Hypocrisy – Public Virtue, Private Vice

October 8, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

“What’s the deal with hypocrisy anyway?” asks my inner Seinfeld. The answer comes from La Rochefoucauld four centuries ago: “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.”

I was never sure what this meant. But politicians’ reactions to Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” remarks offer a perfect of example.

Mitch McConnell says that Trump’s comments are “repugnant and unacceptable.” Paul Ryan was “sickened” by what he heard. Reince Priebus gave the official GOP response:  “No woman should ever be described in these terms or talked about in this manner. Ever.”

I am not privy to the private conversations that take place among the men who are our political leaders. But I would bet a lot of money that Ryan, McConnell, and all the other guys on both sides of the aisle hear this kind of talk regularly. Poor Paul Ryan must be sick a lot. I would also bet that even those who thought that what they heard was sickening or repugnant ever said so at the time or called their colleague out on his sexism. Ever.

For them now to claim that they are shocked, shocked that the nominee of their party used such language and expressed sexist attitudes towards women – that’s hypocrisy.  It is also vice (holding or condoning degrading views of women) paying tribute to virtue (treating women decently and speaking about them decently).

Still, I wonder if La Rochefoucauld would join the Republicans who are now saying that they will not vote for Trump? (As Dylan Matthews points out, these politicians are also saying by implication that they were fine with all of Trump’s other statements and attitudes – the ones about Megyn Kelly, Rosie O’Donnell, John McCain, et al.) Or would La Rochefoucauld say that the public world of politics is distinct from that of private life, and that personal virtue has little to do with the ability to govern?.

American politics seems to be unique in its demand for a perfect congruency of private and public personas. I would guess this demand is a legacy of our Puritan origins. These Puritan ideas still have a place in the public sphere, but their power is slowly waning. The publication of Trump’s privately expressed views about women will probably ensure and augment Hillary’s victory. But, like Bill Clinton’s surviving the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it may be yet another sign that America is loosening the constraints of the Protestant Ethic. In the meantime, we’ll just have to get used to hypocrisy.


Moskos said...

This is not about hypocrisy or crude and offensive language. It's not about what he *said*.... When I say crude and offensive things in private -- and I do -- it's clear I'm joking (even when it's not funny). Trump was not joking; he was bragging. It's the actions *he was confessing to* that are so abhorrent.

Jay Livingston said...

Are we talking about the same thing? I was referring to the public reactions of McConnell, Ryan, et al., not to Trump's words and deeds.