The word "hypocrisy" poses a problem these days. It's simply inadequate to the events it's supposed to describe.
We think of hypocrisy as a venal sin, something parents do. It's a human flaw to be winked at, a form of dishonesty we politely overlook. But in political life, it's much more than this: The distance between the truth a politician knows and the truth he tells becomes the code by which the public reads him. It usually takes some time to figure out a specific president's code (hence the honeymoon period during a typical American presidency). But by opening with a bald lie — the one about crowd sizes — the Trump administration revealed its code early. And then, in a singular approach to public relations, President Trump proved exactly how little he cared about the issues he criticized Hillary Clinton for during the campaign by making his own administration replicate them.
In his interview with David Muir on ABC Wednesday night, Trump doubled down on his debunked claim of voter fraud, saying, "You have people that are registered who are dead, who are illegals, who are in two states. You have people registered in two states. They're registered in a New York and a New Jersey. They vote twice."
The fact is that Trump's adviser Stephen Bannon is registered to vote in two states. So is his daughter Tiffany Trump. So is his Cabinet nominee Steven Mnuchin. So are at least three other people in his inner circle.
This is not mere "hypocrisy." This is something else entirely, something both more concerning and more valuable: It's proof.
Indeed, it's self-contained proof — proof without media "spin" or leaks or anything but Trump's own words — that the president's concerns about voter fraud are non-existent except insofar as they made his numbers look worse than he'd like. Rumors of Trump's narcissism have abounded for a long time. But this is not rumor. This is conclusive evidence.
You might recall Trump's performative outrage at Clinton using a private server that wasn't secured — the charge being that she posed a risk to national security. The fact is, Trump himself is currently using an unsecured device — his Android phone. His senior staff are using private RNC email accounts. His official @POTUS Twitter account is linked to a private Gmail account.
The takeaway is not "OH WHAT HYPOCRITES." That masks what's going on here. The takeaway is that none of what Trump pretends to care about is what he actually cares about.
This is more than hypocrisy: It is a lesson. And it has enormous consequences for his presidency.
Trump is teaching us is that every concern he raises must first be considered a pretext to save his ego. If Trump cared about national security, he would make sure to use a secure device. He does not. He cares more about being able to use his phone to tweet.
If Trump cared about people using private email servers, he would forbid his senior staff from using them.
If Trump cared about the voter rolls, he would have made sure the people he hired and nominated and fathered weren't guilty of doing exactly what he is accusing "illegal voters" of doing.
Our president does not care about these things. What he cares about is the fact that not enough people were impressed by his inauguration and his victory.
What we are witnessing is proof of the president reverse-engineering an outcome in every way he can think of so that it matches what he wants the truth to be. It doesn't matter whether the way he gets there is The Media Lied! Or My Crowd Was The Biggest Ever! Or People Voted Illegally! Or The CIA Gave Me The Biggest Standing Ovation! What he is demonstrating is that he will say anything — really, anything — to make the story he wants to be true. He will even launch an extremely expensive investigation into his own electoral victory to try to muscle the story he wants to hear into being.
It is a president's job to train the public to read him, and Trump has done so with admirable speed. He has proven that his reasons for choosing a course of action do not derive from principles or convictions or public-mindedness, but from a compulsion to salve his own ego. This gives the public valuable information. We know now that when Trump signs an executive order to build the wall, the decision will have little to do with the merits of doing so (there aren't many, as Texas GOP Rep. William Hurd points out: "Building a wall is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border.") Whether that wall gets built or not will depend on Trump's feelings about his image. From squabbling about crowd size to calling for a White House email to be sent listing his praises, it's clear that Trump has a compulsion to compel others to agree that he is as great as he says.
This is valuable information. When a crisis comes — and it will — we now know that America's 45th president will act based on what will maximally benefit his sense of his own image. We know he will say only what he thinks makes him look good. And, if forced to choose between his feelings and the American people's welfare or freedom, we know how he will choose.
It is concerning that President Trump and his administration are doing everything they accused the opposition of doing and more. Hypocrisy is not the word for that. And yet: For all the fear circulating about what it means for democracy for a White House to put forward its theory of "alternative facts," the real fact is that lies have consequences for the liar too.
Rarely in history has a president so efficiently trained the public to disbelieve him as a matter of course.