Opinion | Campaign

A pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics

A pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics

The U.S. public is irreconcilably divided along partisan lines on virtually every issue across the political spectrum. Even a pandemic that has killed more Americans than died in every war and conflict this nation has fought since the beginning of the last century has divided us. Why?

In part, dating back to the Vietnam War, government and many institutions have become delegitimized. A large majority of Americans have become highly distrustful and dissatisfied with Washington and the failure of repeated administrations to govern wisely and inclusively. The volte face of  President BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE, who promised to unite the country and pursue a moderate line and now seems to be embracing a highly progressive agenda, is the latest example of hypocritical leaders abandoning campaign commitments, adding to the distrust.

Hypocrisy is as old as politics. But a dangerous outgrowth has been the creation of a condition of hyper-hypocrisy in American politics that, left to fester, can be more dangerous than perhaps any terrorist wishing the nation ill. The reason is that many politicians believe the only way to overcome these intractable divisions is to seize political power by virtually any means. Biden’s lurch to the left is one mild example. Former President Trump’s “big lie” about winning what was not a stolen election is far more damaging.

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To underscore the extent of hyper-hypocrisy, consider this thought experiment. Suppose Donald Trump had won the 2016 presidential election as a Democrat. How would both political parties have behaved? Of course, many would say this scenario is nonsense. But Trump identified “more as a Democrat” not all that long ago.

First, the inversion of reactions to Democrat Trump would have been mind-blowing. Republicans who knew Trump, his character and business practices would have been appalled. Evangelical Christians who have spent the last five years dismissing Trump’s moral failings would have instead portrayed them as repugnant and disqualifying, as they had with Bill Clinton.

That was apparent during the 2016 Republican primary debates in which all of Trump’s opponents were highly critical and disbelieving that Trump could win the nomination or the election.   

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In 2009 Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers remember Bob Dole: 'Bona fide American hero' Senate leaders face pushback on tying debt fight to defense bill Former Sen. Bob Dole dies at 98 MORE (R-Ky.) declared that his priority was to make Barack Obama a one-term president. In 2017, he would have similarly sought to wreck Democrat Trump’s presidency. 

Trump loyalists, such as Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzHospitals in underserved communities face huge cuts in reckless 'Build Back Better' plan To counter China, the Senate must confirm US ambassadors The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Congress avoids shutdown MORE (R-Texas) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate Democrat says he will 'settle' for less aggressive gun control reform 'because that will save lives' Graham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead MORE (R-S.C.), would have instead been relentlessly attacking him. Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonFauci calls Ron Johnson's AIDS comment 'preposterous': 'I don't have any clue of what he's talking about' Wisconsin senators ask outsiders not to exploit parade attack 'for their own political purposes' It's time to bury ZombieCare once and for all MORE (R-Wis.) would have had a field day manufacturing conspiracies with which to pummel Trump. And it’s a sure bet that the infamous Steele dossier on Trump’s alleged wrongdoings in St. Petersburg and his Russian connections would have gotten far more attention by Republicans.

Meanwhile, Democrats would have had a difficult time embracing Trump, but they would have. House Democrats who became the face of the impeachment committees surely would have had radically different opinions of the new Democratic president.

Whether Democrats under Trump would have won control of the House in 2018 or the Senate in 2020 is unknowable. Would, at some stage, the Republican House have begun impeachment proceedings against Trump? Would Jan. 6 have occurred if Democrat Trump had lost in 2020? Would Trump have won a second term if he were a Democrat?

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The more perplexing question is whether Democrats would have succumbed to Trump as Republicans have. Who would have been the Democratic equivalents of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe bully who pulls the levers of Trump's mind never learns GOP senators appalled by 'ridiculous' House infighting MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace, Chris Christie battle over Fox News MORE (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyKevin McCarthy is hostage to the GOP's 'exotic wing' Jan. 6 panel faces new test as first witness pleads the Fifth Prosecutors say North Carolina woman deserves prison for bringing 14-year-old to Capitol riot MORE (R-Wyo.)? Under these circumstances, would Republicans have created a resistance movement to oppose Trump? 

A loyal opposition is vital to a functioning democracy. Hypocrisy is always present. Despite promising to tell the truth, presidents dissemble and many lie. Politicians promise one thing and act on others. Yet, today, hyper-hypocrisy appears to be infecting the entire political spectrum. Many blame Trump, whose record of distortions, untruths and outright lies is unmatched in American history. Yet, Trump is more a symptom than a cause of a failing political system.

The only sure cure is a combination of transparency and the triumph of truth and fact. But on the current path, social media wielded by the ultra-cynical or those out to win power regardless of consequence makes hyper-hypocrisy a more serious threat to democracy than perhaps anything our most trenchant adversaries may intend for us.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest book, due out in the fall, is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.”