Tag Archives: Trump

Seriously but not literally

A while back a writer at the Atlantic introduced the Trumpian heuristic, “take him seriously but not literally.” This was then quickly adopted by Trump surrogates as a way of responding the  Trump’s frequent exaggerations and errors of fact (this Jonah Goldberg piece covers that end of it–never thought I’d cite him approvingly, by the way).

Let’s try to understand this thought. We can start by going back to the original piece. Here’s the money quote:

The best way, he says, is to provide good education and good jobs in these areas. “Fifty-eight percent of black youth cannot get a job, cannot work,” he says. “Fifty-eight percent. If you are not going to bring jobs back, it is just going to continue to get worse and worse.”

It’s a claim that drives fact-checkers to distraction. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the unemployment rate for blacks between the ages of 16 and 24 at 20.6 percent. Trump prefers to use its employment-population ratio, a figure that shows only 41.5 percent of blacks in that age bracket are working. But that means he includes full time high-school and college students among the jobless.

It’s a familiar split. When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.

When I presented that thought to him, he paused again, “Now that’s interesting.”

I wonder by the way  what the etiquette is for including self-congratulatory lines in the course of your own writing–“now that’s an interesting thought,” you might think. Anyway, it’s probably clear by now that Trump takes himself literally and seriously, and so do his supporters. If this weren’t the case, they wouldn’t work so hard and constructing an alternative set of facts to match Trump’s assertions (watch the video linked above).

It’s a curious thought nonetheless, one that cuts right to the heart of dialectical argument. If I’m going to engage you, I have to have a representation of your view. Usually, the question is whether my representation of your view is accurate, or, if not accurate, charitable.

It is true, however, that we pepper our arguments with all sorts of things not-to-be-taken literally. I’d venture to guess that if we really thought hard, we’d find that we’d think this about many of our arguments themselves. Think how often in a casual conversation you might make some kind of hasty generalization. You don’t mean the argument to be taken literally.

But you’re not President of the United States. And there’s a difference between casual conversation and semi-formal argument. So, let’s take the Atlantic writer seriously and literally. How do we take someone seriously, but not literally? Do we simply substitute our own version of the correct factual assertion? “Sure, Trump said 50 percent unemployment, but he’s not wrong because there’s lots of unemployment.” Would that I got iron-manned like this!

One last question. What’s the clue that we need to interpret someone seriously but not literally? Is it when they’re very often wildly wrong?

Trump and Poe’s law

One common explanation for the sufficient (because that’s what it was in the end, wasn’t it) popularity of Trump and Trumpism was the idea that he didn’t play by the rules of the elite (he did, but that’s not the point). Some even suggested that not having facts and evidence or making discernible (not to mention valid or cogent) arguments for his views was the heart of the appeal. If true, this would explain the difficulty or disregard they have for such basic notions as “facts” (or logical notions such as use/mention). It also explains how he seems to be insulated from the charges he leveled at Hilary Clinton: he has employed the swamp (rather than drain it) and reportedly his staff, such as it is, uses private email servers (and he uses his insecure private phone). The frustration of the consistency police at these things is a further part of the appeal.

It turns out there is yet another benefit to this strategy: he’s impossible to satirize. Enter Matt Stone and Trey Parker  of “South Park” fame (from the Huffington Post):

South Park” is done with Trump ― at least for the moment.

The show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, said in an Australian interview Thursday that they’ve decided to “back off” on satirizing President Donald Trump because his administration is already creating tough-to-top comedy.

“It’s really tricky now because satire has become reality,” Parker told the show “7.30.”

“It’s really hard to make fun of,” Parker continued. “We were really trying to make fun of what was going on but we couldn’t keep up … and what was actually happening was way funnier than anything we could come up with.”

“So we decided to kind of back off and let them do their comedy and we’ll do ours,” he said.

It’s Poe’s law (discussed by Scott here) regarding Trumpism. In this case, it’s not only that the view is indistinguishable from satire, it’s that the view outstrips satire. Poe’s law is meant to be a heuristic for when a view is not worth considering.

This has an interesting consequence for argument theory. Normally, a view that’s too stupid to characterize is not worth one’s time. Usually in these circumstances, there are other views on the table–better ones. You can critique those. Indeed, the satire works because the view is bad. You can see the good view in it. In this case, there is no alternative available. This is a view that needs evaluation and offers no alternative. Going after Burkean conservatism would be irrelevant.

All of argument relies on the fundamental requirement that you can represent a view. If Poe’s law is the measure of basic acceptability, then we’re in serious trouble.

Disagreement is personal

Disagreement is difficult and costly. When you disagree with someone on some matter of fact or policy, you’re alleging by implication that they’re mistaken. Whatever the source, the accusation of being mistaken stings–it suggests you have failed at a cognitive task and, importantly, that you are unaware of that. So you’ve failed at two cognitive tasks. There are polite ways to communicate this, but in the end they amount to the same thing: you’re right, they’re wrong. You’re passing judgment on them, as people. It’s personal.

Too often, sadly, people do not appreciate this. An example from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Historian Jonathan Zimmerman writes:

I yield to nobody in my disdain for Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president. In a half-dozen essays, I’ve decried his bigotry and demagoguery. I’m especially concerned about his corrosive effect upon our civic discourse, which has sunk to almost unimaginable depths over the past year.

This disagreement with Trump, obviously directed at Trump supporters, is more than a matter of what kind of pizza is best. This disagreement concerns matters of fact and policy. Zimmerman thinks p, the Trump supporters think not-p or q. More than that, Zimmerman implies that supporters of Trump are susceptible to demagoguery and excuse, justify, or embrace bigotry. They’re mistaken in horrible and dangerous ways. That’s a pretty harsh judgment on them.

Despite such judgments, Zimmerman continues:

But I won’t join Historians Against Trump, which indulges in some of the same polarized, overheated rhetoric used by Trump himself. In a statement released on July 11, the new group warned that Trump’s candidacy represents “an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve.” But that claim is itself a repudiation of our professional values, which enjoin us to understand diverse communities instead of dismissing them as warped or deluded.

Aren’t bigotry, demagoguery, and the corroding of public discourse an attack on the values presumably shared by academic historians? Let’s say they are. More importantly, Zimmerman shares HAT’s harsh judgment of Trump (and by implication his many supporters). In fact, let’s rephrase the last clause in light of this:

. . . which enjoin us to understand diverse communities [which are] warped or deluded.

Now he basically agrees with them. They even say as much:

As historians, we consider diverse viewpoints while acknowledging our own limitations and subjectivity. Our profession reminds us to look for the humanity in everyone as we examine the ideas, interests and movements that shape world events. We interrogate and take responsibility for our sources and ground our arguments in context and evidence.

To me it seems obvious that the historians are concerned, at this stage, to convince the Trump supporters that they’re mistaken and that their (and his) ideas are antithetical to a truth-based civil society. Figuring out just why these ideas have traction, understanding their appeal in other words, is secondary question. You can’t figure out why someone is a bigot without first concluding that they’re a bigot.