Nancy Pelosi, Marie Antoinette, Donald Trump, and hypocrisy
I “know” things I’d rather not consciously acknowledge. We all do. To be a human being is to implicate oneself in some degree of hypocrisy; existence is acquiescence to imperfection. If we want to live with a minimum of contentment, we have no alternative. But there is a difference between unavoidable, low-grade inconsistency—an inescapable element of the human condition—and eminently escapable hypocrisy. Avoidable hypocrisy comes in two flavors: hypocrisy which is structural, forced upon individuals by systems largely beyond any given individual’s control, and the chosen, flagrant hypocrisy of powerful people, so lulled by complacency and ideology that they fail to see how their behavior appears to an outside observer. Powerful people who are nonchalant upon being confronted with evidence of hypocritical behavior aren’t hypocrites: they’ve foresworn the claim to any modicum of consistency, opting for the stolid impenetrability of power. With them, the logic of hypocrisy does not obtain.
Trump, Mitch McConnell, and congressional Republicans fall into this latter category: they subscribe to the simple, age-old premise that might makes right. The strong do what they can; the weak suffer what they must. Republican pseudo-populist politicians make only token efforts to deny swift 180-degree shifts in rhetoric—and they largely get away with it. If pushed, they will shrug, give an aw-shucks grin, and drop the pretext altogether. This abrupt jettisoning of pretense allows them to provide the cynical, weary masses—rightly embittered, hopeless, angry, tired of pious platitudes—the illusion of “telling it how it is.”
Trump ran on a platform of securing national rejuvenation and ending political corruption. He professed profound concern for the working class, positioning himself as a tribune for forgotten Americans. None of his gauzy promises have become realities. If anything, Trump has done just the opposite: his administration has been a bonanza for the rich and corrupt, while the poor and working class have been economically decimated. Yet Trump’s popularity among his base and his support within the Republican Party remain largely unshaken, despite the horrific events of January 6. What accounts for Trump’s remarkable imperviousness to political consequences?
One of the anecdotes that’s trotted out most often when discussing hypocrisy is the infamous vignette of Marie Antoinette quipping “Let them eat cake” when she was informed of the plight of the breadless French peasantry. As with most tales that seem too good to be true, the story is apocryphal and perhaps never happened. But it has a certain verisimilitude: given the very real disconnect between Marie Antoinette and her people, we can easily imagine her dismissing plebeians’ struggle to avert starvation by proffering the blasé suggestion that they eat expensive brioche (the food referenced in Rousseau’s original quote).
The queen lived a cosseted, insulated existence: her profligate spending habits earned her the moniker “Madame Déficit.” Her forays into politics and economics were a factor in the failure of attempts to resolve the French government’s financial crisis. Her addiction to opulence helped catalyze France’s collapse. But if we consider it more closely for a moment, the “Let them eat cake” vignette is really more about being out of touch—and consequence-free—than it is about hypocrisy. Marie, after all, never professed to be a friend to the peasant. Hatred of her behavior centered on attitudes towards injustice: people resented stunningly unjust inequities between the nobility and the common people, and they detested the maddening nonchalance with which the elite kept enjoying lives of splendor, blissfully indifferent to the lower orders’ misery.
Antoinette’s attitude of insouciance was critical to the rabid reaction against her, as was the fact that the monarchy was essentially the only game in town, a lightning rod for popular discontent. She and Louis XVI couldn’t convincingly pin the blame for France’s ills on the nobility. Trump isn’t immune to accusations of lavishness and decadence. With his gilded architectural monstrosities and nouveau riche lifestyle, he is the epitome of these characteristics. The difference between him and Marie is twofold: he’s so oblivious to workers’ suffering that he can’t even be said to be pococurante, and he has the Democratic establishment to scapegoat, thereby—at least in the minds of people who are unsympathetic to the center-left—displacing blame that might otherwise stick to him.
