make a big deal of it now, especially if we’re making this progress with the de-nuclearization of Korea. But that’s not exactly what got communicated. What got communicated is that because everybody (or “lots of other people”) does bad things, we don’t have grounds for criticizing someone who’s done bad things.
This is a pretty strange strategy of managing norms and their demands. I think that since Trump criticizes people for bad things at other times, he’d probably not accept this as a reply. Right? So when he criticizes the ‘deep state’ for undermining his Presidency, I suppose he’d think it irrelevant that lots of other nations have states that undermine their leaders, too. Or when he complains about celebrities who criticize him, the fact that there are many other people criticized by celebrities is not much of a defense.
One way, maybe, to get a handle on why a defense like this is disappointing is that the fact that lots of people or countries make the error is likely a very good reason to take the criticism to be important and serious. That is, if it’s a widespread and very costly error (which abusing human rights is, if anything is), then shrugging one’s shoulders and saying that LOTS of people do it is a way of highlighting how important the issue is. Not of deflating the criticism.