Donald Trump is an expert at making people’s heads spin by employing several well-known logical fallacies. Because of him, debate with the other side of the aisle is near impossible.
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Logical fallacies are missteps in reasoning, either intentionally or unintentionally, to win an argument. On the surface, they appear logically sound, but under scrutiny they don’t hold up. For example, one of the most common is the Ad Hominem fallacy, in which your opponent attacks your character instead of your argument. In practice, this is an effective way to make your opponent’s argument seem incorrect, but in reality has only skirted the issue. And Trump is notorious for doing this.
Despite the fact that Aristotle first formally identified them in his famous work Sophistical Refutations 2300 years ago, logical fallacies have been commonplace, especially in politics. Unfortunately, today Trump has taken it to an absurd level and left our national debate perhaps beyond saving.
Like the name suggests, this is when someone distorts their opponent’s argument, making it seem weak so it can be easily destroyed. For example, if someone says “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas” to accommodate non-Christians, his or her opponent might say “this is anti-Christian bias and the war on Christianity needs to stop!” Clearly, the second person misinterpreted the point of saying “happy holidays,” and changed their opponent’s argument into something more easily argued against. Despite how illogical this is, this fallacy is used every year around the holidays.
Trump uses this fallacy to great effect. Among many examples, perhaps the most egregious is when he said “They want to take away your healthcare, because our country cannot afford it. Destroy your Second Amendment and throw open the borders to deadly drugs and vicious gangs, because plenty of them are coming across and a lot of drugs. Democrats have become the party of crime — it is true!”
Of course, no democrat has said or done anything to make this even remotely true. Democrats are trying to increase access to health care. They are also not trying to destroy the Second Amendment, merely pushing for safer regulations. And they do not want open borders, as they are simply trying to stop the demonization of immigrants. In fact, Obama made border security a major issue.
Therefore, Trump’s comments above and many others have reframed the national debates over healthcare, the Second Amendment, and border security into logical absurdities, making them impossible to engage in. Unfortunately, this is one of Trump’s favorite fallacies, and he has used it to derail conversation on pretty much every topic, from the Mueller investigation to climate change.
Slippery Slope Fallacy
This occurs when a person claims one harmless event will lead to another and another, ending in something horrible. For example, if a person claims he or she is in favor of gay marriage, then his or her opponent might claim this would lead to people marrying their dogs. How does one situation lead to the next? It doesn’t. As absurd as this sounds, this faulty argument was actually made when the Defense of Marriage Act was being debated and still today.
When asked about increased background checks, Trump responded with “The Democrats would, I believe, I think they would give up the Second Amendment, and the people that, a lot of the people that put me where I am are strong believers in the Second Amendment, and I am also. And we have to be very careful about that, you know, they call it the slippery slope. And all of a sudden everything is taken away, we’re not going to let that happen.”
Likewise, in response to removal of a Robert E. Lee statue he said “I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
Both of these demonstrate flawed logic, in that Trump believes giving in a little bit will snowball to the worst case scenario. Quite comically, he actually mentions the slippery slope, as if he were aware of the fallacy he’s using. Because of this, Democrats and Republicans struggle to have rational debate about gun control and controversial statues, as the Democrats’ position has been distorted by Trump’s lack of logic.
Latin for “against the man,” this fallacy involves attacking the person instead of the argument. Examples abound for this fallacy, as it is a common tactic in all types of debates. Read through any comment section and you inevitably someone calling another an idiot, a Nazi, etc. In fact, Godwin’s law predicts that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”
Trump loves to do this to his opponents. He gives them disparaging nicknames, in an attempt to make himself look better. For example, he nicknamed Hillary Clinton “Crooked Hillary” during the 2016 election. A few other gems are “Little Adam Schiff,” “Lyin Ted,” and “Crazy Jim Acosta.” Trump just outright insults reporters to their faces when they ask questions he doesn’t like, such as when he called an NBS reporter “terrible” for asking what he would say to people feeling afraid during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Perhaps the best example of Trump’s use of Ad Hominem is during the Mueller investigation. Once the investigation was announced, Trump and his supporters went after the credibility of Mueller and his team. For example, Trump accused Mueller of deleting text messages between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, two members of the FBI. Trump asserts these text messages show a bias against him. However, he offered no evidence, as per usual.
Trump uses this fallacy because it works well. That is, if he can make his opponents look bad, then he looks good in return, although this does not address any of the actual issues at hand. Therefore, debate about the Mueller report and other politicians have devolved into nonsense name calling and personal attacks.
