Thursday, May 14, 2020

Fun With Logic and Its Antithesis in the Trump Era

by Neil H. Buchanan

My new Verdict column, published today, is the first of a two-part analysis in which I make the case for federal disaster relief to states and cities whose budgets have been decimated by the pandemic-related economic crisis.  The second part, to be published either tomorrow or next week, will focus on a potential workaround if Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, and their tribe continue to oppose such relief.

Today's column, however, is more of an exercise in counter-punching.  Indeed, it essentially amounts to a series of responses to Republicans' absurd talking points, in particular McConnell's claim that such relief to states and cities would cause the federal government to "pay for the Democrats' mistakes," or something like that.  I point out, among other things, that it would be incredibly easy to put states and cities into the same financial position that they would have been in if there had been no crisis, which would mean that any such previous mistakes or supposed overspending by Democrats would not be covered.  Computing this is, in fact, easy to do, which means that -- big surprise -- McConnell's argument is a pretext to justify his cruelty.

Why Republicans want to allow harm to come to the states and cities is not my point here (spoiler alert for Part 2: unions), but especially as an employee of a state that Trump absolutely must carry this Fall -- without Florida, there is virtually no path even to an Electoral College majority for him -- I continue to believe/hope that at some point the Republicans will see their own self-interest in doing the right thing.

Here, I want to run through a list of randomly selected terrible recent arguments from Trump and the Republicans that rival or surpass McConnell's terrible arguments against providing assistance to sub-federal governments.  I will end with a discussion of an odd political argument from a Republican operative whom I quote in today's Verdict column, but the only common thread here is that this is a litany of frustrating but somehow fun examples of egregiously bad attempts at reasoning from what now counts as the conservative movement in the U.S. -- a movement that, by the way, once claimed to be all about ideas.

To begin, I should note that it is somewhat perversely refreshing when Trump actually tries to make an argument.  After all, he has reached and held the highest office in the land by steadfastly refusing to back up conclusions with supporting arguments.  Such-and-such will be "tremendous."  How will it be tremendous?  "Trust me, it will be tremendous."  What will he enact to replace the Affordable Care Act?  Something "great."

Thus, for example, his deranged rants this week about supposed crimes that President Obama committed at unspecified times led a reporter to ask what the crimes were.  Trump's response: Everybody knows what they were.  He cannot be bothered even to lay out something as simple as: facts, law, conclusion (even a tenuous one).  "He was seen leaving the premises with a wallet, the owner reported his wallet missing, so Obama committed larceny."  No, it is simply: Obama, crime, bad!

The closest Trump has come to trying to make an argument recently is to point to the increase in the number of coronavirus tests that the U.S. has conducted -- or more accurately that the states have conducted, since Trump has said that the U.S. government is merely a backup to the states, but why worry about such details?  This, at least, has the form of an argument: There's a problem, tests help solve the problem, we did tests.

But as Senator Mitt Romney pointed out in an interview, this is silly because it essentially gives Trump credit for having failed so badly early on that we now need to do much more testing.  Romney noted that South Korea is doing much less testing now than the U.S., but that is because they jumped on it quickly and quelled the problem.

Romney did not put it this way, but an apt analogy would be to claim that a fire department in Town A is more effective than its counterpart in Town B because Town A has lots of houses that were engulfed in a spreading blaze and thus has many firefighters trying to put them out, whereas Town B's first fire was put out and prevented from spreading.  And what are Town B's firemen doing now?  Sitting on their butts, that's what!!  Trump wants credit for making so much testing necessary.

That is actually a step up from Trump's hostile response to a female reporter (a redundant phrase if ever there were one) when asked why the White House had so much testing for its own staff but the American people were not being given similar (or in some cases, any) protection.  Trump whined in response that he will always be criticized no matter what he does, because if they were not doing testing in the White House, the press would be criticizing him for that.