Many people are predisposed to despise purveyors of social justice politics: we often hate people or things which remind us uncomfortably of parts of ourselves that we’d rather ignore. It’s common for people to shoot the messenger when the messenger bears unpleasant news. Social justice advocates force us to acknowledge the distance between the world we live in and the world that should exist, and some of the most vocal social justice advocates tend to do so stridently, without sugarcoating or modulating their tone to lull listeners into a fully receptive state where their message can be calmly contemplated without being rejected out of hand. The Left—and I admit to being guilty of this at times myself—sometimes falls prey to the antipolitical temptation to let the pleasure of being right substitute for the hard work of persuading those who don’t already agree with its basic premises and its analysis of social problems.
Caught up in an unjust society, complicit against their will in a system that ensnares and exploits us all, people feel an inkling of guilt without necessarily being able to identify why or who to blame. They know that something isn’t right. They suffer feelings of powerlessness in the midst of a bewildering, dizzingly complex modern world. One’s hatred of oneself—one’s shame and frustration at one’s inadequacies, innumerable petty hypocrisies, and inability to control one’s destiny and the fate of society—can turn inward or outward. If it turns within, this sense of guilt often causes us to give up altogether on social transformation. Even so, the sticky residue of bad faith persists. To soothe their minds, people need somebody to blame for their niggling discomfort, their intimations of injustice. Social justice advocates fit the bill, even if they aren’t smug or sanctimonious. Their very existence is an accusation, an uncomfortable question volleyed at people who aren’t engaged in social justice efforts: Why aren’t you doing more to fix the world?
Unlike Trump and his nihilistic compadres, who use the occasional rhetorical sop to portray themselves as “populists,” establishment Democrats profess to genuinely care about the downtrodden. Neoliberals insistently issue paeans to opportunity for all, equality before the law, and liberation for the oppressed. But “the lady doth protest too much”: being close to the mark rhetorically only accentuates how far away we are from it in reality. Sanctimonious, pro-capitalist, pro-identity politics Democrats are thus, in a limited sense, at least as bad as neofascists who are candid about their true desires, repulsive and reprehensible though those desires are. When soaring rhetoric contrasts with a debased reality, using progressive rhetoric is like rubbing salt in an open wound. Our degraded reality is that open wound. Neoliberal Democrats’ hypocrisy is pure saline.
For this reason, an April interview where Nancy Pelosi blithely displayed her home’s $24,000 freezers full of froufrou ice cream, saying about the pandemic, “I don’t know what I would’ve done if ice cream were not invented,” is damning, a faux pas revealing neoliberal hypocrisy. Donald Trump pounced on it, drawing a direct connection between Pelosi and Marie Antoinette. It gave anyone already skeptical of establishment Democrats’ social justice rhetoric confirmation of their suspicions that it’s all a ruse, a convenient set of pieties to mask elites’ greed and corruption. Such a conclusion happens to be true in the case of Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, and other wealthy, self-satisfied octogenarians who have clung to power far too long and have repeated their claims to be paladins of the working class so long that they appear to actually believe them.
The problem is that this particular incident—and the out-of-touch behavior it represents—threatens to discredit social justice rhetoric overall, whether it comes from the lips of neoliberal figures paying lip service or from the mouths of true leftist champions of the working class like AOC and the Squad. Trump, a consummate opportunist, seized on any shred of evidence of Democratic hypocrisy to paint all leftists as hypocrites. Already embittered by the state of the world, primed to seek a culprit for their psychic unease, conservatives and conservative-leaning people are sympathetic to these cynical efforts to disgrace genuine reform, leaving Trump and the Republicans largely unscathed despite Trump’s landslide of lies.
We’re living in a moment of truth. But Trump and the Republicans, by sidestepping consistency altogether, are beyond truth. Accusations of hypocrisy don’t stick anymore, because they no longer acknowledge that consistency has any claim over their behavior. Neoliberals, by promising social justice and failing to deliver, are hypocrites. Twice in the last five years, Bernie Sanders demonstrated that the path of integrity is still possible, and that it fends off rightist salvos. His person, his campaign, and his policies were of a piece, and he attracted immense support from independents and a solid number of Republican voters. The way forward is clear. The solution is to match words and actions, giving the Left the moral authority it needs to break the right’s malevolent spell and reenchant a disenchanted world.