Nine months ago I wrote a piece about how hypocrisy works. I analyze the concept and offer some tools for sifting through a political discourse that is increasingly replete with hypocrisy accusations. Some further thought has led me to a disturbing point:
The futility of pointing out the blatant hypocrisy from the Trump GOP is evidence of a creeping fascism.
This is a big claim. We should to begin, as we often should, with self-criticism. A recurring conversation among liberal pundits is about whether it is fair to apply labels like ‘totalitarian’ or ‘fascist’ to the Trump GOP. There is no doubt that Trump has authoritarian tendencies. Such a fact was once shocking and is now becoming banal—which itself should be shocking.
Although the labeling exercise can be instructive, it is also risky. We should certainly learn lessons from history, but in doing so we should beware that, if we are looking to history for a specific, motivated reason, we easily fall prey to confirmation bias and misinterpretation. Kevin and I discuss the tendency here.
Fortunately we can dissect the issue of labels into specific points that are more worth discussing. I hope to make one specific point here. My goal is to show the connection between fascism and the hypocrisy we see from the Trump GOP. I’m not arguing that Trump or the GOP are fascists. My claim is that the prevalence, persistence, and nature of their hypocrisy is indicative of an important feature of fascism.
Fascism is Inconsistency
It is difficult to define fascism.
- Philosopher Jason Stanley, in How Fascism Works (out in Sept. 2018), points out features like nostalgia for a mythic past, ultranationalism, patriarchy, authoritarianism, an opposition to public goods, and a prevalent us/them distinction arising from fear of the other.
- In The Road to Unfreedom historian Timothy Snyder writes that Fascism “celebrated will and violence over reason and law; it proposed a leader with a mystical connection to his people; and it characterized globalization as a conspiracy rather than as a set of problems” (p. 16)
- According to Madeleine Albright, “a Fascist is someone who identifies strongly with and claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use whatever means are necessary—including violence—to achieve his or her goals” (p. 11)
- Hannah Arendt sharply distinguishes totalitarianism and fascism in the Origins of Totalitarianism. She writes, “The only typically modern aspect of the Fascist party dictatorship [in Italy] is that here, too, the party insisted that it was a movement; that it was nothing of the kind, but merely usurped the slogan ‘movement’ in order to attract the masses, became evident as soon as it seized the state machine without drastically changing the power structure of the country, being content to fill all government positions with party members” (p. 257).
These characterizations are consistent but don’t particularly overlap. There is a feeling that defining fascism (or totalitarianism) isn’t about finding a succinct essence or core. Rather, as we see, it involves listing features that risk being general to the point of appearing politically motivated (“let’s define fascism in a way that makes our political opponents fascists!”).
The key is that, in the context of fascism/non-fascism, the very search for a definition comes to have political assumptions. It suggests that meaning attaches to words consistently. It trades in criteria and logical relations. It expects its object to be characterizable by principles, which hang together in a coherent and understandable way. Ideally it is on the basis of those assumptions that we could mount an argument against fascism.
Yet there is a problem:
A feature of fascism is its incoherence and internal inconsistency.
As Stanley points out, fascist campaigns are corrupt to their core and yet run on anti-corruption messaging. They appeal to the dominant group by depicting the group as victims. A fascist speaks for the whole and yet doesn’t care about others, as Albright says. Arendt notices the tension too: a fascist campaign is a non-movement movement. (She also discusses the incoherence of totalitarianism.) “The enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak,” says Umberto Eco in an influential piece. Adorno discusses the different irrationalities in fascism and its propaganda. (See also note 1 of “History: a Retro Scenario” in Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation.)
As I suggested, the incoherence of fascism has implications for what we are doing here. Understanding fascism requires recognizing the futility of the task—precisely because our notion of understanding, with its reliance on certain logical rules and operations, becomes political under fascism. A coherent picture of fascism is only possible within fascism. From the outside we can only understand that fascism is internally inconsistent. So we must be aware of the meta or self-referential point: the fact that fascism is incoherent has implications for how we go about defining it. It also, as we will see, has implications for how we interact with fascists.
Now what does this have to do with hypocrisy?
Hypocrisy is Inconsistency
Hypocrisy is acting in a way that is inconsistent with one’s principles. The Trump era has been an unceasing process of confronting inconsistency and incoherence. For example:
- The election is rigged against Trump… unless he wins
- Trump claims to drain the swamp… and yet fills his administration with Wall Street executives, lobbyists, and insiders.
- The statistics behind Obama’s economy are fake… and yet real once Trump is inaugurated
- Trump continually claims to stand for the poor working class… and yet continues to do nothing for them—and in fact harms them
- Voter suppression and intimidation… as advocacy of democracy
- Trump denies saying something… and yet it is on tape.
