Trump’s No Hypocrite

And That’s Bad News for the International Order

Trump in Washington, May 2017. Yuri Gripas / REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump can be accused of having many faults, but hypocrisy is not one of them. To be sure, Trump is wildly inconsistent. His critics have found great sport digging up old tweets in which he condemns political rivals for doing something that he himself blithely does today. But hypocrisy requires a minimal degree of self-awareness. It also requires clear understanding of both one’s own interests and of public norms that may frustrate self-dealing.  Repeated gaffes and insults suggest that Trump has no such knowledge. Far from being a Machiavellian schemer, he seems unable to recognize the difference between what one professes in public and what one does in private, much less the utility of exploiting that difference. 

In moderation, Trump’s lack of control might be refreshing. When in a February interview, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly pressed Trump about his relationship to Russian President Vladimir Putin—“a killer”—Trump responded that there are many killers and asked rhetorically whether “our country was so innocent.” He pointed out aspects of U.S. behavior that both liberals and conservatives prefer to gloss over. Under ordinary circumstances, a presidential acknowledgment that the United States has regularly killed people under sketchy circumstances might spur serious debate. But nothing about Trump is moderate. Trump wants not only to acknowledge America’s dark side but to embrace it, building U.S. policy on naked self-interest and short-term advantage.

Artful hypocrisy has been one of the United States’ most important tools for building the international liberal order.

The problem is that hypocrisy is as crucial to international politics as to personal relations. Blunt pursuit of self-interest is rarely appealing to others. American leaders used to push the self-serving myth that U.S. interests and the world’s interests were mostly the same, and that America was the one indispensable nation. Now, Trump has driven a highly visible wedge between American interests and the world’s. Making America Great Again might be an

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