On October 10th of this year Donald J. Trump—who is, unaccountably, the President of the United States—held a campaign rally in Erie, Pennsylvania. (No need to call it a campaign “style” rally, as much of the media insists on doing.)
Why is this of significance?
Because that rally was held even as Hurricane Michael wreaked Biblical devastation on the Florida panhandle, a place which—like Puerto Rico, I’m told—is home to millions of American citizens.
And why is that of significance?
Because roughly six years ago, on November 6, 2012, in the final days of that year’s presidential campaign, Trump—then a fading game show host, real estate con man, and professional tax cheat, all jobs to which he is far better suited—tweeted angry criticism of Barack Obama for supposedly campaigning while Hurricane Sandy victims were still suffering. (Mara Liasson of NPR has reported extensively on this.)
That was a lie—Obama and Romney had both suspended their campaigns because of the storm—but as we all know, Donald Trump is not known to be deterred by anything so flimsy as “the truth.”
By contrast, this month Trump was undeniably campaigning in Erie—both for Republicans in the midterms, and by extension, for himself—as Michael ravaged northern Florida.
That would seem to be a glaring example of shameless hypocrisy.
As such, it is just the latest float in the endless parade of jawdroppingly hypocritical behavior that has attended Trump’s entire life, and in particular his political career. A few examples:
- Championing a Republican tax cut that added over trillion dollars to the deficit after years of outraged GOP claims of Democratic irresponsibility on the matter….
- Making a less-than-worthless nuclear non-proliferation deal with North Korea after howling over the alleged weakness of the far more stringent Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran (and indeed pulling the US out of it)….
- Railing against how “unfairly” Brett Kavanaugh was treated after the GOP denied Merrick Garland even a hearing….
- Promising to “drain the swamp” of corruption in Washington, and then presiding over the most brazenly corrupt administration in modern American history….
- Repeatedly excoriating Barack Obama for playing too much golf while in office, and promising that he wouldn’t have time to play golf at all if elected, and then playing roughly three times as much golf as Obama ever did….
- Running virtually an entire presidential campaign on the demonization of Hillary Clinton for doing government business on a private email server, and then, once in office, allowing key aides including Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, and son-in-law-slash-multitasker extraordinaire Jared Kushner to do exact the same thing….
I say again: that is but a brief sampling, of which Trump’s Erie campaign was only the latest entry, and not even the most extreme by a longshot.
Not surprisingly, the Hurricane Michael hypocrisy merited barely a mention in the news, overwhelmed as it was by the President of the United States publicly calling a porn star with whom he’d cheated on his wife “Horseface”; nonchalantly welshing on a promise to pay a million dollars the charity of Elizabeth Warren’s choice (sound familiar, Atlantic City?); and above all, brushing aside the cold-blooded abduction, torture, murder, and dismemberment of an American-based journalist for the Washington Post by a putative US ally.
(By the by, I think we all know that in his heart of hearts, Trump secretly wishes he too could just order the decapitation of journalists who displease him. I understand he has Rudy Giuliani preparing a statement that “everyone agrees” he has the authority to do that.)
Memorably, Trump first questioned that Jamal Khashoggi had been murdered at all, before being grudgingly forced to admit, Francisco Franco-style, that he “seems to be dead.” He then defended the alleged killers against a rush to judgment (true, it could have been some 400 lb. guy sitting on his bed), and compared the treatment they received to that meted out to his recent nominee to the Supreme Court, an accused rapist and perjurer. Oh yes, and then, at that precise moment of demonstrably lethal malevolence toward journalists, Trump decided it would be a good time to praise a separate act of violence against a reporter—far lesser but still indefensible—by a Republican candidate for Congress who is now a sitting member of the House of Representatives.
But every news week is like that in our brave new world. There is no reason to think that had the Hurricane Michael/campaign rally moment happened at any other time in the past two years it would have generated a bigger media ripple. Outrage fatigue is inevitable in an era when Donald Trump is President of the United States. But that does not make the outrage any less appropriate, only harder to muster.
And I would submit to you that that is because, in these United States, hypocrisy is dead.
LIES AND DAMNED LIES
I don’t mean that hypocrisy itself has ceased to exist. On the contrary: per above, we are living in the Golden Age of Hypocrisy. No, I mean that hypocrisy has ceased to have any substantive impact on our body politic.
Time was when a politician of either party or any ideological bent who was caught applying a blatant double standard could expect to be called to account. No more—at least for Republicans.
Needless to say, this administration has brazenly done myriad things that call for to-the-barricades-style outrage: the Muslim ban, the forced removal of children from their parents; the continued stonewalling on Trump’s tax returns, the brazen violation of the emoluments clause; the relentless attacks on the rule of law and a free press; the gutting of Obamacare; the unconscionable tax cut for the wealthiest among us as a prelude to reneging on earned benefits for millions of the rest of us; the obstruction of justice in the Mueller probe; the telling refusal to harden the US electoral system against foreign attack despite the hue and cry from the US defense and intelligence communities….