Well, yes, they would be criticized for that.  This, however, is one of the oddest versions of the leveling-down argument that I could imagine.  Trump essentially says that there are two possibilities: unequal testing or equal non-testing.  What about equal treatment in the sense that everyone gets "treated," and everyone is thus treated equally?  Not an option, apparently.

Trump actually could have made the beginning of a decent argument, which is that the White House would naturally have more protections for the pandemic, just as the White House has more protections of all kinds; but he would then have been confronted with the fact that most people are not, say, the likely targets of assassination attempts, so most people do not need Secret Service protection.  There is simply no analogy to coronavirus, where everyone is vulnerable and the disease spreads by contact among the population.  Not that Trump thought it that far through, of course, because he simply defaulted to his standard "Everyone in the press hates me" defensive lashing out.

This little hall of shame is not just for Trump or McConnell.  In the Supreme Court argument this week about Trump's outrageous claim of total immunity from prosecution, oversight, or even investigation, Clarence Thomas decided that it was important to say that the danger for the presidency is in the aggregation of such monitoring activities.  He said: "At some point there is a straw that breaks the camel's back ... .  Why wouldn't we look at all of them and look at the full effect and whether at some point it debilitates the president?"

That almost sounded clever, but Maya Wiley (a former counsel in the mayor's office in New York City) pointed out in an interview the absurdity of Thomas's comment, which "seemed to suggest that somehow, if the president does enough to call so much attention to himself and create so much legal concern that there's a lot of attention on him, that that might somehow make it too burdensome for him to actually address all the subpoenas. ...  It's a little bit like saying, 'If you get yourself into a lot of trouble, you have more of an argument that you shouldn't have to answer for it.'"

Of course, this has been the Republicans' playbook ever since Ronald Reagan, where they simply bull their way forward by creating enough din and outrage never to be held to account for any particular outrage.  Hearing that argument from a supposedly top-flight conservative legal mind, however, indicates that the arrogance of power -- where powerful people do not have to bother making sense, because they have the power -- has now infected the hard-right bloc on the Supreme Court.

Finally, consider a bogus argument that I briefly discussed in my Verdict column today.  There, the guy who was the Sarah Huckabee Sanders equivalent for John Boehner when the latter was Speaker of the House -- that is, not merely a press spokesperson but someone who understood the role as being a nasty, dishonest hack -- recently claimed that the reason Republicans should not agree to more anti-crisis spending is that it will eventually cause political problems:
"Concerns about federal deficits and debts are being swamped by the scale of the crisis right now, but when our economy rebounds, they will return as a serious issue for voters. As we saw after 2008 and 2009, paroxysms of federal spending tend to spawn ferocious blowback."
This is mind-blowing.  The Obama-era stimulus package -- a set of tax cuts and spending increases that Republicans insisted on making far too small and (no surprise) far too loaded with tax cuts for rich people -- led to AstroTurf protests that were, as I point out in the column, Republicans' ticket back into political power, taking the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014.  Without the faux-populist Tea Party agitations, people might actually have noticed that the Obama Administration had carried forward some Bush-initiated, bipartisan initiatives and then created new ones that prevented a second Great Depression, followed by a recovery that could have been stronger if Republicans had allowed that to happen.

Saying that Republicans should be worried about "ferocious blowback," then, is somewhat like saying that the last time there was an attempt to deal with a drought, Republicans unleashed a plague of locusts that destroyed even more crops, so we should worry that more locusts will swarm if we try to respond to the next drought.  "It just happens, you know!"

Or, to use an unfortunately more common situation as an analogy, this is like an abusive man saying to his victim: "Look what you made me do!"  Democrats are trying to do something that will actually improve Republicans' political fortunes by mitigating the economic disaster, but Republicans are saying that this should not be allowed because they successfully encouraged their own supporters to go nuts the last time this happened.

These examples of non-logic and faulty reasoning certainly make my job easy.  All I have to do is read the news or watch a press conference or two, at which point not only do I have a lot of material to criticize but the criticisms are painfully obvious.  Even so, I would much rather that Republicans actually start making sense.  I am not holding my breath.

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