Op-Ed

Hypocrisy isn’t the problem. Nihilism is

With every change of administration come charges of hypocrisy. Those who governed by executive order suddenly learn the dangers of unilateral presidential power, and those who thought executive orders were an impeachable violation of the separation of powers start using them without missing a step. Supporters of federalism embrace the benefits of national uniformity. How soon is too soon to start protesting a new administration? When does criticizing a president spill over into disrespecting the presidency? Should we insist on patient bipartisanship, or is it enough to say that “elections have consequences” and the winner is in charge? Should officials treat a court decision as the last word and the law of the land, or should they stand up for their understanding of the Constitution?

With depressing regularity, partisans and pundits switch sides on political principles depending on who gains and who loses.

At its worst, hypocrisy can be a kind of furious projection of one’s sins onto others; think of the official filled with obnoxious self-righteousness about other people’s sexual behavior whose personal life turns out not to bear scrutiny. Or it can turn values into mere talking points, and drain them of any real force. But what the great Harvard political theorist Judith Shklar called “anti-hypocrisy” is a talking point of its own. It is a lazy substitute for making and defending real value judgments; I don’t have to be able to show which principles are good ones if I can just show that you violate your own. That strategy encourages a spiral downward; having higher standards always increases the chance that one won’t live up to them. In a culture that can’t agree on shared moral judgments but that delights in exposing hypocrites, the easy strategy might be to have no standards at all.

The 17th century French author La Rochefoucauld famously described hypocrisy as “the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” Ordinary political hypocrisy of the sort that we see when parties trade power typically has that character. The out-party hypocritically recites principles it violated just yesterday — “important legal changes should be made by congressional lawmaking, not executive order,” for example. But in so doing it rearticulates norms and principles that officials, institutions and citizens can use as benchmarks. Without that rearticulation, the norms themselves would lose their force and be forgotten.

In 2017, we should be less worried by hypocrisy than by its absence. Some hypocrites don’t feel shame, but at least they formally acknowledge that there are things about which one should be ashamed (the norms the other guy is violating). The Trump administration operates on a different, shameless, plane.

In a recent interview, the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly asked President Trump about his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying “Putin’s a killer.” Trump’s reply was astonishing: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”

There’s often been real hypocrisy in American denunciation of authoritarians, dictators, warmongers and killers. The United States has shed a lot of blood, including innocent and civilian blood. We don’t have to go back to the Cold War, with CIA assassinations and support for murderous Latin American dictatorships, to see this. The Obama administration’s drone war campaign is more than enough.

But that hypocrisy was itself an acknowledgement that America aimed to do better. The public expected, and elites at least tried to deliver, a government that could claim the moral high ground.

Trump’s shrug abandons that striving idealism. Why bother to have standards? Why bother to treat political killings as even worth criticizing? Why bother to acknowledge that, even granting American misbehavior, Putin’s regime today is accused of doing far worse: murdering critical journalists, assassinating political dissidents, committing war crimes from Chechnya to Syria? 

The president wasn’t just suggesting that government is a morally gray business that always involves some violence and wrongdoing. In his comments, he seemed to give up on the idea that there is such a thing as wrongdoing at all.

More talked about — but quite similar — is the possibility that Trump either doesn’t think truth matters or doesn’t think it exists.

Think of the Trump administration’s constant, brazen falsehoods about easily checked facts from violent-crime rates to election fraud to inauguration crowds. There’s no real pretense of telling the truth; the virtue of truthfulness isn’t getting its normal tribute.

For another example, think of Kellyanne Conway’s abrupt reversal of the election-season pledge that Trump would release his tax returns once they were audited. “He’s not going to release his tax returns. … People didn’t care. They voted for him.” The audit excuse was a bad one, but at least it was an excuse; it paid lip service to the norm of presidential financial transparency. Abandoning the excuse, treating the election victory as a substitute for the norm, is a way of saying that the norm doesn’t bind at all.

Compared to that nihilism, hypocrisy is a vice well worth preserving.

Jacob T. Levy is Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory and director of the Lin Centre at McGill University, and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. His most recent book is “Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom​​​​.”

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