Opinion | White House

A reality-based game for Trump watchers: 'Name that Fallacy'

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"Get thee glasse-eyes," King Lear tells the blind Duke of Gloucester, "and like a scurvy Politician, seem to see the things thou dost not."

A new term in Shakespeare's day, "politician" has retained its negative connotations. "If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents," H.L. Mencken declared, "he would promise them missionaries for dinner." Politicians also aim to "keep the populace alarmed (and hence, clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with a series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." Nikita Khrushchev, of all people, noted that "politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge where there is no river."

Donald Trump was elected president, in no small measure, because he presented himself as an unencumbered, straight-shooting, swamp-draining populist outsider. "Well, you need somebody," he told voters, "because politicians are all talk, no action."

As a candidate and as president, Mr. Trump has scorned and spurned many political norms. But he has, "bigly," reinforced already pervasive perceptions that politics is a corrupt profession, in which politicians say just about anything to promote themselves and their agendas.

As of April 27, The Washington Post tallied more than 10,000 false or misleading statements by the president in his first 27 months in office.

Less well known is Trump's extensive use of logical fallacies. And so, with hopes of enhancing political literacy, I hereby offer readers an abbreviated course on errors in reasoning that draws its examples from our Communicator-in-Chief.

1) Ad Hominem Arguments: Latin for "against the man," ad hominems use personal insults as evidence in support of their claims.

Example:  During the Republican presidential primaries, Trump pointed to the "horse face" of rival candidate Carly Fiorina: "Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?"

Example:  According to Bob Woodward, Trump mocked Attorney General Jeff Sessions' accent and declared, "This guy is mentally retarded. He's this dumb Southerner."

2) Unwarranted Generalizations:  Conclusions, based on insufficient evidence (i.e. anecdotes) or no evidence.

Example:  "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!!"

Example:  Citing a winter snowstorm, President Trump prayed for "that good old-fashioned Global Warming."

3) Straw Man: Attacks on a position an opponent does not actually hold or a caricature of that position.

Example:  Democrats "don't mind executing babies AFTER birth."

Example:  Democrats "have become the party of crime." They "want to open our borders to a flood of deadly drugs and ruthless gangs" and "turn America into a giant sanctuary for criminal aliens and MS-13 thugs."

4) False Dichotomies:  Reduction of policy options to two, one of which is self-evidently more acceptable than the alternative.

Example:  Democrats can either seek "the vengeance" of "ridiculous partisan investigations" or join him to enact a new "miraculous economic vision for American prosperity."

Example:  North Korea could choose denuclearization or face "fire and fury like the world has never seen."

5) False Equivalence:  Two groups or individuals are viewed in the same light.

Example:  In Charlottesville, there were "very bad people on both sides" and some of the protesters marching with the white supremacists and neo-Nazis were "very fine people."

Example:  "President Obama had a big campaign finance violation and it was easily settled."

6) Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc:  A speaker takes credit for (or assigns blame to) something through false "after this, therefore because of this" reasoning.

Example:  "Without me, the Olympics would've been a failure."

Example:  "So great that oil prices are falling (thank you President T")

7) Appeals to Authority:  We should accept claims made by an authority figure, someone like us, or someone we like.

Example:  "I believe, I really believe, that when he (Putin}) tells me that (he didn't meddle in the 2016 presidential election) he means it."

Example:  "I don't believe he (Kim Jong Un) would have allowed (the torture of Otto Warmbier) to happen... I will take him at his word that he didn't know."

8) Bandwagons:  The assumption that claims should be accepted as right and/or good because many/most people say so.

Example: "Everybody agrees that (Russian meddling had) no impact on votes in this election."

Example:  "Everybody knew" about the Trump Tower project in Moscow during the presidential campaign.

9) Slippery Slopes:  Moves from an initial premise, which might seem benign, through a number of steps that lead to a dangerous (and allegedly inevitable) extreme.

Example:  "You know what's going to happen," Trump predicted during the campaign. Ford is going "to build a plant and illegals are going to drive those cars right over the border. Then they'll probably end up stealing the cars."

Example:  "This week it's Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson's (statue is) coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?"

10) Red Herring:  a distraction from the matter-at-hand with a statement that is false or not really relevant.

Example:  In Finland, "they spent a lot of time raking and cleaning and doing things and they don't have any problem" (with forest fires).

Example:  Two days after Attorney General Sessions recused himself from Justice Department investigations of Russian meddling in the election of 2016, Trump tweeted, "Terrible. Just found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory."

11) "You, Too":  A diversionary tactic that focuses attention on a similar misdeed by an opponent.

Example:  Asked about murders ordered by Vladimir Putin, Trump replied, "There are a lot of killers. We've got a lot of killers. What, you think our country's so innocent."

Example:  Following the indictment of Roger Stone for lying to Congress, Trump asked, "What about the lying done by Comey, Brennan, Clapper, Lisa Page & lover, Baker and soooo many others?"

Of course, Trump is by no means solely responsible for debasing our political discourse. But, alas, he does seem to be burrowing beneath an already low bar. His steady approval ratings remind us that it takes informed people to produce collective wisdom; as Benjamin Franklin warned his fellow citizens, the Constitutional Convention established a republic, "if you can keep it."

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic:  Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century. Sidney Tarrow is the Maxwell Upson Emeritus Professor of Government at Cornell University. He is the co-editor (with David S. Meyer) of The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement.

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