I could go on.
But those things, or many of them at least, are a matter of partisan disagreement. Some people think it’s a good idea to kidnap children and hold them hostage for the ostensible purpose of “deterrence,” when the true goal is mere sadism toward foreigners in general and people of color especially. The people who hold that opinion are monstrous, of course, but at least their odious opinion is genuinely held.
Likewise, Trump daily engages in lies that would make Tommy Flanagan blanch, like the claim that he didn’t pay Stormy Daniels (or didn’t know about it—his answer kept changing), or that he saw Muslims in New Jersey celebrating 9/11, or—the biggest of all—that no one in his circle had any contact with Russians during the presidential campaign, much less conspired with them. A kissing cousin of these lies is Trump’s cavalcade of broken promises, including “healthcare for everybody,” or the “big, beautiful wall” that Mexico was going to pay for, or how he was going to bring back the coal industry.
But these things too are a point of dispute along partisan lines. Trump’s defenders claim that they are not lies or broken promises at all. Which, of course, is itself a lie.
But what puts hypocrisy in a blood-boiling class of its own is that it is not, in theory, subject to tribal bias. Democrats and Republicans can disagree over whether it’s a good idea to pull out of the JCPOA (spoiler alert: it’s not), and they can debate whether or not the tax cut is going to benefit the middle class (see previous parenthetical thought). But no one can dispute that Trump lambasted Obama for playing too much golf while in office, then turned around and played an order of magnitude more golf himself, or held a campaign rally in the middle of a hurricane after accusing others of doing so (even though they didn’t).
That is a glaring double standard that no thinking person can deny.
The best a Trumpista can do is make the tortured claim that somehow the two are not the same thing. But that argument of course does not even remotely pass the so-called smell test. On the contrary: it stinks to high heaven.
(For example, one hears Republicans whine that, “Trump actually does government business on the golf course!” without offering any evidence to that effect, or evidence that Obama did not, or explanation why—if that is the case—Trump opened himself up to these allegations by making such a blanket statement, rather than saying, “When I play golf, it will be to do business.” The answer, of course, is because it’s not true, exposing these yogi-like Republicans contortions for the dishonest excuse-making that they are.)
Hypocrisy is in a class of its own as a special kind of bad faith because it represents an objective, empirical, indisputable example of dishonesty.
HIP HIP HOORAY
Several observers have dissected Trump’s own preternatural ability to blithely engage in this indefensibly scummy behavior. The best that can be said is that he doesn’t seem to even recognize the hypocrisy. Vomit-inducing though he is, he is not, to all appearances, a mustache-twirling villain privately cackling to himself late at night over what he’s getting away with. (That’s Mitch McConnell.)
That would actually be somewhat comforting, as an acknowledgment that we are operating in the same moral universe.
No, Donald is something far worse: a megalomaniac so deep in his own entitlement that he doesn’t even recognize that he is applying a head-spinning double standard. It’s a kind of pathological narcissism that obliterates his ability even to see the hypocrisy. Perhaps Trump’s supporters are the same way in terms of how they view their tangerine-tinged hero.
(NB: Not to give Mitch a pass. When it comes to what’s worse—Trump’s terrifying psychopathology or McConnell poisonous cynicism—it’s a pick ‘em.)
That said, there have been occasional hints that our fearless leader is more tethered to reality than he appears. Thomas Friedman has reported in the New York Times that Trump is privately amazed that he hasn’t been forced to release his tax returns, marveling to friends and family, “Can you believe I got away with that?” So maybe he is more mustache-twirling than we are giving him credit—or blame—for.
As I wrote in these pages a few weeks ago, it always astounds me when people ponder why the Republicans won’t stand up to Trump. The entire question is absurd. Plainly, they don’t want to stand up to him, as they’ve never had better cover for their hateful agenda. Cynics like McConnell are happy to profit from Trump’s hypocrisy while denying it exits. But Machiavellian intriguers on the order of Crooked Mitch are actually few and far between. The jeering, Kool-Aid drunk mobs at Trump’s never-ending traveling medicine show—the ones chanting “Lock her up!” moments after he complained about a lack of due process for Brett Kavanaugh, or for the Saudi assassins who butchered Jamal Khashoggi—aren’t engaging in cynicism. They have internalized the twisted Trumpian version of amorality. Even many of the mainstream Republican electorate—the suburban dads in their polo shirts—have convinced themselves of Trump’s purity and innocence…..or if they acknowledge the hypocrisy, immediately dismiss it on the utilitarian grounds that it was justified “to beat Hillary,” as if the moral value of that is self-evident. Which is itself a form of irrational pathology. Kind of like saying conspiring with the Kremlin to steal the election was fine too, if that’s what it took.
