Sand Gets In Your Eyes: Using Trump’s Rhetoric to Recognize and Analyze Two Basic Logical Fallacies

Logical fallacies are, basically, flaws in reasoning that under normal circumstances should be fatal to the argument they are meant to support.  There are a wide variety of them, and while some of them are pretty easy to spot (e.g., the nearly onomatopoeic “hasty generalization”), others are a bit more obscure (e.g., the oft-misused “begging the question”).  But the kids in Critical Thinking classes are generally clever, and they usually get it:  logical fallacies are bad, and need to be rooted out with the skill of pedigree Italian truffle hounds.  Occasionally, I get a student who wants to know “how to use” logical fallacies, but I take some extra time with that kid until he or she realizes that logical fallacies are not tools for structuring an argument.  Give them a wide berth, sonny.  They’ll scupper you.

Judging from the caliber of his rhetoric, however, I get the feeling that the current president-elect has not read the memo about the nature of logical fallacies.  Far from avoiding these flaws, Trump seems to glory in them, using the most fallacious logic this side of the Mad Hatter.  As a dedicated teacher of Critical Thinking, I think I can be forgiven for feeling a shudder of despair as I see people fall for the various defects Trump employs to communicate with his followers.  However, it is an ill wind that blows no good:  Critical Thinking teachers the world over can rejoice in the number of pedagogical resources that his speeches, tweets, and other pronouncements can engender—not to mention those of his surrogates.  Indeed, it is only one of the many ways that Trump and his cronies have given new life to the term “embarrassment of riches.”

I think that it would be a useful exercise to examine some examples of the unsound “thinking” behind Trump’s verbal squirts, not only to deepen an understanding of how illogical he truly is, but to help people recognize these flaws in other contexts.  After all, just because he’s probably the most prominent specimen we have right now, he is by far not the only person using bad logic to an alarming, if not dishonest, degree.[1]  While I’m sure that I could use Trump as an illustration for every logical fallacy in the book, out of consideration for my reader’s patience (and the delicacy of my stomach) I will not attempt to cover all of them in this essay (although, I just might give it a go in a series of blogs).  Instead, I will look at what appears to be Trump’s two most favorite logical fallacies:  two wrongs don’t make a right and tu quoque (pronounced “to KWO-kway”).  I’ve chosen these two not only because they occur with alarming frequency in Trump’s tweets, but because, in my, ahem, humble opinion, they are particularly effective tools when one is hoping to throw sand in one’s listener’s/reader’s eyes.  They are also frequently confused with each other, so I hope to make the distinctions clearer, not only so you can analyze them accurately, but you’ll be able to amaze your friends with your vocabulary.  Or bore the socks off of them.  Whatever.

Anyhow, here we go!

Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right

Ah, who among us can honestly say that we haven’t used this old chestnut?

There you go, driving merrily down the highway at a leisurely eighty miles per hour, when a state trooper pulls you over.  You try to keep it together as you listen to him lecture you on speed limits, but you can feel your blood pressure rise to dizzying heights in response to the outrageous miscarriage of justice being carried out right in front of you.  Where was Mr. Eagle Eyes when all those other assholes were weaving in and out of the traffic like maniacs?

Finally, you can’t take it anymore, and you burst out, as the trooper calmly writes out your ticket, “But what about the guy who kept cutting me off?”

And, as inevitable as high tides in the spring time, he responds, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

It is, without doubt, the most infuriating response to what seems to be a perfectly legitimate grievance. Why should I be punished when there are far more outrageous scoundrels out roaming the nation’s interstate system?  It’s just so damned unfair.

But that righteous anger you feel is the very reason that you’ve committed a logical fallacy.  Logic, by its very nature, requires you to be a bit cold-blooded, like Mr. Spock.  It is not very likely to make you purple in the face.  Emotions, while normal and healthy, tend to blind you to the meat of the matter.  If your first response to an argument is to feel a strong emotion, then that should be like an alarm bell to you: you might be reacting to a flaw that is somehow leading you away from the substance of the argument.  Here, your anger is blinding you to the fact that you were, in fact, breaking the law.  The possibility that other people were breaking the law does not detract from that truth one little bit.S o, the name “two wrongs don’t make a right” isn’t quite accurate, because it is a criticism of the flaw, rather than the flaw itself.

Now, let’s examine a real life example of “two wrongs don’t make a right” to see how it works and why the flaw should be taken seriously.

