I have been struck, as I have observed the political landscape of my nation over the decades, how much of it seems to be fueled by hypocrisy. I have often taken that fact as a wholly and completely negative one. After all, is not hypocrisy the very antithesis of our necessary and continual search for truth and honesty in our human affairs? Surely we cannot have a peaceful and just society if that society is led by those who say and believe one thing, and at the same time say and do precisely the opposite thing. How can I ever trust anyone if they present to me a certain outward face, while hiding from me their true selves?
This problem presented itself to me in a stark way following the acquittal of former president Donald Trump at his second impeachment trial in the US Senate on Feb.13 by a vote of 57-43 in favor of guilt, but falling ten votes short of the 2/3 vote needed for a conviction. Only seven Republicans joined the 50 Democrats in voting for the guilt of the former president. Though it was the largest bipartisan vote ever tallied in the Senate against an impeached incumbent president, it was not a conviction. The single article of impeachment against Trump was for his “incitement of the mob” that attacked the capitol on Jan.6; 43 Senators voted against that article. That in and of itself was not hypocrisy, since those Republicans had already vowed quite publically that they would not vote against Trump, no matter the evidence presented. It is true that though some claimed “open minds” before the six-day trial began, it was abundantly clear that there were not enough Republican votes for conviction. This is one of the apparent reasons that no witnesses were called to testify at the trial, though Democrats had voted on the right to call such witnesses if they chose to do so.
However, the whiff of hypocrisy issued from the words of the now-minority leader of the Senate, the six-term Kentucky solon, Mitch McConnell, directly after the trial ended. In a five-minute address, Senator McConnell, quite directly and with withering prose, excoriated the former president, proclaiming that there was no doubt at all that Trump was morally and politically completely responsible for inciting that mob on Jan.6 and deserved whatever reprobation he received, saying that his opprobrium was “not over,” implying that legal actions might still be taken to give Trump what he so richly deserved, namely a complete comeuppance for his reprehensible actions. This, of course, was the very same Mitch McConnell who had, earlier that same day, voted against the very thing he now was saying that Trump was completely guilty of! That remarkable display by McConnell seemed a textbook case of hypocrisy writ large. He did say that he voted for acquittal based on his belief that the Senate had no jurisdiction over a “former” president (though a large number of legal scholars completely disagreed with him), but his sharp attack on Trump’s actions on Jan.6 could just as easily have been made by the Democratic House Managers who brought the case against Trump during the trial.
McConnell is, without doubt, among the cleverest and wiliest legislators to be found in the land; he has not survived as long as he has without knowing his way around the complexities of law making and politics. Still, his overt assault on Trump was noteworthy, however hypocritical it seemed to be. And it would be easy to parse his actions in strictly political terms: he followed Trump as far as he could, given the ex- president’s significant base of Republican support, but now that Trump has, twitterless, decamped to Mar-A-Lago and a cozy retirement, McConnell calculated that the Republican Party needed to divest itself of its Trumpian sickness if it was to be, over time, at all competitive in US American elections. That understanding of what the Senator had up his aging sleeves may sound cynical, but it has long been the way of our politics; “what have you done for me lately, and what can you do for me now” is a maxim hardly confined to the GOP. Is it, however, hypocrisy on the part of McConnell, or simply the way of clever politics?
Exactly what is hypocrisy? Many of us think we know what it means from our biblical texts. Matthew 23:3 may be the classic New Testament place: speaking of the “scribes and Pharisees,” Jesus warns the assembled crowds, “therefore do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” Matthew’s Jesus says quite directly that what the teachers of Jewish law teach should indeed be followed, but he then warns that they do not follow their own teaching! He accuses them of laying heavy burdens on their followers but refuse to bear those burdens themselves, instead choosing public honors and large religious displays (Mt.23:4-6). In other words, they say one thing, but do another, the very definition of what we moderns name hypocrisy.
But there may be more here that needs our attention. The Greek that underlies the word may be heard in two different ways. On the one hand, the word may be read as “play acting,” that is one who claims to have moral standards or beliefs that are not matched by that person’s own actions. They are practicing pretense, quite literally using a mask, in the way of an actor, to fool the public and thereby gain some sort of social or political benefit. That may define, at least in part, what Senator McConnell was about on Feb.13’s dual actions of acquittal and rebuke.
The other possible way of understanding the Greek root of our word hypocrisy is to see it as a combination of two Greek words: “hypo” or “under” and “krinein,” “to sift or to decide.” Hence, hypocrisy may be said to be a deficiency in the ability to sift or decide an issue. When a person is thus deficient in this ability, applying that deficiency to their own beliefs or feelings or actions, the modern meaning of hypocrisy comes more into focus. It could thus be said that Senator McConnell was not fully capable of evaluating his own deficient abilities to see clearly just how his vote for acquittal and his scathing later remarks might be judged as hypocritical, at least as that word is normally understood.
However, Michael Gerson, a thoughtful modern reporter and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush from 2001-2006, offers a further reflection on this matter when he says, “ a just and peaceful society depends on hypocrites who ultimately refuse to abandon the ideals they betray.” Given that insight, it could be said that indeed Mitch McConnell is a hypocrite in his actions, but ultimately he could not finally abandon the deeper ideals he holds for the US Constitution and against those, like Donald Trump, who would drag it through the mud for their own ambitions for power. In other words, claims Gerson, we will always have our hypocrites, but what we must observe closely is whether or not those hypocrites finally give up the ideals they claim to espouse. Such a view may sound cynical to the idealist who demands truth and honesty in all things, but recognizes that such strict and pure honesty is rarely available in this life. Perhaps the famous maximist, La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680), was saying the same thing: “Hypocrisy is the homage which vice renders to virtue.” Vice and virtue are inextricably joined, and the sooner we admit that and accept its truth, the sooner we may find a just and peaceful society.
That leads me to receive McConnell’s vote and his anti-Trump speech in a new light. By his words and actions, he was “rendering vice to virtue,” thus making possible, he hopes and I hope, a movement toward a more just and more peaceful society, a society devoid of Trump and his enablers, and however less than perfect, perhaps on a better road to the kind of society we all long for. I thus thank Senator McConnell for not in the end abandoning his ideals, however much some of his prior actions betrayed those same ideals. In the end, he and I agree fully about Donald Trump; he is a dangerous and reprehensible loser who should now be consigned to the dustbin of history. It may thus be said that hypocrisy is not fully an evil thing, as long as the ideals it sometimes betrays are not finally abandoned.