Over the course of the many years of my law practice, I have learned to be very attentive when individuals speak to me, whether they be clients or adversaries. I have determined that it is especially important to listen when someone makes an accusation. Experience has made me aware that an accusation can often be a distortion of the actual facts and sometimes even less an accusation than a form of confession.
The more vehement the accusation, the more suspicious I tend to become that the statement is really a kind of recognition of personal failings. This is not merely an observation based on my own exchanges. It is also sustained by historical analysis.
The confessional nature of accusatory declarations seems to cross all professions, genders and categories of people. Politicians, actors, members of the clergy — everyone seems susceptible to this tendency. Seemingly, a guilty conscience can often prompt an attempt to foist guilt upon another party.
In recent years, we have all watched with dismay as so many of our television evangelists, who do not hesitate to castigate their massive audiences of viewers regarding the alleged failings of those sitting in the “pews” to be sufficiently religious and moral, exposed as themselves failing to behave in a moral manner. The more vociferous the evangelist in his accusatory approach, the more dramatic the fall when it so often seems to come.
Throughout history, we have been witness to accusations by national leaders against neighboring nations that have turned out to be mere excuses for conducting the same behavior being derided. Some of the most notorious such accusations were made a couple of generations ago as fascist and communist leaders launched unfounded charges of purported aggression as excuses to conduct aggressive campaigns of war and violence. Most recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin adopted this approach as he began his attempted conquest of Ukraine.
Politicians, now and in times past, have been among the most susceptible to adopt an accusatory mode in their rhetoric. And they have been prominent in displaying their hypocrisy. Since the days of Machiavelli, who turned hypocrisy into a political philosophy, all the way up to the extremists of our time, who have used false narratives as the basis for vilifying political opponents, vicious political attacks have frequently been the basis for endeavoring to achieve the very objective of which opponents have been the target.
Whenever we hear a politician attack a person or thing, it is most appropriate to look carefully at the attacker. The accusation often turns out to be merely a statement of admission and frequently an admission against interest. Contemporary politics have yielded a potpourri of examples. A few readily come to mind.
When Democrats lodge accusations at Republicans for their alleged encouragement of the Jan. 6 “insurrection,” it is appropriate to remember that when the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters launched an attack on the White House in May 2020 and would assuredly have sacked the building had they been able to breach the fence fortuitously put up by the Secret Service, Democrats never objected. Indeed, they seemed to think it was just fine. To them, it was a peaceful protest against the incumbent president. And yet it was potentially more dangerous than the events of January 2021.
We have heard endlessly the accusation that then-President Donald Trump claimed that the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, were the moral equivalent of the anti-Nazi marchers that confronted them. A reading of the transcript of the press conference at which the alleged statement was made clearly demonstrates that Mr. Trump never said this. His comment was a reference to supporters and opponents of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee and expressly not of equivalency between neo-Nazis and their opponents.
But those who accuse Mr. Trump are, in fact, among those who have suggested that the demonstrators who attacked and looted buildings throughout the U.S. in the summer of 2020 were merely demonstrating against racism and are good people, thus setting up a moral equivalency between destructive looters and people genuinely concerned with society’s challenges.
An endless loop of accusations by Democrats against Republicans as election deniers has been ongoing since the 2020 election. Those accusations are so strident that they are made to sound tantamount to accusations of treason. Yet some of the very same people who have articulated these charges are people who have been strident election deniers themselves. Notably, Hillary Clinton and Stacey Abrams have been among the most vociferous accusers of Republicans who claim that President Biden’s victory was tainted while they have refused to accept the outcomes of their own elections, even though there is no more evidence of a fraudulent outcome in the one case than in the other.
Next time any politician alleges that an opponent is colluding with the enemy, is a racist, has had improper relations, is trying to suppress voters, or has improperly handled confidential government documents, it may be appropriate to ask whether it isn’t possible that this politician is actually confessing to just such behavior.
• Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington office of a national law firm. His book “Lobbying for Equality, Jacques Godard and the Struggle for Jewish Civil Rights During the French Revolution” was published by HUC Press in 2021.