Tag Archives: Trump

‘Tis but a scratch

When the Black Knight gets his left arm chopped off in the battle with King Arthur, he shrugs, “Tis but a scratch.”  He continues fighting, and he loses his right arm.  “Just a flesh wound.”  Eventually, he’s had all his limbs hacked off, and he calls out to Arthur, who has spared his life (such as it is, now), and leaving.  “Ooooohhh… I see… running way!”

This downplayer strategy for challenges works only when the evidence of the situation isn’t clear.  And so in sports, one can’t be a big braggart when the L’s outnumber the W’s, for example.  But it seems that in politics (and perhaps business?) there’s just enough grey for big talk to cover difficulties.

In a recent interview with the Financial Times (which is behind a paywall, so a summary on Politico), Trump responds to questions about his difficulties with passing health care reform (i.e., “repealing and replacing Obamacare”).  Here’s his reply:

Yeah, I don’t lose. I don’t like to lose. But that wasn’t a definitive day. . .  There was no reason to take a vote. I said, ‘Don’t take a vote,’ and we will see what happens,. . . . But one way or the other, I promised the people great health care. We are going to have great health care in this country. Now, it will be in one form or another. It will be a repeal and replace of Obamacare which is the deal that is being negotiated now.

Two things.  #1.  That you don’t like to lose isn’t a piece of evidence that shows that you don’t lose.  Moreover, saying that the day wasn’t ‘definitive’ is a strange point — perhaps a way of re-casting a loss as something equivocal.  Perhaps what the President counts as a loss is a total loss, like having it go to a vote, nobody votes for it, and his pants fall down on TV.  Seriously, who does this guy think he is, Baghdad Bob?

#2.  Notice that the goalposts have moved here.  And with a kind of vague notion of what success will be.  “… one form or another.”  Sure, if you’ve got a well-stated goal like that, you’re sure to succeed.  The only more self-serving program would be to define success after the enterprise.

The important thing about lines of argument like this is that they are not packaged for the reporters who interview Trump or for his opposition, those who have critical views of the man and his policies.  Rather, they are designed for his preferred audience — they function as a way of re-casting the dialectical situation for those who are his, well… fans.  We’ve had a few discussions of the role of onlooking audience here at the NS, and I think that it’s at play here.  For sure refusing to call the miss with health care a ‘loss’ looks like more intransigence to many of us, but we are not the ones DT is talking to.  Just like when you see a straw man of a view and you see it clearly as a straw man, you find that you were not the target audience for those arguments.  Who are the folks targeted?  Folks who are looking for something to undermine the going story that the White House is floundering, that the President is a foopdoodle in charge of a group of people who, when they try to write legislation, find that they can only turn out raggabrash.  Nothing like standing in front of a flaming pile of tires and diapers and saying, “Nothing to see here… everything’s going according to plan.”


Lying to my face

One of the many perplexities of the study of argument is that people often (but not of course always) deploy bad arguments to favorable audiences. You don’t straw man an opponent to their face–you do it to people disposed already to find your interpretation acceptable.

This raises an interesting question: I’m guessing that at least sometimes these audiences know that you’re doing it. They know you’re lying to them about your opponent’s view. Do they just not care? Or do they put up with it for “strategic” reasons?

This question came up yesterday in regard to Trump’s constant lying. It turns out, according to one report, that his supporters just do not care. An excerpt:

Robin Pierce, the owner of a men’s clothing store in Newark, said he doesn’t think anybody wiretapped Trump. But Pierce, 70, was almost gleeful as he offered an explanation for Trump’s claim.

“I think Trump just did that to freak them out — they were giving him bad times, so he gave them bad times. Mess with their brains,” he said.

He broke into a loud laugh.

“I like that,” he said. “Because we’ve had so much crap in Washington for years, and now we have someone shaking ’em up really good.”

Well, this is not reassuring. But here’s some research on point:

This research — and those stories — highlight a difficult truth about our species: We are intensely social creatures, but we’re prone to divide ourselves into competitive groups, largely for the purpose of allocating resources. People can be prosocial — compassionate, empathic, generous, honest — in their groups, and aggressively antisocial toward out-groups. When we divide people into groups, we open the door to competition, dehumanization, violence — and socially sanctioned deceit.

“People condone lying against enemy nations, and since many people now see those on the other side of American politics as enemies, they may feel that lies, when they recognize them, are appropriate means of warfare,” said George Edwards, a Texas A&M political scientist and one of the country’s leading scholars of the presidency.

Unsurprisingly, people who tend to view these issues as a part of a contest or argument-as-war narrative are likely to act accordingly. This means foregrounding group-cohesion or coherence of a simple message has higher strategic value than getting some opponent’s view just right.

