In the October 22 edition of the New York Times, an editorial appeared that stated explicitly a premise that has danced on the lips of politicians, pundits, and voters on both sides of the aisle this year but that few have yet had the frankness and audacity to state aloud. It is the notion that a certain amount of dishonesty is necessary to succeed in politics. You have no doubt heard this year in a thousand petty defenses of Hillary Clinton or in Trump supporters’ desperate attempts to reconcile their alleged fear of Washington corruption with their candidate’s admitted history of peddling favors with politicians in his real estate businesses. “He had to!”, they insist, “That’s how it works!” It is not clear whether those who espouse this view likewise believe that dishonesty is necessary in all vocations, all intellectual endeavors, or all aspects of life. For the moment, they are content to mystify politics as a sufficiently complex or competitive realm to merit the sacrifice of their characters, but the day of our cultural decline is only halfway done; we shall see if it soon becomes popular to accept fraud as a necessary ingredient in other aspects of life.
The editorial in question, written by Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is entitled, “Why Hillary Clinton Needs to Be Two-Faced.” Its subheading: “To get things done in Washington, you sometimes have to be a hypocrite.” To Mr. Rauch’s credit, he was not the author of that headline; it seems that Clinton herself uttered those words or some variant of them in a 2013 closed-door speech to an interest group. To his eternal shame, he devotes the remainder of the editorial to defending this view.
As proof that those who wish to pardon and condone the bad must tear down, belittle, and smear the good, Rauch, still citing Clinton’s speech, begins by misinterpreting a quote from Abraham Lincoln—the figure in American history most emblematic of honesty in the face of adversity. The quote in question arose when Lincoln’s opponent, Stephen Douglas, accused Honest Abe of being two-faced. Lincoln, having more composure and less malice than his opponent, deflected with a joke: “If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?” Lincoln, rather than stooping to Douglas’ level, made a self-deprecating joke about his notoriously gangly, long-faced appearance and let the comment slide. The result: Douglas was made to look like a pugilistic adolescent, swinging for a target he couldn’t reach. Clinton, however, with Rauch’s endorsement, misrepresents this as Lincoln refusing to deny his two-facedness, which, according to them, makes her hypocrisy acceptable.
“In politics, hypocrisy and doublespeak are tools. They can be used nefariously, illegally, or for personal gain, as when President Richard M. Nixon denied Watergate complicity, but they can also be used for legitimate public purposes, such as trying to prevent a civil war, as in Lincoln’s case, or trying to protect American prestige and security, as when President Dwight D. Eisenhower denied that the Soviet Union had shot down a United States spy plane.”
Rauch never explains how Lincoln was ever dishonest on any issue in an effort to prevent the Civil War. He simply hopes that we will not notice his sleight-of-hand and will accept his premise that dishonesty is necessary. Likewise, his characterization of the 1960 U-2 spy plane incident completely elides the details: that it was a covert, CIA plane shot down in Soviet airspace, that the pilot survived and was recovered by 1962, and that the incident was not publicly discussed due to the covert nature of the operation. In case it is unclear, a president keeping covert operations covert does not amount to dishonesty, and broadening the definition to such a reach is not only dishonest in itself but desperate. Rauch provides further examples of, in his eyes, appropriate occasions for hypocrisy, doublespeak, and dishonesty: Barack Obama breaking his promise to allow the negotiations over ObamaCare to be conducted in the open, in full public view (a promise that, in Rauch’s evaluation, was appropriate to break when “the real work had to be done”), and defense bills being negotiated behind closed doors in the Senate Armed Services Committee. Clearly, Rauch is unconcerned with the outsized growth in defense spending over the last several years or else he would object to this rather than using it in his defense of Clinton’s brazen dishonesty.
