President Trump is a morally bankrupt liar. This much should be beyond dispute.
He is not, however, a hypocrite.
But hypocrisy is a charge that Trump's supporters enjoy wielding in his defense. Indeed, hardly five minutes goes by these days without an anti-anti-Trump conservative accusing a liberal of hypocrisy for criticizing the president's deceptions and falsehoods.
It's easy to understand why. Trump is broadly unpopular, and his words and actions are often indefensible on their own terms. Republicans therefore find themselves in an awkward position. Hurling charges of hypocrisy at the president's critics is an effective way of defending Trump indirectly — by seeking to undermine the potency of those making the charges. "You say Trump lies, but what about when Obama said everyone would be able to keep their health insurance under the Affordable Care Act?"
The Trump critic is guilty of deploying double standards, hypocritically claiming to take a stand on the basis of an elevated principle (in this example: presidents shouldn't lie) when she's in fact engaging in flagrant partisanship, attacking a political opponent for something that would never set off alarms if it were said or done by a political ally.
Is it politically effective? In some cases, perhaps. But it's undeniably bad for the civic culture of the United States.
This now-ubiquitous argumentative move presumes a different understanding of hypocrisy than the one more commonly deployed in moral reasoning. In its classical form, hypocrisy is a vice involving a failure to adhere to a high moral or political standard. Think of the evangelist caught in an extramarital affair after years of railing against the evils of infidelity and sexual licentiousness. One calls out hypocrisy in this classical sense in order to shame the person who transgresses in the hope that he might reform his ways and do better next time. That's why the old saying states that "hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue" — because pointing out a person's deviation from a moral principle implicitly reaffirms the validity of the principle.
But Republicans today invoke the term with something close to the opposite intent — to demonstrate that all supposed expressions of virtue ultimately conceal lower, vicious motives. The point in highlighting the double standard is less to encourage the hypocrite to consistently live up to the standard in the future than it is to undermine her credibility in the present. "Who is she to call out our guy for all this bad stuff? She's no better!"
Instead of encouraging better behavior, the Republican scourges of hypocrisy end up making excuses for bad behavior. They thereby inspire and encourage a downward spiral of deviance.
The right first adopted this tactic during the Obama years in response to the president's tendency to position himself rhetorically above and beyond the partisan fray, even (or perhaps especially) when making explicitly partisan claims and aiming fire at political opponents. In response, Republicans developed the habit of puncturing the president's high-minded statements by pointing to his baser motives. "He says he's speaking for all Americans, but he's really a partisan Democrat dishonestly portraying himself as purer than the rest of us. What a hypocrite!" The lesson wasn't that the president should do a better job of rising above the fray but that he should stop pretending he could be anything other than partisan.
In some respects, this was just a right-wing version of a strategy long deployed by the left in seeking to dethrone traditionalist moral norms from American public life, especially in sexual matters. To return to the example of the adulterous evangelist, a left-wing critic will tend to respond to news of infidelity by a prominent religious figure not by shaming him into behaving better next time but by claiming that the hypocrisy is a sign that the high moral standard was itself the source of the problem. The preacher set his standards too high. Instead of trying to shame people into doing a better job of living up to high standards, we should be more realistic about their needs, desires, and limitations. We should expect less of them.
Aim low: Succeed!
Whether it's found on the right or the left, this deflationary approach to moral failure ultimately traces back to the origins of modernity itself in the thought of Niccolò Machiavelli, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and other writers who followed the ancient sophists in insisting that high-minded claims in moral and political life often cover over less exalted motives. If men and women hoped to reform politics, religion, and society in a liberal direction, these authors claimed, they would need to stop believing the noble talk of priests and political actors, recognize that hypocrisy is pervasive in public life, and learn to expect the worst from political and religious leaders. Only then would support build for both constraining the often harmful power of these leaders and using institutions to channel their actions in a publicly beneficial direction.
In aiming lower, humanity has achieved a lot. But the deflationary habit has also led to some strange and troubling unintended consequences.
Because high moral aspirations emerge spontaneously from the human mind and individuals consistently fail to live up to them, there's always some new hypocrisy to call out. The problem comes when the classical, exhortatory response to hypocritical acts gets eclipsed entirely by the very modern temptation to tear down the ideals from which some have fallen short. We’re living through a particularly intense form of the latter at the present moment because it is in the political interest of Republicans to defend the actions of a morally indefensible president — even at the cost of undercutting the very standards that underlie elementary moral and political judgments.
Take the example of how Republicans have responded to news that Russia actively meddled in the 2016 presidential election in order to help the Trump campaign and hurt Hillary Clinton's chances. At first, leading members of the GOP expressed outrage at the interference. Which is to say they did what one would expect of any true American patriot: They upheld the principle of placing country before party.
But President Trump has reacted differently — by refusing to denounce the meddling. Why? Because he benefitted from it. If you doubt this, ask yourself how Trump would have reacted if he had lost the election and Russian interference was shown to have benefitted his opponent. With the circumstances reversed in this way, Trump would almost certainly have been the country's first, loudest, and most relentless critic of Russian electoral meddling.
Does that make the president our biggest hypocrite? Not at all — because he doesn't adhere to two sets of standards. On the contrary, Trump follows just one, unwavering standard: the advancement of his own good. If electoral meddling by a hostile foreign power benefits him, he has no problem with it. If the meddling harms him, he's outraged by it. No hypocrisy. Just perfectly consistent, morally poisonous egoism.
Hypocrisy is impossible for Trump because hypocrisy presumes a standard external to the self from which a person can fall short. Trump recognizes no such standard. He's what human life looks like when the higher, vertical, elevated dimension of morality has been utterly vacated or erased, leaving behind just the individual and his appetites craving to be fed.
The problem is that politics — even modern, deflationary, liberal politics — is a domain of life structured around appeals to higher standards. This presents Republicans with a dilemma: How can they defend the head of their party in political terms when he acts in ways incompatible with any higher standard at all? The only possible answer is to attempt to bring the president's critics down to his level.
And that brings us back to the all-pervasive charge of hypocrisy: "You think you're better than Trump, but you're not! In fact, you're just as driven by egoism as he is, basing your judgment of people and facts entirely on whether they advance or hinder your own good or ideological agenda. You're a thoroughgoing hypocrite."
But the charge can only stick if the accused aren't as morally debased as Trump — if, unlike him, they actually strive to do better, to be fair and upstanding and truthful. On the other hand, to the extent that they are as morally debased as the president, they must be as incapable of hypocrisy as he is.
That paradox may contain one of the central truths of our political and cultural moment: As demoralizing as it is to be reminded every day that Donald Trump holds the highest office in the land, our very revulsion at his vices is a powerful tribute to just how strongly we remain attached to standards of virtue.