Bad-faith cries of Democratic hypocrisy are a favorite tactic in the conservative media playbook

What “Mister Gotcha” can teach us about a popular tactic used to derail debate

Melissa Joskow - Media Matters

On March 3 and 4, the New York Post ran front-page stories about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). The paper had the first-term congresswoman in a bind over some blatant hypocrisy -- or at least that’s the story as it was being told. The two print headlines, “ECO TRIP: Gas-guzzling car rides expose AOC’s green hypocrisy” and “FUEL to the IRE: Now AOC uses gas-hog van blocks from subway,” centered around the supposed dissonance between Ocasio-Cortez’s use of cars and support for her Green New Deal resolution.

Though Ocasio-Cortez has been in office for only a couple months, it’s already become pretty old hat for conservative outlets to accuse her of hypocrisy. In addition to the Post’s criticism about cars, right-wing media have claimed that she’s a hypocrite for traveling by airplane, using Ubers, eating at restaurants, being in the presence of someone eating meat, wearing expensive clothes that don’t belong to her, wearing not-so-expensive clothes that do belong to her, buying things from Amazon, and living in a “luxury” apartment complex. While the subject is in constant rotation, the strategy remains remarkably static.

These charges of hypocrisy are frequently made in bad faith, and the target isn’t limited to Ocasio-Cortez.

For months, members of conservative media have hammered away at Democrats for hypocrisy on the issue of a border wall. While some arguments -- such as whether politicians have supported certain forms of border security in the past -- are legitimate, there’s one very specific claim that comes from a clear place of bad faith. That claim is the suggestion that Democrats are hypocrites about Trump’s proposed wall because many of them live in houses surrounded by fencing or walls. An even more extreme, galaxy-brained version of this argument says that it’s hypocritical of lawmakers to live indoors at all, given that houses are made up of walls.

In January, The Daily Caller sent Benny Johnson to investigate whether it was true that former President Barack Obama had a 10-foot wall surrounding his Washington, D.C., property. The resulting article contained multiple photos of Johnson pointing at steel and cement barricades that appear to be less than 4 feet tall. “Obama does not have one wall. He has many,” Johnson wrote, citing the fact that the Secret Service wouldn’t let him walk right up to the Obamas’ door.

Meanwhile, Sean Hannity used his platform at Fox News to make a similar charge against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for using the same types of barriers during the announcement of his presidential campaign. “Why’s the fence up, Bernie? Oh, are barriers acceptable if they protect you personally? They’re only wrong if they’re used to protect our border and the American people?”

I suspect that, deep down, Hannity, Johnson, and everyone else who makes strained charges of hypocrisy know that these aren’t actual examples of hypocrisy. Even so, these arguments help advance their political agendas.

These arguments effectively shut down debate over these proposals. If the goal is to distract from an argument over whether border walls are effective or immoral, it makes sense to shift that discussion to something totally unrelated like crowd control barriers. If the goal is to take attention away from something like the Green New Deal which is aimed at addressing underlying, systemic problems affecting climate change, reframing the discussion to be about personal choices is a time-tested strategy.

More than a decade ago, climate change denialists in right-wing media took on former Vice President Al Gore, who had by then become one of the most visible faces of the movement to address climate change. They attacked the climate science that he talked about, but as the science wasn’t on the denialists’ side, they also waged unrelenting attacks on Gore for his own personal energy use and supposed hypocrisy. Never mind that whether climate change was occurring -- and whether it was attributable to human activity -- had nothing to do with how much electricity Gore used or the number of flights he took.

In September 2016, cartoonist Matt Bors published a comic at The Nib titled “Mister Gotcha.” Though he didn’t know it at the time, the post would become a prescient piece of political art.

For those who haven’t seen the comic, the basic premise is that the titular “Mister Gotcha” will pop up to let everyone know just how smart (he thinks) he is when he catches someone in an act of hypocrisy. Examples used in the comic include someone complaining about the treatment of Apple factory employees despite owning an iPhone, another person advocating for seat belts in cars despite owning a seatbelt-less car, and finally, someone saying, “We should improve society somewhat,” only for Mister Gotcha to respond, “Yet you participate in society. Curious! I am very intelligent.”

The idea is that Mister Gotcha is more interested in winning some sort of imaginary battle of wits than he is in addressing any of the actual issues being discussed. In short, it’s a comic about calls for large-scale change being derailed by a focus on superficial personal decisions. The comic has been rereleased in an animated format since then, and last month, Bors published a Green New Deal-specific sequel.

I asked Bors about the comic and its surprising relevancy.

When the quest for rhetorical victory serves as a replacement for action, we end up with a political discourse predicated on tribalism over compromise and shared goals. Bors’ comic captured this perfectly as Mister Gotcha finds joy at his own sick burns even as the world around him crumbles.

Bors said he drew on “arguments about criticizing capitalism from your iPhone” -- here’s an example -- in drafting the comic:

I created the comic in 2016 and the popularity seems to only be increasing, which is why I created a sequel recently, propelling us into the dystopian future of logic bombs. It was a real chore to caricature these arguments -- we’re seeing more and more “gotcha” moments on Bernie Sanders or AOC where people note they wear clothes and eat lunch as if it’s a devastating own.

If you spend any significant amount of time on social media, you’re likely to notice that there are more than a handful of people who seemingly live to debate others. Debate for the sake of debate without seeking ways to implement solutions to the problems being discussed is little more than a performance of sorts, a philosophical circle jerk. Bors pointed to a tweet from Andrew Shvarts that he thought “summed up the problem perfectly”:

We need to see these arguments for what they are: attempts to derail debate and action.

These stunt arguments are insincere traps for people more concerned with scoring points than with considering the real-world implications of legislative activity. And they are nowhere near as intellectually triumphant as the people making them would have you believe.