Trump’s hypocrisy threatens democracy — that’s the point of it
Over the past week, Donald Trump has shown Americans that, even out of office, he remains this nation’s Hypocrite-in-Chief.
His performance is a reminder that the term hypocrisy can be traced back to Greek drama, where it was used to refer to the feigning and dissembling of the stage actor.
Trump’s most recent feigning and dissembling was apparent in the revelations about the classified documents that he apparently purloined from the White House and kept at Mar-a-Lago, which has received a great deal of press coverage. It was also on full view in his shameless invocation of the 5th Amendment nearly 450 times during a deposition in New York.
What Trump practices and what he preaches have little in common. He feels no compunction about doing the very things that he denounces and uses to demonize his political opponents.
His hypocrisy undermines democracy; it erodes trust and breeds cynicism.
That is the point of Trump’s double standards, because he has ridden a wave of cynicism for all of his years in public life.
Let’s start with the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago.
Last Thursday The Washington Post reported that “the list of items seized by FBI agents during the search included 11 sets of classified documents; four were marked top-secret, three were secret and three were identified as confidential — the lowest level of classified information.” In addition, “Classified documents relating to nuclear weapons were among the items FBI agents sought in a search of former president Donald Trump’s Florida residence.”
Trump responded to the search by characterizing what the FBI did as an “unAmerican, unwarranted and unnecessary raid and break-in” of his home.
The former president also took to his social media site to deny that he possessed any nuclear weapons documents. Reprising some of his greatest hits, Trump said: “Nuclear weapons is a hoax, just like Russia, Russia, Russia was a hoax.”
And in typical Trump-speak, he contradicted his denial by suggesting that it is okay for a former president to possess such documents when he made the false and baseless claim that former President Obama kept millions of pages of documents after he left office, including classified material that pertained to nuclear weapons.
“President Barack Hussein Obama kept 33 million pages of documents, much of them classified,” Trump wrote. “How many of them pertained to nuclear? Word is, lots!” That particular fabrication elicited a statement from the National Archives that Obama had done no such thing. And, of course, throughout his 2016 presidential campaign Trump repeatedly harped on Hilary Clinton’s alleged carelessness in handling classified information.
ABC News reports that in July 2016, Trump tweeted, “Crooked Hillary Clinton and her team ‘were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.’ Not fit!”
In September 2016, Trump said that, “We also need the best protection of classified information. That is the worst situation. Hillary’s private email scandal, which put our classified information in the reach of our enemies, disqualifies her from the presidency. Totally.”
One wonders if it is simply an irony of history that in 2018 Trump signed a law that increased the criminal penalties for taking classified materials and changed it from a misdemeanor to a felony.
Last Wednesday, in a different display of hypocrisy, the former president invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify almost 450 times during a deposition in New York Attorney General Letitia James’s investigation of the Trump Organization’s business practices.
Trump has previously denounced people who take the Fifth. At a July 2016 rally in Iowa, he asked “If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?” Another time, he said, “Fifth Amendment. Fifth Amendment. Fifth Amendment. Horrible.”
And, during a 2016 presidential debate he linked his criticism of Hilary Clinton’s handling of classified materials and his criticism of people who take the Fifth: “When you have your staff taking the Fifth Amendment, taking the Fifth, so they’re not prosecuted, when you have the man that set up the illegal server taking the Fifth, I think it’s disgraceful.”
After his deposition, Trump changed his tune: “I once asked, ‘If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?’” he wrote. “Now I know the answer to that question. When your family, your company, and all the people in your orbit have become the targets of an unfounded, politically motivated Witch Hunt supported by lawyers, prosecutors, and the Fake News Media, you have no choice.”
These are just the latest examples of Trump’s cynical hypocrisy. It has been a consistent through-line in his political career and his time in the White House.
Some scholars and commentators think that hypocrisy is an inescapable part of politics and that it is mostly quite harmless. As the political theorist Ruth Grant notes, in this view, “to condemn hypocrisy would be to condemn politics altogether.”
But democratic politics cannot thrive, or perhaps even survive, when hypocrisy becomes the norm. Political scientist John Keane has rightly observed that “Hypocrisy … is the soil in which antipathy towards democracy always takes root.”
Keane argues that democratic politics rests on a foundation of trust among citizens and between citizens and their representatives. Hypocrisy erodes that trust. It leads people to discount what others say in the political arena and promotes a corrosive disgust with politics.
Keane notes that the normalization of hypocrisy will “sap people’s confidence, or reinforce their unbelief in democratic ways of being. But for this to happen, people must feel let down or put off by democracy; and that means they must have a gut sense that the gulf between the promises of democracy and its actual performance is so wide that democracy itself is a ruinous sham.”
Trump’s success in politics has been founded on insinuating that democracy is a ruinous sham, opening a wide field in which Trump should be free to do as he wishes. He has been a master of saying one thing and doing another. He has held up others to ridicule and then done the very things for which he shamed them.
What Hannah Arendt wrote almost 60 years ago seems an apt description of Trump: “The hypocrite’s crime,” she said, “is that he bears false witness against himself. What makes it so plausible to assume that hypocrisy is the vice of vices is that integrity can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this one … only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.”
But hypocrisy is most dangerous to democracy when calling out hypocrisy stops mattering.
That is what Trump’s hypocrisy seeks to achieve. He wants to rob the exposure of hypocrisy of its bite. He seeks to normalize hypocrisy, to make it seem like a mere tool of political survival in a world dominated by hoaxes, witch hunts, and conspiracies.
Defending democracy requires that we do not give in to that effort.
We must continue to call out hypocrisy and work to convince millions of Americans that they should want more from their leaders than the hypocrite’s feigning and dissembling.
Democracy requires that citizens expect leaders to tell the truth in public, and not to invent lies in self-defense when their foibles — if not their crimes — are exposed.
Austin Sarat (@ljstprof) is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. The views expressed here do not represent Amherst College.