Spitballs and Iron Men #2

One more example of a spitball getting ironmanned when challenged.  Trump tweeted that millions of undocumented immigrants voted in the 2016 election.

And he later told congressional leadership that the number was between 3 and 5 million.  That’s how he explained losing the popular vote.

In his recent Time interview with Michael Sherer, Trump clarifies the claim:

Well now if you take a look at the votes, when I say that, I mean mostly they register wrong, in other words, for the votes, they register incorrectly, and/or illegally. And they then vote. You have tremendous numbers of people. In fact I’m forming a committee on it.

But there’s no evidence that 3 million people voted with…

We’ll see after the committee. I have people say it was more than that. We will see after we have. But there will be, we are forming a committee. And we are going to do a study on it, a very serious problem.

But this is, first, different from the claim that 3 million ‘illegals’ voted — there’s a difference between illegals voting and illegal votes, right?  Second, this is another instance of the iron-manning of a spitball by turning it from an assertion to a query about something really important.  If Trump is right, then it’s something that should be reformed.  And perhaps we should investigate how widely it is the case that there is voter fraud of all the kinds he alleges.  But there’s a difference between claiming that it’s happening and holding that we should find out whether it is happening.  If you don’t have evidence for it at the time of the speech act, the claiming is wrong.  But that’s of course, what the iron-manning afterwards does — you get the benefit of claiming but without having to defend the claim.

Spitballing and iron men

A few months back, Rob Talisse and I introduced the notion of spitballing.  Here’s the rough version of how the notion works:

At its core, spitballing works as follows: One makes multiple contributions to a discussion, often as fast as one can think them up (and certainly faster than one can think them through). Some contributions may be insightful, others less so, but all are overtly provocative. What is most important, though, is that each installment express a single, self-contained thought. Accordingly, slogans are the spitballer’s dialectical currency. As the metaphor of the spitball goes, one keeps tossing until something sticks; hence it helps if one’s slogans are tinged with something disagreeable or slightly beyond the pale. As the spitballer’s interlocutors attempt to reply to what he has said, the spitballer resolutely continues spitballing.

If the spitballer must answer for an inaccurate or otherwise objectionable contribution, crying foul that others don’t interpret their statements properly is the default strategy:

Accordingly, when a spitballer’s pronouncement is subjected to critical analysis in, say, print media, the spitballer’s response is simply to return to the confines of the television studio to denounce the interpretation of the slogan that was scrutinized. The denouncement begins with an indignant “what I actually said was . . .” and is followed with the introduction of a new slogan –hence a new provocation – which is no more precise or transparent than the original. Thus the process begins anew.

Our target for the original posting was then candidate Trump, and now it’s President Trump.  The new developments with the investigations of Trump’s wiretapping tweets have exactly the form of sptiball-then-ironman from before.  First, the spitballs

OK, and then the next day, plenty of folks (including  FBI director James Comey) come out to say these claims are unsubstantiated.  Then Kellyanne Conway suggested that it’s possible to surveil through TV sets and microwaves.  Sean Spicer then clarified some of the tweets noting that (at least in two of them) ‘wiretapping’ is in quote marks, which means that it really stands for… general surveillance.  And presumably ‘Trump Tower’ means the Trump Campaign and its representatives.   And by ‘President Obama,’ he really means someone in a government agency. And now that House Intelligence Committee Chairman, Devin Nunes (R-CA) has announced that athere is evidence that there was information collected incidentally and widely disseminated among the intelligence community, there is the sense that the Trump claim has been vindicated.

First, consider Trump himself.  In the “Is Truth Dead?” Time Magazine interview, Trump, in responding to the question about the tweets and their troubles, responds:

When I said wiretapping, it was in quotes. Because a wiretapping is, you know today it is different than wire tapping. It is just a good description. But wiretapping was in quotes. What I’m talking about is surveillance. And today, [House Intelligence Committee Chairman] Devin Nunes just had a news conference.. . . That means surveillance and various other things.

Note, however, that in one, ‘wiretapping’ was not in quotes.  But, hey, when it’s Twitter, maybe nuance is lost.  Wait…

The iron-manning move went into full swing afterwards, which turned not just to the re-interpretation strategy, but to the “if this accusation has anything to which it could be applied, then it’s really important” move.  And so, Johnathan Turley, at The Hill:

Of course, the original tweets were poorly worded and inappropriate as a way for a president to raise this issue. Moreover, the inadvertent surveillance is rightfully distinguished from the original suggestion of a targeting of Trump. However, this would still be a very serious matter if intelligence officials acted to unmask the names and distribute them.

