Donald Trump is your schoolyard debate champion

Amid the handwringing over ObamaCare and climate change, something even more important is imperiled by President Trump's ascension: the terms of public debate.

Trump's most recent predecessors, Barack ObamaBarack ObamaTrump military transgender ban prompts protests EPA transition official dismisses climate science strategy as 'silliness' Microsoft’s misguided broadband plan endangers Americans MORE and George W. Bush, pushed their own agendas hard, and took their foes to task when necessary. But they also understood that the presidency was something larger than themselves, and that they must rise to meet it.

Obama has been praised — even by some conservatives, such as David Brooks of The New York Times — for the "superior integrity" he's displayed while in office. And before him, Bush — surely no fan of Obama, who roasted him regularly on the campaign trail — nonetheless welcomed Obama's transition team graciously. After leaving office, he refused to criticize Obama because he believed "it's bad for the presidency" to have a former leader cause disruption for the current occupant.

In other words, they understood the principle of "disagreeing without being disagreeable." Debates about policy were debates about policy, not about the character or attributes of their opponents.

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In the art of debate, "ad hominem" attacks are considered a form of logical fallacy — an attempt to distract from the issue at hand by focusing instead on the person making the argument. ("You're wrong because you're stupid.") Intelligent people can disagree about the right solution to a problem. They might even disagree about certain facts, when they're ambiguous.

 

But the principles of debate, and the rules that govern them, attempt to keep everyone on the same page so that we're not having two different conversations. Allowing ad hominem attacks into a debate means that instead of arguing issues, you're arguing the merits of another human being. You could never win a formal debate with an ad hominem attack, but its often a winning strategy in schoolyard fights — and apparently, this year, in the public domain.

After civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) opined against Trump recently, we learned from Trump's Twitter account that Lewis is "All talk, talk, talk — no action or results," and that his Georgia district is "in horrible shape" and "crime infested."

Meryl Streep was once, in 2015, one of Trump’s favorite actresses. But after she publicly criticized him in recent weeks, she became "overrated."

The New York Times even published a list in December — which now needs to be updated again — of "The 289 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter." There are well-known examples, such as declarations that Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonHouse Judiciary Committee votes to request documents on Comey, Clinton GOP senator warns Trump: Panel won't take up attorney general nominee this year Overnight Cybersecurity: Facebook invests in group fighting election hacking | House panel advances DHS cyber revamp bill | Lawmakers mull cyber insurance for small businesses MORE was "crooked" and "corrupt," and journalist Megyn Kelly was "crazy," "sick" and "highly overrated."

There are also surprise gems, such as his contretemps with actor Samuel L. Jackson, who alleged that Trump cheats at golf and whom Trump called "boring" and "not athletic." Trump also got into it with magician Penn Jillette, who worked with Trump on "Celebrity Apprentice" and is not a fan. Trump described him as "sad," "boring" and someone with the "worst show in Las Vegas."

Trump's use of vitriolic, ad hominem attacks isn't surprising in the current political climate, in which polls show that partisanship is at its highest level in decades. According to a 2016 Pew study, a full 91 percent of Republicans view Democrats unfavorably, and 86 percent of Democrats return the favor.

Calling out your critics as "stupid" or "crazy" or "overrated" may not feel shocking to the one in three Americans — of both parties — who told Pew they believed members of the opposing party actually were less intelligent.

But it's not how modern U.S. presidents have behaved — at least until now.

In an era where accusations of "fake news" are rife — and even aimed by the president at legitimate news organizations like CNN — it's more essential than ever to separate fact from fiction. To do that, we have to agree as a society on what the terms of debate are going to be. If we permit ad hominem attacks to enter our discourse unchallenged, we no longer have a way to debate ideas. Instead, we debate people who are either on our side or are "boring" and "crooked."

In the Ad Hominem Era, we risk losing the insight that even critics sometimes might have valid points. As President Lincoln famously demonstrated, heroic leadership isn’t about surrounding yourself with yes-men and rewarding them with your patronage. It's about bringing a "team of rivals" into your orbit for the good of the country, and — sometimes — maybe even learning something from them.

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and former presidential campaign spokesperson who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of "Reinventing Youand "Stand Out."


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