- The rhetorical opposition to terrorism… and yet the embrace of it when performed on behalf of the party
- Trump supporters will insult and threaten journalists… and yet be friendly in the next moment
- Trump calls himself knowledgeable… and yet takes no interest in learning
- The implied historical awareness in the phrase ‘Make America Great Again’… and yet the complete ignorance of the alarming historical parallels to Trump and his rhetoric
- The professed importance of personal character and family values… and yet Trump—cheater, liar, sexual assaulter, and con man—is the leader
- Insulting the media as fake news… and yet ignoring the dishonest practices of Fox News.
- Trump criticized Obama for playing golf and taking vacations… and yet Trump does it far more.
- Claiming to represent the country… while pursuing unpopular policies
- Trump’s claims to be concerned with “law and order”… and yet pardons criminals as well as ignores and perpetrates white collar crime
- The culture of complete unconditional loyalty… paired with rhetoric about freedom and liberty (see Arendt, p. 323)
- Trump’s image as a “straight shooter” who “tells it like it is”… and yet lies constantly and has the most corrupt administration in modern history
- Sarah Huckabee Sanders insults journalists to their face… and yet takes challenging questions as insults.
- As a meta point, consistency itself is important, like for criticizing Democrats… but not important to the Trump GOP
What should we make of these inconsistencies? Liberals typically resort to charges of hypocrisy. Yet calling out hypocrisy assumes that consistency has value, that the Trump GOP cares about acting in accordance with principles, and that, in general, our public discourse should be held together with standards of logical coherence. Yet in point of fact, charges of hypocrisy are doing nothing. The Trump GOP nevertheless persist. Why?
We are tempted to think that it is because, deep down, the Trump GOP holds other, more nefarious principles, and their actions are perfectly consistent with them. If they would simply be honest and sincere, all of their behavior would become explainable. In short, the worldview is actually coherent and their actions consistent with it. They simply lie about the worldview.
We are striving to find consistency and coherence because surely it must be there. Fundamental logical principles require it. Yet our assumptions risk mischaracterizing the reality in a dangerous way.
My concern is that the incoherence is not a bug. It is a feature. The inconsistency is becoming an end in itself. This is a sign of a creeping fascism. The charges of hypocrisy fail because what appears like hypocrisy is in fact an integral part of the Trump GOP system of belief. The assumptions in an accusation of hypocrisy are becoming politically nontrivial.
As history teaches, charging a fascist with hypocrisy is especially pointless. As we see daily, charging the Trump GOP with hypocrisy is becoming pointless.
Hypocrisy and Fascism
Someone might object that my conclusion is too extreme or alarmist. Please note that fascism is a spectrum of severity: it is currently creeping. And I am talking about one specific feature. But there is more to my point. As I mentioned, the act of attempting to understand fascism is a political act. It employs assumptions that fascism at some level rejects. We desperately seek consistency in the seemingly inconsistent. Objections to my claim are born out of this natural desire.
Ezra Klein rightly points out that “owning the libs” has become an end in itself for the Trump GOP. There is no better, more fundamental way of making libs seeth with hopeless anger than by polarizing the concept of public discourse itself. Since pointing out hypocrisy is a favorite pastime along liberals, making hypocrisy a central feature of the Trump platform is the natural conclusion. The Trump GOP can make the liberal attempt to posit a coherent explanation of their actions always fail by cleverly adopting an incoherent ideology. It is Trumpism in perfection.
This, however, is an imprecise or incomplete way to put it. The hypocrisy, by forceful self-delusion, becomes party orthodoxy and, by definition, coherent. There is a double-‘owning of the libs’ through converting hypocrisy into established political ideology. In this world, it is the opposition’s arguments that become incoherent and ineffectual. The whole debate dissolves into power plays.
Consider Ingsoc’s slogan in George Orwell’s 1984: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” The slogan is the epitome of incoherence and inconsistency. Orwell’s point about doublethink is that to live in such a tyranny, it is not that you must live without intellectual coherence. It is instead that you must start seeing incoherence as coherence. You must abandon the standards of thinking that you once knew. What it means to understand changes.
But the incoherence does not stop there. You must also see the shift as not in fact a shift. Society is changing… and yet it is not. The search for consistency is a mark of non-fascistic thought. The meta-incoherence of fascism is that inconsistency is maintained as consistency, at least in a fascist’s mind.
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply to same process to the process itself—that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. (1984, p. 35)
We see that the tendency to superimpose underlying coherence on the Trump GOP (like with an appeal to white supremacy, which I actually do think explains nearly everything so far) rests on highly questionable assumptions. Failure to examine the politics of the assumptions goes far towards explaining the ubiquitous naïveté captured in a sentiment like “it cannot happen here.”
Mere hypocrisy is not my concern. It is not what I see from the Trump GOP anymore. I see apathy about their own hypocrisy, dogmatic and insouciant insistence that there is no hypocrisy, or the treatment of hypocrisy accusations as playthings that hold no real importance in public discourse. If your objection is that perhaps Trump and his GOP simply do not care about consistency, Orwellian doublethink shows that you’re wrong… and yet right. They care and don’t care about consistency. And that belief is itself made to be consistent. It is the ultimate form of owning the libs.