And the point of spitballing is made — one makes whatever accusation against the opposition one wants.  Then these accusations are reinterpreted to fit the evidence and made to be more alarm bells about possibilities of really bad things.

Season of the Godwin

Godwin’s Law is, roughly, that as a political discussion proceeds, the likelihood of an analogy to Hitler increases.  Long discussions have it as a relative certainty that Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Mussolini references will not only happen but perhaps multiply. (We’ve done a number of bits on Godwining here at the NS.  I’ve tried a reconstruction of the argument form here.)

Enter our favorite Orange Furher-analogue and the variety of ways folks have made the argument.  There’s the nationalism, the militarism, the authoritarian style, threatening the free press, the racism.  And there’s the fact that even his supporters holler out ‘Heil Trump.’   So much to work with!

It’s worth paying attention to a small difference in argument criticism here — you can criticize an argument against some claim or individual without really defending the claim or person.  That is, you don’t have to be a Trump sympathizer to think that some analogies between him and Hitler are off base.  You’ve just got to think that this analogy isn’t quite right.  (See John’s older post about how to evade in these lights.)

David Harsanyi at NRO has a bit of argument criticism with the wide phenomenon Godwining/Ad Hitlering with our Great Orange Leader.   He has one line of argument that there are bad consequences to the overuse of Ad Hitlerum:

Comparing everything to 1933 is now a big part of our national discourse, not only that of angry partisans but also that of people who should know better than to habitually make these correlations. This isn’t Mel Brooks’s Springtime for Hitler. Whether you’re a fan or a detractor of Trump, these gross false equivalencies belittle the memory of millions who died in unimaginably horrifying ways. Moreover, exaggeration and historical illiteracy undermine the very cause these people claim to care about, unless that cause is desensitizing people to the terror of the Holocaust.

Well, we have to note that the argument here depends on the analogies being false.  So the main line of argument, then, depends on the case that there are relevant dissimiliarities between Trump and Hitler.  Here’s how Harsanyi breaks the analogies when they come to deportation:

[E]ven if the authorities . . . were to start deporting illegal immigrants, not one of those unfortunate people would ever be sent to anything resembling the ovens of Treblinka and Auschwitz. Not their children. Not anyone else in this country. Most often, in fact, deported illegal immigrants, who have broken the law, are going back to their home in Mexico, where they can often apply for legal entry into the United States.

Two things.  First, the Jews weren’t sent straight to the ovens.  They were sent to internment camps, which were billed to the rest of Germany is pretty nice places.  Second, given the way the laws were sold to the public, they don’t sound like matters of targeting illegal immigration, but are more matters of ethnic or religious identity.  It’s that part that merits the Hitler analogies, not whether the consequences are nicer or not.   That the policies could be worse (as in exactly like Hitler’s policies) is a very weak defense.  And, again, as we’ve said many times: analogies are not identities.

Leaky Arguments from Precedence

Jack Shafer’s “How Trump Can Learn to Love Leaking” over at Politico has a few nice insights about the love-hate relationship many administrations have had for leaks, and he, I think rightly, observes that:

[T]here is no leak crisis, only a leak panic. . . . As leaks go, the ones currently tormenting the Trump administration are pedestrian, merely embarrassing the president rather than rupturing national security.

From this reasonable observation, Shafer makes, what seems to me, an unreasonable inference:

Trump, of course, might reject the status quo and order Attorney General Jeff Sessions to mount a hammer and tongs foray against the press and leakers, as Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan recently warned. But there is scant precedent for such a crackdown, and for good reason. To chase down journalists, Trump and Sessions would have to weaken the Department of Justice guidelines that protect reporters from such investigations. Would the political costs of trashing the guidelines and stalking the leakers be worth it, especially in cases where no vital secrets have been revealed?

As I see it, Shafer’s inference runs something like:

The leaks are mostly costly cosmetically for the administration, and prosecuting them would be politically costly.  Moreover, few Presidents have pursued many leaks.  Therefore, it’s unlikely that Trump will pursue the leaks.

 But the problem is that, as with all probabilistic reasoning, if we add evidence that we are dealing with an outlier case, then the inductive reasons are defeated.  And there are good reasons to say that Trump’s case is an outlier here.  Recall that he’s fiercely retributive for those who break his trust.  Moreover, that X is the way that folks in Washington have done things is not a reason that seems to hold much force with the Trump administration.

This is, I think, a good example of why the ad populum forms of arguments from precedence (and from all the motives that make up that precedence) are all inductive, and so non-monotonic forms of inference.  They can be just fine so long as we think the cases we are applying them to are not relevantly different from what had come before, but if we add the new information in, then that inference gets defeated.  And I think that most of arguments from precedence are suspended when we talk about the orange one.

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.