This fallacy is when your opponent distracts from the topic at hand to something seemingly related. For example, if a politician is asked about their voting record on raising taxes, he or she might respond with how important it is to put more money into education. While there certainly is overlap between the two issues, the answer does not really address the question. This tactic is a favorite among virtually all politicians, as they often shift the discussion towards something for which they have prescripted answers.
Listen to Trump speak for 30 seconds and he will use a red herring fallacy. The most recent example of this happened during Trump’s Mt. Rushmore speech, in which he miscategorized the protests and riots sparked by the murder of George Floyd as a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history.” While it’s true that monuments are being taken down, he is not addressing the real issue here: institutional racism and police brutality. Instead, he is redefining the protests and riots as something he can more easily defend against: an attack on history. And in an attempt to win, he declared he would create a National Garden of American Heroes, as if he is swooping in to save our history.
He has clearly missed the point of the protests and riots. Trump does this so much he must either be a skilled deflector or unable to grasp the nuances of complex arguments. Thanks to him, debate about the protests and riots are no longer about racism and the behavior of the police, but now the debate has become about statues.
Affirming the Consequent
In this fallacy, the converse of a true statement is incorrectly assumed to also be true. For example, air conditioners make the room cold. Therefore, if the room is cold, then someone might assume air conditioner must be on. It might be true, but there are other reasons the room could be cold.
One of many examples of Trump employing this type of faulty logic is how he describes the collapse of the Venezuelan economy due to corruption and mismanagement. He claims “The socialists have done in Venezuela all of the same things that socialists, totalitarians, communists, have done everywhere they have had a chance to rule.” Here, he is saying that socialism causes countries to collapse, and therefore, if Venezuela collapsed, then it must because of socialism. While this may or may not be true, the collapse of Venezuela could have happened for other reasons.
Another example is when he tweeted “A nation ‘without borders’ is not a nation at all. We must have a wall. The rule of law matters.” Here, he is saying that walls create a nation with the rule of law, and, therefore, if we don’t have a wall, then we won’t have the rule of law. Again, he may or may not have a point, but certainly the existence of the rule of law depends on many other factors.
Comments like these have destroyed the national debates over healthcare, education, welfare, etc. into petty screaming matches, where one side calls the other communists for wanting a better centralized system. Critics of a centralized system have a fear, which may or may not have some truth to it, that more government control means becoming closer to the country collapsing. Likewise, the debate over the border wall has now become an argument, according to Trump supports, between those who love America and those trying to destroy America.
It’s nonsense, and it’s exhausting.
Argument from Authority
Here, the misstep in logic occurs due to assuming a point is true because of the power of the person that said it. For example, when celebrities endorse a candidate during an election, they assume their stature will sway voters. While celebrities might be good at whatever makes them famous, their opinion is usually irrelevant when it comes to politics. However, celebrity endorsements are a common and effective tool to shift public opinion.
Just about everyone of Trump’s tweets are some form of this fallacy. At the very beginning of his presidency, he said “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” He offered no evidence of this claim, despite creating a task force to uncover all of the Democrat’s alleged deceptions. He expects people to just accept his assertion because he is the president. If it’s true, provide the evidence and let’s debate it.
Another example is when Trump accused his predecessor Obama of treason for spying on his campaign. Trump again did not back this claim up with evidence. Instead, he continues to state it as if it is a fact, hoping it will eventually become so. (And no, the Flynn unmasking is not evidence Obama spied on Trump.)
Yet another example is Trump’s claim that hydroxychloroquine works to treat Covid-19. If it works, show us the evidence. If Trump doesn’t have evidence, then he needs to stop using his stature to make medical claims for which he is certainly not qualified to give.
If any of Trump’s assertions are true, then the evidence will speak for itself. If, however, Trump refuses to provide evidence, then the national debate gets torpedoed, because there is nothing of substance to debate. Yet again, Trump has sidelined the national debates with his nonsense. In this case, though, people are actually dying due to his missteps in logic regarding the coronavirus. If he, on the other hand, listened to experts instead of pretending to be one, we could have handled the pandemic much better.
This fallacy is also intertwined with the Dunning-Kurger effect, in which people incorrectly assume they are experts because they have learned only a little bit of information on a given subject, when, in actuality, they know very little.
This fallacy involves appealing to people’s natural need to be part of a group. This is a common ploy with advertisers, as they often show how much the product is being enjoyed by large groups of people. When people see these ads, they instinctively want to be included in the group and therefore want the product. This fallacy is also why politicians and pundits use polls, as they show which way the majority is leaning, subtly influencing people to follow the herd.