Consider three additional examples:
1. Conspiracy Theorists
Trump is the president of conspiracy theorists. He entered politics by espousing racist conspiracy theories and continues to entertain them now. But what makes for a conspiracy theory? It involves an underlying charge of hypocrisy: the ‘sheeple’ claim to care about the truth, but they aren’t following their own principle. The conspiracy theorist is the purified embodiment of the quest for truth. They have turned the tables on the so-called scientists and knowers.
However, a feature of the conspiracy theory methodology is its incoherence and internal inconsistency. The pure quest for truth frequently requires disregarding inconvenient information. It claims to follow evidence… and yet ignores the strongest evidence. The conclusion of a vast cover up is preordained, a perversion of the scientific method it fetishizes. A conspiracy theorist wants to evangelize… and yet the community must remain underground and marginalized.
At bottom, being a conspiracy theorist, like Trump and many of his supporters, requires seeing inconsistency as consistency, incoherence as coherence. It is the essential mindset that leads to fascism. The mindset currently occupies the most powerful political position in the world.
Trump partakes in the tradition of dog-whistle politics. The form of dog-whistle that we see from him involves making inconsistent statements:
- Some of the alt-right protesters in Charlottesville are “very fine people”… and yet Trump walks the statement back later.
- During the press conference with Putin in Helsinki Trump says that he sees no reason why Russia “would” interfere with the election to help Trump… and later says that he meant “wouldn’t.”
- Trump routinely encouraged violence at his rallies. Regardless of the verbal content of the encouragements, his supporters seem to have gotten the message. And yet, when pushed, Trump will denounce violence.
We try to explain Trump’s style of dog-whistling by saying that supporters recognize the inconsistency and then select only one of the statements as what he truly meant. But this might not be the process. It rests on non-fascistic assumptions. What stops a supporter from accepting both statements? Doing so would be hypocritical, but that increasingly doesn’t matter.
We would do well to broaden the definition of dog-whistling: the audience of the dog-whistle recognizes the inconsistency, selects the preferred statement, maintains that the two statements were always consistent, and then, in the move of “ultimate subtlety,” becomes unconscious of the whole process, leaving no trace.
Then there are no grounds for hypocrisy accusations. When liberals call out dog-whistles, they look like unhinged conspiracy theorists, which makes them hypocrites.
3. Fake News
The attitude Trump promotes about the media is nothing if not deeply incoherent. Some outlets are characterized holistically as fake… and yet trusted when the news is advantageous. The hypocrisy is exasperating. Trump supporters engage in doublethink with respect to the media. Arendt captures the phenomenon in a chilling passage:
The whole hierarchical structure of totalitarian movements, from native fellow-travellers to party members, elite formations, the intimate circle around the Leader, and the Leader himself, could be described in terms of a curiously varying mixture of gullibility and cynicism with which each member, depending upon his rank and standing in the movement, is expected to react to the changing lying statements of the leaders and the central unchanging ideological fiction of the movement.
A mixture of gullibility and cynicism had been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became and everyday phenomenon of masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, thinking that everything was possible and that nothing was true. The mixture in itself was remarkable enough, because it spelled the end of the illusion that gullibility was a weakness of unsuspecting primitive souls and cynicism the vice of superior and refined minds. Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for the superior tactical wisdom. (p. 382)
“Everything and nothing”—the epitome of incoherence and inconsistency. We fail to understand Trump’s weaponizing of “fake news” if we do not notice its incoherence. The term “fake news” is itself incoherent: news, by definition, cannot be fake. Thus fake news exists only by ironic reference to objective reality. The fake is opposed to the real and genuine. By calling news fake, the whole concept of objective reality collapses into polarization. When a leader both does this and denies doing it, and then both annihilates and preserves the whole distinction, we get incoherence and a mark of fascism.
Further, Arendt saw that a totalitarian makes reality seem fictitious. When the news describes a world that strains comprehension, the leader makes genuine journalism seem like propaganda (p. 413). The mere act of describing reality becomes polarized. But as we’ve seen, the fiction/reality distinction is non-fascistic in its framing. The goal is to conflate the two while still making use of the distinction. This is precisely what Trump does in his use of “fake news.” It exemplifies an important feature of fascism.
The everpresent smog of hypocrisy forces us to reflect on the status of inconsistency and incoherence in our public discourse. We learn two lessons:
- As more norms erode, we should make explicit the increasingly political assumptions implicit in concepts like consistency, understanding, and reality—all of which are at play in charges of hypocrisy. The futility of calling out hypocrisy should make us concerned about the status of the concepts.
- A creeping fascism is fought by insisting on the importance of consistency and coherence. Arendt says, “Factuality itself depends for its continued existence upon the existence of the nontotalitarian world” (p. 388). We must be that world.
Democracy might die in darkness. It certainly dies when there is no longer a difference between darkness and light.