Donald trump has made a real hash of the English language, often leaving us spinning about helplessly in a tornado of disjointed phrases and ellipses. But it’s the logical fallacies in his everyday speech that have given academics and pundits hours of enjoyment, spotting and classifying these bits of unsound reasoning. Trump’s logical fallacies — often appearing in his Twitter comments — help keep his followers hopped up on crazy and no doubt factor bigly in the estimated 15,413 false or misleading claims he’s made since taking office.
Ad Hominem (Latin for “to the man”) arguments seem to be Trump’s favorite. That’s when a speaker, who can’t or doesn’t want to argue the facts, slams a person’s looks or character or personality rather than their position or actions on the issue in question.
On Jan. 21, 2019, when he tweeted, ”Four people in Nevada viciously robbed and killed by an illegal immigrant who should not have been in our country… . We need a powerful Wall!!” he was using an Unwarranted Generalization. On Feb. 25, he tweeted “The Democrat position on abortion is now so extreme that they don’t mind executing babies AFTER birth.” That one was the Straw Man fallacy, which is an oversimplification or caricature of an opponent’s actual position.
The thing is, you and I are as likely to spout this rhetorical rot as President Trump is. That’s why, as we go forth into this extremely contentious election year, we thought it wise to remind ourselves and all of you of the dangers of letting logical fallacies seep into our language. As examples, two of the hottest fallacies in current political discourse are Whatboutism and False Dichotomy.
• Whataboutism — Learned types describe this as a “red herring [see below] version of the classic tu quoque logical fallacy.” But basically it’s a way to deflect criticism by pointing out the misdeeds of anybody who ever did anything similarly bad. You’re probably hearing a lot of these right now, as in: “Trump assassinated Suleimani.” “Yeah, but what about Obama’s drone strikes?”
• False Dichotomy — That’s when you create the artificial sense that there are only two possible outcomes in a situation, and yours is obviously the best. As in, “If we hadn’t taken out Suleimani, sure enough someday he’d be over here flying planes into buildings.”
Other popular types of unsound reasoning are:
• Appeal to Authority — When we accept as gospel truth whatever a beloved authority figure says. “Bernie said so. What more do you need?”
• Slippery Slope — If we let government take this minor action, it will ultimately, through many innocent-looking small steps, lead to some ridiculous and far-fetched but horrifying outcome.
• Red Herring — A diversionary tactic for when you’re avoiding the other guy’s argument, useful when dodging the issue. “Yes honey, I did get clocked doing 90 on Platte, but little Mikey just strangled the hamster.”
• Moral Equivalence — An unfair and wildly inaccurate comparison that ranks relatively minor misdeed the same as major atrocity. The one you’ve heard most often in recent years invariably ends with “Hitler.” As in, “He/She/They did [something I don’t like]. He/She/They are just like Hitler.”
Logical fallacies simply gum up the works. They keep us from being honest and reasonable with each other, and they prevent a deeply divided America from finding common ground through open and logical discussion. It’s a most rank form of hyperbole, an artful dodgery often born of BS and the hunger for oneupmanship. I do it. You do it. Democrats, Republicans and Greens do it. A five-minute internet search will turn up dozens of fallacies you can watch for in political discourse, in pundit-speak — and in your own communication. If you clean up yours, we’ll clean up ours. Maybe it will make a difference.