It was said before that we would see in the coming years whether this sort of openly avowed dishonesty would remain limited to politics or percolate into other aspects of life. It seems that Mr. Rauch is a pioneer, ready to embrace fraudulence in all endeavors. “Is it hypocritical,” he asks,
“to take one line in private, then adjust or deny it in public? Of course. But maintaining separate public and private faces is something we all do every day. We tell annoying relatives we enjoyed their visits, thank inept waiters for rotten service, and agree with bosses who we know are wrong… Often, the only way to get something done is to have separate private and public truths… But the moment the conversation becomes public, plausible deniability ceases… An experienced political negotiator and former chief diplomat, she understands that hypocrisy and two-facedness, when prudently harnessed to advance negotiations or avert conflicts, are a public good and a political necessity. Of course, she can’t say so. At least not in public. In our hearts, we know she’s right. But shush. It’s a secret.”
To any decent person reading this atrocity, by this point in the article there is only one appropriate response that should nearly send them to their feet in anger: “Speak for yourself!” Unfortunately for Rauch’s general theme—we all do it, therefore it’s okay—we, in fact, do not all do it. To the contrary, there is a word to describe the very virtue of retaining, in all aspects of life, the same character: integrity. Does it require destroying relationships by telling off one’s relatives, castigating waiters, and challenging an employer’s authority? No. The choice to be polite and not treat every moment in life as either a battleground or a soapbox does not make one such a middling compromiser, as Rauch wants us to think we are; it simply means that there is no sufficient benefit to starting such fires and that we find it better to simply not invite the relatives back, try a different restaurant, and start looking for a new job.
Observe, however, the mental contortions required to openly avow dishonesty. Any examples here involving significant political issues are either misrepresented or, where actual dishonesty is found, are pardoned wholesale. Observe the equivocation between, on the one hand, avowed dishonesty by an elected official who is running to represent the whole of the United States, and, on the other, miniscule acts of politeness towards a waiter at your local restaurant. What difference, he implicitly asks, is there between an occupant of the most powerful office in the world lying to the American people who elect her and you saying that you enjoyed your meal? And observe the spirit of debasement, incrimination, and the assault on your own self-esteem that is employed in an effort to make you feel low and unworthy of questioning the blatant dishonesty of a presidential candidate.
Who are you, the article asks in spirit, to call anyone a liar? You told your aunt it was nice to see her. You’re no moral authority. It’s time to accept the existence of multiple contradictory truths and reject the existence of all principles… except, of course, the unchallengeable truth that there is no truth and the principle that there are no principles. It is time to accept dishonesty in politics and as a necessary part of life itself. It is time to prioritize expedience over values. Expedience towards what end? That cannot be known, since we have already abandoned principles. You’ll just have to trust in the wise and appropriate use of dishonesty by those in positions of power. They know best.
Has there ever been a more blatant example of how the debasement of man’s character and integrity rely upon the destruction of his self-esteem and the con of persuading him that he is small, worthless, and petty? More egregious instances, perhaps, but few as clear as this. Has there ever been a better illustration of the logical consequences of pragmatism? As good, perhaps, but not better. Has there ever been a path to statism and collectivism that did not begin by persuading man to see himself as small, life as doomed, and salvation as resting in the surrender of his grasp of reality to wiser, more enlightened elites? No.
Do not be fooled. Though he is not bold enough to say it, what Rauch and The New York Times, by publishing this nauseating tripe, are endorsing euphemistically as “two-faced[ness]” or “hypocrisy” is nothing less than outright dishonesty. Honesty is properly defined as the refusal to fake reality. It has two manifestations: intellectual honesty oneself in one’s own thoughts, and honesty in one’s words and deeds toward others. Rauch may be writing about the second of these, but he and those who share this view—for he is not unique—, if they do not realize the spirit of debasement in their philosophy and the evils that it makes possible, began their journey with the first form: dishonesty with themselves. Far from a public good, it is a personal tragedy. Far from a means of averting conflict, the system he advocates, that of “noble” lies by wise elites, has been openly defended by the mouthpieces of history’s worst dictatorships and despots. And let it be no secret: whatever rests in the hearts of those who claim to know deep down that deception is a necessary part of life, there remain those of us who do not share it and who never will. If Rauch and those like him wish to defend the merits of lying, so be it, but they will not draft us into their ranks with the claim that ‘we all do it.’ They may not have integrity, but they could at least show the courage to stand alone.