The original Greek word hypokrites, literally translated, means “impersonating from underneath”. Hypokrites was a stage actor who narrated each drama by impersonating its characters underneath masks and costumes. A pretender.
By the early 1700s, hypocrisy had evolved to convey what we now understand by the word: “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs”.
Politics has its share of masks and costumes but it is also a contest of stated beliefs, values and principles. Whether politicians lean Left or Right, we prefer those who have integrity and who don’t seek approval for virtues that don’t exist. We punish hypocrisy.
In December 2016, French politician Jerome Cazuhac was sentenced to three years jail for tax fraud. Three years earlier, Socialist Prime Minister Francois Hollande had appointed Cazuhac Budget Minister with a mandate to stamp out tax evasion by the wealthy. When investigative journalists subsequently revealed that Cazuhac had sought to hide his personal wealth in Swiss banks, his political career was toast.
There are graveyards littered with politicians who embraced Christian family values and condemned “the homosexual lifestyle” only to be caught vigorously participating in it.
But as Donald Trump’s electoral success shows, there has been a profound change in the zeitgeist. While Trump is described as “post-ideological,” he represents a distinct tendency in the contemporary right wing politician. Trump succeeds because he is living through a golden age of right wing hypocrisy, an era in which conservative hypocrites are not accountable, or worse still, rewarded.
Throughout his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump repeatedly asserted a “massive election fraud” and demanded an investigation.
“The electoral college is a disaster for democracy” he tweeted. After winning the presidency, Trump described the Electoral College as “actually genius” and ridiculed those who questioned the integrity of the vote.
Notwithstanding an inability to invoke a principle and adhere to it for much longer than the life of a tweet, Australian conservatives are also remarkably successful. None of the growing catalogue of internal contradictions and policy backflips that has infected the Right over the last decade has loosened its grip on power.
The same politicians who argue that the state must get out of the way of the private sector are throwing more than one billion dollars in taxpayer funds at an Indian company to build a massive new coal mine and intervening in the gas market to suppress prices.
The same free market advocates have spent the best part of a decade fiercely resisting any attempt to ensure that fossil fuel companies price their products to reflect their true cost.
Treasurer Scott Morrison has routinely promised “to get lower expenditure to get lower taxes to grow the economy” and criticised the Labor Party’s plan “to tax, spend and borrow”. In May, Morrison presented a budget that jettisoned all of that and carved out a bold new reality; a programme of increased taxes, spending and borrowing.
What happens when principles are shredded and hypocrisy is rewarded? According to US libertarian Jonathan Bethune “when we stop punishing hypocrisy, the most unscrupulous and amoral benefit … All that remains is tribalism.”
That tribalism helps to explain much of our ill-tempered political and media discourse. It fuelled the last four years of ugly campaigning by conservatives to amend race hate laws, a campaign that repeatedly invoked a “tradition of free speech” that has never existed.
Laws restricting speech that harms others are as old as Methuselah. The Ten Commandments outlawed bearing false witness “against your neighbor”. The numerous laws that restrict freedom of speech in Australia included those operating in the areas of consumer protection, defamation, workplace bullying , electoral regulation, sexual harassment, copyright, confidential information, privacy, obscenity, nuisance, treason and contempt of court.
A standard employment contract contains far more restrictions on free speech than race hate laws.
In reality, the free speech campaign was a charade: crude tribalism masquerading as a struggle about an important principle. The campaign was triggered when Andrew Bolt, a figurehead of the conservative tribe, was found by a court in 2013 to have racially vilified Aboriginal people. The tribe angrily reacted.
When dissenting views were expressed about victims of war on Anzac Day – first by SBS sports reporter Scott McIntyre in 2015 and more recently in a five word tweet by Yassmin Abdel Magied – the same free speech brigade moved to shut them down.
McIntyre’s career as a sports commentator was ruined by a social media lynch mob including Rita Panahi, Chris Kenny, Jamie Briggs and Mark Textor. They attacked McIntyre and incited SBS to sack him. Chris Kenny wrote “this scumbag hates Australians but makes a living from them.” Malcolm Turnbull quickly intervened and McIntyre’s career in Australia was over. More recently, a sustained right wing pile-on, bearing more than a passing resemblance to repulsive scenes from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, swamped Abdel Maggeid with similar results.
Both McIntyre and Abdel Maggeid have fled the country.
Why has accountability broken down, particularly for conservatives who so blatantly betray their professed values? The malaise reflects a genuine crisis in conservative thought. Forty years of neoclassical orthodoxy has come to a dead end. Privatisation and deregulation are spent. Austerity is on the nose. Theresa May has repudiated Thatcherism. Donald Trump has embraced protectionism. There is no new conservative orthodoxy, just a vacuum. In the florid idiom of The Australian’s Paul Kelly, “Every principle and value of genuine conservatism is being ripped up in an orgy of self-interest that exposes the intellectual and moral weakness of conservatism”.
Its politicians mask the vacuum by engaging in theatrical displays designed to foment anger in the electorate and channel it against political opponents. Its show business with an aesthetic heavily influenced by professional wrestling. Witness Trump’s recent use of wrestling imagery against CNN. Hypokrites hard at work.
The role of Rupert Murdoch-owned media, both in the US and Australia, has also contributed to the malaise. Instead of functioning as part of a system of checks and balances, those outlets now operate in symbiotic lockstep with conservative politicians.
Whether motivated by the ideological demands of its owner or the commercial imperative to generate clicks, it matters not. The Murdoch outlets, including The Australian and Sky News are too caught up in the theatrical tribalism to have any role in ensuring accountability. The debate about the extent of News Limited’s influence in Australia is contested but at the very least it muddies the waters of political discourse by casting doubt on facts, reason and conventional morality.
Psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote that “a little less hypocrisy and a little more self-knowledge can only have good results in respect for our neighbour; for we are all too prone to transfer to our fellows the injustice and violence we inflict upon our own natures.”
Recently, right wing provocateurs have deployed violent and racist imagery and rhetoric at a range of familiar targets including the ABC and Muslims.
There is no sign that the Right will heal its inner turmoil any time soon.
Josh Bornstein is an employment lawyer, writer and director of The Australia Institute. The views expressed are entirely his own. He can be found on Twitter @JoshBBornstein