On 16 December 2016, in response to the news that the cyberattack upon the DNC was pretty definitely done at the personal behest of Vladimir Putin, Trump tweeted the following:

“Are we talking about the same cyberattack where it was revealed that head of the DNC illegally gave Hillary the questions to the debate?”

The Washington Post characterized this tweet as “misleading and masterful”—and I agree on both counts (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/12/16/trump-keeps-misleading-his-voters-on-the-donna-brazile-debate-scandal/?utm_term=.7067680136d7). The Post, however, focused on the substantive issue—the statement’s rather casual relationship to the truth.[2] But because Louis Sullivan was right in saying “form follows function,” I will be looking at how the structure of the statement in and of itself is misleading, and therefore flawed.

So here you have two wrongs:  the cyber attack and Brazile’s leaking of some of the questions prepared for a Democratic candidates debate. Before going on, I really have to tip my hat off to Trump for his formulation of the two wrongs. Usually, a speaker cites the wrongdoing of another in order to avoid substantively discussing the impact of the first wrong.  Trump, however, does more than avoid discussion of the cyberattack—he appears to be denying that it was all that wrong a doing in the first place.  When the flaw is made, there is normally at least some sense that the speaker has been caught out.  That’s why it’s such a popular trap to fall into:  yes, I did something wrong, but x did something worse.  But here, while Brazile is named and shamed, the perpetrators of the hack are left unnamed, underscoring Trump’s oft-repeated contention that the hackers are unknown and unknowable (http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2016/12/11/trump-claims-russian-interference-in-2016-race-ridiculous-dems-making-excuses.html).  He is absolutely not owning that first wrong doing, even though he appears to have at least benefited from it (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/09/us/obama-russia-election-hack.html). But even more remarkably, by using a rhetorical question, Trump is subtly calling into question the reality of the cyber attack itself—a position he recently took in that same Fox News interview (id.).  Not only is he saying that Brazile did the second wrong, but he is also questioning the very existence of the first wrong. Wow. That’s some serious sand in my eye. [3]

Additionally, Trump is establishing a false equivalency between the two wrongs—he is indirectly making the case that giving Clinton a heads up about a possible (but not totally unpredictable) question at a Democratic party debate (where Trump would not be the “victim” of Brazile’s “crime”) somehow deserves the same level of outrage as a cyber attack carried out on a US target by Russian military intelligence operators under the direction of the Russian head of state (http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/22/politics/crowdstrike-dnc-hack-russian-military/index.html and https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/cybersecurity-firm-finds-a-link-between-dnc-hack-and-ukrainian-artillery/2016/12/21/47bf1f5a-c7e3-11e6-bf4b-2c064d32a4bf_story.html?utm_term=.5cc7f0c69c42). I don’t know about you, but I’m just not seeing it quite that way.  Call me old-fashioned, but I’m of the opinion that a cyber attack committed by a military arm of a foreign government is a bit more serious than spilling the beans on a debate question.

Beautiful, huh?

Tu Quoque

Sorry to have spent so much time on “two wrongs don’t make a right,” but having done so should make explaining the tu quoque flaw much easier and quicker.  It is easy to mistake the one flaw for the other, but since the effects are a bit different, it’s important to have a clear understanding of both kinds of fallacies.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right” requires, by definition, two wrongs.  Tu quoque is Latin for “you, too,” or “thou, also,” and involves two parties committing the same wrong.  I happen to think that my oldest sister’s formulation of the fallacy is much easier to grasp:   “Look who’s talking.”  The speaker is saying “yeah, I did x, but you also did x, so where do you get off criticizing me, you filthy hypocrite?” And it is the use of the “h-word” that gives this flaw its emotional power.  We all hate hypocrites—even hypocrites hate hypocrites.  And if a speaker can make his opponent out to be a hypocrite, then he has the audience firmly in his pocket.

My favorite example of Trump’s use of a tu quoque remains his delightfully misguided attempt to paint Warren Buffett with the same tax-evading brush that had recently tarred Trump.  In the second debate, Anderson Cooper asked Trump if he had taken advantage of the carry-forward rule to use massive losses he sustained in 1995 to offset his subsequent federal income taxes.   Trump responded that he “absolutely” used it, “and so did Warren Buffett http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/10/us/politics/transcript-second-debate.html).”  The implicit claim being made is that Clinton has a hell of a lot of nerve making any noises about Trump’s taxes when her very own donors use the same exact rule to minimize their tax liability.  By having Buffett stand in for Clinton, Trump is gamely making a tu quoque attack.

