Trump's letter to Pelosi: Not 'unhinged' — but worse, from a speechwriter's perspective

Ending his interesting six-page letter to House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Defense: GAO finds administration broke law by withholding Ukraine aid | Senate opens Trump trial | Pentagon to resume training Saudi students soon Hillicon Valley: FBI to now notify state officials of cyber breaches | Pelosi rips 'shameful' Facebook | 5G group beefs up lobby team | Spotify unveils playlists for pets Hill.TV's Saagar Enjeti on impeachment: 'CNN can see through this nonsense' MORE (D-Calif.) this week, President Donald Trump imagined a future when Americans would read his letter — and he made clear that, however confident he seems at campaign rallies, he worries about what the history books will say. 

“One hundred years from now, when people look back on this affair,” he wrote, “I want them to understand it.”

It’s likely that Americans indeed will look back; we love centennials. Americans looking back 100 years in 2020 will commemorate the ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, the first broadcast by a commercial radio station, the start of Prohibition, Babe Ruth’s first appearance in a Yankees uniform — and the U.S. Post Service’s decision to no longer let families transport children by parcel post.

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Trump used his letter to urge House Democrats to abandon their “impeachment fantasy.” As one who supports impeachment, I disagree — but as someone who teaches and writes about political language, I don’t agree with those who dismiss his letter as a “rant” by an “unhinged” president.

Americans in 2119 will find a generally well-written, coherent summary of one side of the 2019 debate. Does that mean it’s persuasive? Laced with evidence? Absolutely not. In fact, I will assign Trump’s letter to my speechwriting students at American University because I want them to see this rich compendium of the fallacies so traditional in political rhetoric, in order to avoid repeating them.

By fallacies I don’t mean the ethical problems we see in Trump’s speeches: lies, personal insults, bigotry. Instead, fallacies are the specific techniques used to deceive, sometimes by speakers who don’t even realize they’re doing so. Such fallacies are nothing new, and they’re not limited to English — Aristotle, after all, seems to have been the first person to catalogue examples — but they are easy to spot. 

Here are just six examples from the president’s letter: 

Straw man: What seems like a strong argument but, like the scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz,” is made only of straw. Often, such a fallacy rebuts an argument that opponents don’t even make, as in the Trump letter’s claim that “you cannot defend your extreme policies — open borders, high crime, crippling taxes, destruction of American energy.” Nowhere does he quote anyone on the other side urging such policies — because they don’t.

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Ad hominem (“to the person”): A personal attack aimed at the motive or character of those on the other side, not their ideas, as in Trump’s claim that “your spiteful actions display unfettered contempt for America’s founding and your egregious conduct threatens to destroy that which our founders pledged.” The words “spiteful,” “contempt” and “egregious” describe not evidence but character traits. Is character out of bounds in politics? Hardly. But how would Trump know whether someone feels contempt? He discredits their ideas by attacking their motives.

Tu quoque (“you too”): Citing evidence that the other side has committed the same crimes, as in Trump’s claim that “you know full well that Vice President Biden used his office and $1 billion dollars of U.S. aid money to coerce Ukraine.” Whether or not Trump is right, accusing the other side of committing the same sin is rarely relevant in debate. Ask any parent who hears one child say, “Bobby didn't do his homework!”

Unsupported assertion: Offering an argument without — or without enough — evidence, as in Trump’s claim that “you view democracy as your enemy!” Could Trump be right? He offers not a scintilla of support. 

Ad populum (“at the people”): Also called the “bandwagon effect,” it means telling listeners a stance is right because most people believe it. In his letter, Trump claims that “the voters are wise and they are seeing straight through this empty, hollow, and dangerous game.” There are many legitimate ways to prove a point — but if popular opinion was one of those, why shouldn’t the president support background checks for guns?

Hyperbole: Exaggeration so extreme that listeners shouldn’t take it literally. This is complicated in politics because of its tradition of permissible exaggeration. When Trump writes, “More due process was afforded to those accused in the Salem Witch Trials,” we don’t need to research due process in Salem courtrooms. It’s a joke. It’s another matter to assert perfection with a straight face: “You know from the transcript that the paragraph in question was perfect.”  

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There are many other examples in his letter. Each is unique; all of them — not necessarily deliberately — deceive readers.

The infuriating thing about fallacies is that they can be so easy to fix. Take No. 4 — “You view democracy as your enemy.” Just add “It’s as if” to start that line, and the fallacy disappears.

We should also be careful about labeling arguments fallacious. Take the most important debate of Trump’s impeachment, over what is meant by “quid pro quo.” Each side accuses the other of committing the fallacy of definition. How explicit must one be? Does “quid pro quo” mean saying bluntly, as Trump and his supporters have argued, “Listen, Zelensky, I’ll give you the aid if you investigate Biden” — or can it be more subtle? Reasonable people can differ.

Trump’s language shouldn’t make Democrats complacent. Their own presidential candidate debate on Thursday in Los Angeles was hardly fallacy-free.

Trump’s style, though, is disheartening to those of us teaching students how to argue both forcefully and ethically. Presidents, after all, influence us: When speechwriters like me saw the structure in John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, we imitated it; when stories were still rare in political speech and we heard Ronald Reagan telling stories day after day, we imitated that.

In fact, we tell students about how George Shultz, President Reagan’s secretary of State, once asked Reagan to look at one of Shultz’s speeches. “You’ve written this so it could be read,” Reagan told Shultz. “I talk to people.” So Reagan started editing, made changes, put a caret in the margin at one place and wrote, “STORY.” 

“He had completely changed the tone of my speech,” Shultz later wrote, admiringly. 

It’s certainly possible that, in 2119, history buffs will read President TrumpDonald John TrumpLev Parnas implicates Rick Perry, says Giuliani had him pressure Ukraine to announce Biden probe Saudi Arabia paid 0 million for cost of US troops in area Parnas claims ex-Trump attorney visited him in jail, asked him to sacrifice himself for president MORE’s letter to Speaker Pelosi. It’s even possible it will help them understand what has gone on in this dramatic week. 

I just hope they’re careful about what to admire.

Bob Lehrman was chief speechwriter for Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreNH Democratic Party chairman rips Bloomberg op-ed as 'desperate for some press attention' It's time to provide needed reform to the organ donation system On The Trail: History is not on Biden's side MORE. He co-teaches speechwriting at American University, Washington, with Eric Schnure, also a Gore speechwriter. The author of four novels, Lehrman has written thousands of speeches and gives speechwriting workshops around the world. He wrote “The Political Speechwriter’s Companion,” which he and Schnure released this year in a second edition.