Hypocrisy has always been a complicated vice. It is the easiest, most common charge made in politics (“my opponent claims to love apple pie but uses them regularly in unspeakable acts”). Most of us feel a visceral reaction when a crusading prosecutor makes use of prostitutes, or a law-and-order judge takes bribes, or a moralizing pastor tends to his or her flock a little too closely.
In one sense, hypocrisy is unavoidable and necessary. If people were required, at all times, to live up to ideals of honesty, loyalty and compassion in order for those ideals to exist, there would be no ideals. Being a moral person is a struggle in which everyone repeatedly fails, becoming a hypocrite at each of those moments. A just and peaceful society depends on hypocrites who ultimately refuse to abandon the ideals they betray.
Before we become overly self-forgiving, it is worth recalling that the founder of Christianity took hypocrisy quite seriously: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.” Purity of heart and motivation, in the Christian tradition, does matter. But the hunt for hypocrisy should begin in the mirror.
In this case, perhaps surprisingly, I am all for the wisdom of Gingrich and Limbaugh. Trump presents a special case, in which the normal criticisms of political hypocrisy should be suspended. Every time the Trump agenda is reshaped or refined to better fit reality, even Trump’s most dedicated critics have reason to applaud.
This is a rare ethical circumstance in which realism and good sense take the form of hypocrisy. On a variety of issues, the sincerity of Trump’s current intentions — or the cynicism of his past intentions — should not matter. If the candidate who gave a wink and nod toward white nationalism now repudiates the alt-right and promises to “bring this country together,” so much the better. If the candidate who promised a trade war with China reconsiders, it is all to the good.
It is admittedly an odd thing to cheer for cynicism. But in this strange, new political era, hypocrisy is our best hope.