TRIBE TRIBE AGAIN
In my interview with Shalom Auslander last month, he made the salient point—with his usual lacerating, insightful wit—that the most ironic kind of tribalism is complaining that the other tribe is more tribal than your tribe. It’s funny, and it’s true, but it’s also an argument that can easily be perverted as a defense for even more tribalism.
If the 2016 election taught us anything—besides never to use Facebook—it should have taught us that there is little in the world that is more lethal than false equivalence. Anyone who during the campaign waved the back of their hand dismissively and said, “Eh, Trump and Hillary are both just as bad” ought to be lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Even now we routinely continue to see that kind of namby pamby stab at objectivity in the press….the ongoing reign of Paul Krugman’s famous “Parties Differ on Shape of Planet” (which long pre-dated Trump), finding its most toxic expression in our insane clown president’s contention that “there were very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville.
The press has collectively gotten a hair better than it was in 2016, but it still clings to a misguided and misbegotten ethos of an impossible evenhandedness when dealing with dishonest actors…..one that dangerously benefits those liars and criminals. That is why we see headlines that say “Trump Claims Without Evidence That Such-and Such,” instead of the more accurate “Trump Lies About (You Name It).”
It’s not good enough.
Similarly, suggesting the “both sides are equally to blame” for our current problems sounds good around the campfire set to the tune of “Kum-ba-ya” (tuned to an open E…all together now), but it just ain’t the case.
In short, the right’s tribalism forgives anything and everything Trump does, no matter how blatantly wrong, dangerous, destructive, or hypocritical—even by its own metrics. In that regard, its tribalism is the functional equivalent of Trump’s own pathological narcissism.
Does the left do the same with its leaders? Sometimes, and somewhat, but never to that extent or degree. More often it holds its own to a higher standard than the rules demand, even when it entails short-term pain. (Ask Al Franken.) Even allowing for anecdotal cases of Democratic double standards (the defense of Bill Clinton comes to mind), the sheer accumulated volume of sins that the right ignores, excuses, or denies makes the comparison specious. Among Clinton’s greatest nemeses, you may recall, was Newt Gingrich, a man who in 1993 began an extramarital affair with a low-level GOP congressional staffer named Calista Bisek that continued even as he was wailing like an Old Testament prophet for Clinton to be crucified for his sins. (Newt eventually married Ms. Bisek, after his second wife rejected his request for an “open marriage.” Calista Bisek Gingrich is now Trump’s Ambassador to the Vatican.)
The fact remains that one side of the American ideological spectrum insists that the sky is not blue and two plus two equals five in a way that the other side simply does not. In fact, I would go so far as to say that behaving hypocritically and then shrugging it off is part and parcel of the reactionary mindset—almost as a point of pride, a demonstration of strength and of ubermensch exemption from ordinary morality.
I know that violates the Shalom Auslander Rule, but it is simply false to say that the Democratic Party, liberals, and progressives have carried out a methodical, diabolical campaign to subvert democracy the way that the Republican Party and the right has. To suggest otherwise is simply more deceit. That is the Orwellian dynamic they are using to carry out the ongoing coup d’etat.
WE ARE ALL NORMAL AND WE WANT OUT FREEDOM
So how do we deal with this state of affairs? I have written before about destruction of objective truth as a common barometer (The Nature of the Person and the Nature of the Threat, September 20, 2017), and it continues to be one of the most fundamental, intractable, and worrying aspects of a time rife with fucking scary things to worry about. How can we have a functional political system in this country when one side refuses to acknowledge empirical reality? We are witnessing Reagan’s famous Eleventh Commandment —”Thou shalt not criticize fellow Republicans”—taken to its most dangerous extreme. When a person or political party will not even acknowledge the blatant hypocrisy of Trump on something like Hurricane Michael—when they not only refuse to recognize it as a cynical matter of gamesmanship but deny it even to themselves—there is no possibility of rational dialogue.
That is how an autocracy prefers it.
The United States has no chance of returning to sanity until the fever of the present moment breaks, until we as a people wake from this reverie and return to an honest accounting of the facts that are plainly before us. That lemming-like thirty percent of the American public that would not turn on Trump even if he were videotaped feasting on the bones of infants and wiping his ass with the Stars & Stripes is never going to engage in rational thought. But for those of us who can do math, who know that two plus two doesn’t equal five and that seventy is greater than thirty, our only hope is a collective acknowledgement of deceit and hypocrisy when we see it, and the attendant political action.
If we can’t do that, if we let ourselves continue to be held hostage by the deluded and the dishonest, we deserve that fate, and will go down in history alongside other societies that did not have the moral courage to recognize and rise up against madness.