Trump, of course, employs this fallacy quite often. One example of this is when he places people of all types behind him as he speaks. It is common to see African Americans and women in clear view at his rallies, as he and his team understand that he needs these demographics to get reelected. When people see others like them supporting Trump, they might consider supporting him too.
Another example is deeming something patriotic or unpatriotic. In this tweet he said, “When the media — driven insane by their Trump Derangement Syndrome — reveals internal deliberations of our government, it truly puts the lives of many, not just journalists, at risk! Very unpatriotic!” In other words, he is saying that people who disagree with him are not part of the group of patriots. Trump supporters consider themselves to be patriots and, if the Trump declares someone to be unpatriotic, his supporters will turn against him or her because he or she is not part of the group.
So the result of this is a sharp division between those that are with us and those that are against us. Both sides of the aisle act like tribes of children, in that few people are willing to listen to the other side. How can a country function with such a divide?
The idea behind this fallacy is changing the definition of words to confuse your opponent or convolute the debate. For example, in 2006, when the US was embroiled in the War on Terror, the Bush administration was under fire for using water boarding and mock executions on enemy combatants. Bush’s response was “The United States does not torture.” The problem here is that the Bush administration had just recently redefined torture to exclude waterboarding and mock executions. Therefore, he is telling what he believes is the truth, yet by the standards of the most everyone else, he is lying.
Trump’s senior advisor, Kellyanne Conway, famously used the term “alternative facts” in 2017 while she was a guest on NBC’s Meet the Press. Chuck Todd and Conway were discussing Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s statement about Trump’s inauguration crowd size, in which he claimed the crowd was much bigger than literally every other source showed. Here, Conway is trying to redefine what facts are, implying that she, Trump, and everyone else surrounding him have carte blanche with truth. They believe they can say anything, and if they frame it correctly, they can invent facts.
Alright, with this mentality, any belief is relevant and needs to be given a voice, regardless of facts. Do you see? The absurd is now normal, simply because the general public has accepted fallacies. Of course, this has destroyed the national debate involving any sort of science or fact based endeavor, as unfounded beliefs now hold the same weight as facts. Words no longer have meaning and the national debate is a stew of pointless blather.
It’s insane, and it’s destroying our country.
Correlation vs. Causation
This fallacy is about assuming that one event led to the next because they happened one after the other. For example, and quite absurdly, average global temperatures are rising, while more people have access to clean water. Therefore, access to clean water leads to higher global temperatures. Maybe a connection exists between the two, and if it does, this connection needs to be demonstrated. But there is no demonstrable connection and the conclusion is nonsense. Despite this, these types of connections are made frequently. For a fun look at how to make one variable seem like the only influence on another read this.
Trump demonstrates this type of fallacy pretty much every time he tweets about the stock market. On Dec. 26th 2016, he said “The world was gloomy before I won — there was no hope. Now the market is up nearly 10% and Christmas spending is over a trillion dollars!” On Feb. 16th, 2017, he said “Stock market hits new high with longest winning streak in decades. Great level of confidence and optimism — even before tax plan rollout!” On Nov. 7th 2017, he tweeted “Stock market hit yet another all-time record high yesterday. There is great confidence in the moves that my Administration….”
While there’s no doubt a president and his decisions impact the stock market, but it is also influenced by a multitude of other factors. Therefore, not taking these other factors into account is a misstep in logic, especially when Trump made these claims right after he was elected with almost no time to have actually done anything of substance. Are we supposed to assume that the multitude of global events had no effect, or to ignore that the stock market under Obama had similar gains, or that the stock market is being inflated by a number of questionable strategies?
Therefore, any discussion about the economy is overshadowed by Trump’s BS. Instead of rational discussion, we get his boasting and narcissistic, spurious claims. Yet again, the national debate has had a freight train driven into its face, leaving real, bipartisan solutions unreachable.
In this fallacy, one opponent manipulates the discussion by asserting that two things are essentially the same, simply because they share similar characteristics. For example, it is a common misconception among Westerners to assume that Middle Eastern cultures are the same, while they often have fairly extreme differences. Therefore, countries in the Middle East are often lumped together and treated as one group.