Trump’s gambit could have been quite effective, too, if it hadn’t been for one small detail:  the very next day, Buffett released his taxes, which showed he paid very hefty taxes, indeed.[4] But, for the purpose of understanding the ill effects of a tu quoque flaw, let’s assume that Trump is right on the money:  Buffett used the carry-forward rule with unseemly abandon to cut his taxes down to the barest nothing.  Even under those circumstances, Trump’s tu quoque is a fatal flaw to his argument. First of all, because tu quoque is a form of ad hominem attack (you are, after all, accusing your opponent of being a hypocrite), it does seem to be only gentlemanly to actually aim the attack at your opponent—and not a surrogate.  However, in these rough and tumble times, the Marquis of Queensbury rules of debating sadly no longer seem to apply.

No, the main problem with Trump’s claim is not that he’s ascribing someone else’s hypocrisy to Secretary Clinton.  The actual problem is that, once again, he is avoiding the substance of the question.  If, as Trump claims, all of Clinton’s surrogates used the carry-forward rule to avoid paying taxes, that should serve only to underscore the enormity of the problem.  If all these billionaires are avoiding paying their taxes, who will be stuck paying the bill for our infrastructure, environmental protection, and those precious, precious agricultural subsidies?

Furthermore, it distracts from the underlying issue that we don’t know whether Trump has used the carry-forward rule to avoid paying taxes for the past twenty years.  We know nothing about his tax situation—good, bad, or indifferent—for the simple reason that Trump has never, ever released his taxes.  But by using a tu quoque attack on Clinton and her supporters, he distracted us for at least a few minutes from wondering why he’s avoided doing something that every president since Nixon (NIXON!!) has done.

So there you have it.  In sum, these two logical fallacies are particularly dangerous because they rile us up and make us forget the substantive question being asked.  Instead, we become fixated upon righting perceived injustices and rooting out hypocrisy.  We accept false equivalencies, and take at face value personal attacks—all of which allows scoundrels to avoid responsibility for answering real and serious questions.  Bigly.

[1] “Aha!” I hear you cry.  “You’ve just committed an ad hominem attack on our esteemed Twitterer in Chief.  Your logic is therefore flawed!” Hmmm.  Maybe, but I don’t think so.  If my argument is that Donald is using intellectual dishonesty for a dishonorable reason, then my calling him dishonest is valid because “the claims made about a person’s character or actions are relevant to the conclusions being drawn (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/character-attack/).”

[2] And there certainly is a lot more that could be said about the underlying truthfulness of the statement.  For example, the use of the adverb “illegally” to describe Brazile’s actions is certainly problematic.  While “unethically,” “nastily,” and, possibly, “immorally” could be used with some regard to the truth, Brazile’s actions would not rise to the level of being criminal.  Also, as a side note, I would be remiss in my duties as a Critical Thinking teacher if I didn’t point out that using heavily loaded modifiers such as these might considerably weaken an otherwisestrong argument.  So if I chose to modify “Trump” with the appositive phrase “a lying sack of shit”, as in, “Trump, a lying sack of shit,” then I could honestly be accused of allowing my emotions to override my argument.  Best to avoid modifiers altogether, unless they are purely factual and not a matter of opinion.

[3] A stance, by the way, that is at odds with the position taken by the CIA and the FBI.  But what do they know? (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/clinton-blames-putins-personal-grudge-against-her-for-election-interference/2016/12/16/12f36250-c3be-11e6-8422-eac61c0ef74d_story.html?utm_term=.9b0c96c6e77b).

[4] In an explanatory note, Buffett made it quite clear that not only had he never taken advantage of the carry forward rule (perhaps a subtle swipe at Trump’s losses in the face of Mr. Buffett’s own successes?), but he had paid income taxes every year of his life since he was thirteen.  Mr. Buffett’s take down of Trump is so classy and so comprehensive that I could never, in a million years, do it justice.  You should take a moment to read it over to see a masterful example of how to marshal facts in aid of an argument:  http://fortune.com/2016/10/10/presidential-debate-donald-trump-warren-buffett/.

Copyright D R Miller 2016

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