A glaring example of this problem with Trump is his response to the quid pro quo scandal with Ukraine. Instead of saying that he didn’t do it, he used Hunter Biden’s role in a different Ukraine scandal to normalize his crime. The problem here is that Trump wants to make his crime seem like similar types of crimes happen all the time and that they are no big deal, as if they are a normal part of international relations. He said “Where’s Hunter? He has totally disappeared! Now looks like he has raided and scammed even more countries! Media is AWOL.” Is it a coincidence that Hunter Biden, whether he is guilty or not, became the target of Trump’s public ire right after Trump became entangled in his own Ukraine problem?
Trump is clearly employing this fallacy to make his own crime seem like less of an issue by equating it with a similar crime committed by his opponent. The result of this is that debate and impeachment proceedings of Trump’s involvement with Ukraine quickly became a farce. If Hunter Biden is guilty, then let’s see the evidence. If Trump is guilty, then let’s see the evidence. However, this isn’t even possible at this point, as each side has spun the national debate into chaos, with Trump’s rampant fallacies providing the fuel.
This fallacy is about framing the argument in a way to make it seem as if there are only two sides to choose from. For example, when a person says something like “either you are with me or against me,” he or she is intentionally leaving out all of the other options. That is, it is possible to partially agree or disagree with the person’s position without having to accept or deny all of it.
Trump is guilty of using this fallacy when he frames reopening the economy in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic as a choice between saving lives and saving the economy. He makes it seem as if the American people need to be willing to risk their lives to stop the country from collapsing. Trump tweeted in all caps from some reason, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
If the choice really is between saving lives and keeping the economy afloat, then how has almost every other country kept Covid deaths to a minimum without serious economic problems? The success of other countries in dealing with the pandemic demonstrates that there is more than two options, but the debate in the US is now stagnate, as it has been twisted.
This translates to “You, too,” and it is an attempt to deflect blame on to your opponent by showing he or she is guilty of the same offense. For example, when Johnny gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar, he might respond with “Well, you took one also.” This fallacy is common not just with children but is a favorite of all those being scrutinized that have any sort of power. That is, it’s common to see politicians, pundits, CEOs, etc. try to turn the tables on those criticizing them. In fact, this fallacy was employed by the Nazis during the Nuremberg trials, when they claimed the Allied forces, namely the Americans, were also guilty of genocide.
A good example of Trump using this fallacy is when he engages in “whataboutism.” This is when he responds to criticism by trying to turn the tables, such as him persistently bringing up Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. Whether or not Clinton is guilty is not the point. The point is that Trump changes the debate to attacking his opponent, instead of dealing with his own criticism.
Because of the above, this country can no longer have a rational discussion about Trump and what he is being accused of. Instead, the national debate has become a screaming match over which side is more guilty, as any criticism about Trump gets reflected on to his opponents, like children on a playground saying “I’m rubber you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you!”
Frankly, it’s embarrassing for the country.
Playing the Victim
This fallacy involves making your side of the argument seem more credible by claiming the other side has a bias against you. For example, if a person loses a court case, he or she might response by saying the judge was racist or sexist. Of course, the judge may actually have a bias against the person, but this needs to be proven, not merely assumed.
In his ongoing fight with the media, Trump uses this fallacy, as he claims the media is not being fair when they criticize him. He is trying to paint himself as the victim of a global media conspiracy, and, therefore, any of critics shouldn’t be listened to. For example, he said “The press is doing everything within their power to fight the magnificence of the phrase, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! They can’t stand the fact that this Administration has done more than virtually any other Administration in its first 2yrs. They are truly the ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!”
So yet again Trump has shielded himself from criticism, and any debate over his actions, policies, statements, etc. is not possible, as critics can be easily dismissed as biased or fooled by the biased media.
Where Do We Go From Here?
A country can’t function if debate and compromise aren’t possible. Neither side trusts the other, and every issue is sharply divided along party lines. With a split Congress, the government struggles to get anything done, and friends and family relationships are strained or broken.
If we are going to resolve political deadlock and relieve this white hot anger for our political opponents, we need to return to making logical arguments. Learn how to avoid fallacies when debating, call them out when others use them, and don’t buy into them when used by politicians and pundits. This includes prominent members of both the Democrats and the Republicans, as they are all guilty of using the logical fallacies discussed above as well as many others. However, Trump takes the cake. Although he alone is not responsible for the demise of the national debate, he pulled the plug, watched it die, put the last nail in the coffin, and danced on top while it was being lowered.
Read more about logical fallacies: The Thinker's Guide to Fallacies: The Art of Mental Trickery and Manipulation (Thinker's Guide Library)
Originally published at http://thehappyneuron.com on July 8, 2020.