Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Trump Has Damaged His Followers' Ability to Make and Understand Reasoned Arguments

by Neil H. Buchanan
Back in June of 2016, I pointed out that Donald Trump had created an entirely argument-free version of political campaigning.  I compared Trump's type of logical error to the standard Republican type of logical error.  Although I did not at that point use these labels, it makes sense to contrast Republican illogic with Trumpian non-logic.

The difference is that Republicans typically have at least a story to tell that connects premises to conclusions.  Referring to the example of the infamous Laffer Curve, I noted that the Republican argument goes like this: "Tax cuts cause people to want to work more and businesses to expand, so the economy grows, and indeed it grows so much that total tax revenues rise despite the lower tax rates on each dollar in that expanded tax base."  Could be true.  Not true, at all, as proved again and again and again; but could be true.  They are being illogical because they insist on repeating the story notwithstanding its having been debunked.  It is, in Paul Krugman's memorable description, a zombie idea.
In contrast, Trump says things like this: "We're going to have a tremendous new health care plan that will cover everyone and be much cheaper."

That non-logic is not testable or subject to logical investigation, because there is nothing to test and verify -- except to note that the magical plan never materializes, as a matter of empirical observation.  And speaking of reality, Trump also became famous for saying things that are demonstrably untrue even in the moment, refusing to retract or correct even when called on his detachment from reality.
From claiming to have signed laws that were passed before he took office to falsely claiming that the Dominion voting machines company is owned or influenced by the Radical Left (which is who, exactly?), Trump simply says that up is down and night is day.  Those infamous alternative facts, after all, were not limited to crowd size but even included lies about the weather.

Now, we are seeing how Trump's huckster-inspired strategy of skipping past logic and evidence, and simply choosing to live in a reality-resistant "It's true because I say so" universe, has affected his followers.  Every day it becomes more and more ridiculous, and more and more dangerous.

On the dangerous front, Trump's lies about COVID-19 have been literally deadly.  He finished the general election campaign saying over and over again that the country was "rounding the corner" on the pandemic, even as the new wave of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths was putting the nation in greater peril than it has been in at any time during the crisis.

Post-election, Trump had a classic non-logic moment when he claimed that the recent breakthroughs in vaccines are all his doing.  Actually, he did go to the trouble of offering one cause-and-effect statement, but it was merely that the government had provided funding to companies to develop vaccines and thus is responsible for a good thing happening.  "We gave them money, and then they came up with a vaccine," is sillier than the time that Al Gore claimed (even though he did not actually claim) to have invented the internet.  Even there, however, Trump simply lied in saying that Pfizer developed its vaccine with government money, because it most definitely did not.

And even if they did, this is the kind of thing that any administration would do.  Taking credit for good things that happen while one is in office is hardly new to Trump, of course, but never has anyone so shamelessly claimed credit for something that would have happened no matter what.  And to add his own uniquely deranged spin, Trump said this: "If you had a different administration with different people, what we’ve done would have taken, in my opinion, three, four, five years, and it would have been in the FDA forever."
How did he form that opinion?  The same way that he does everything.  He made it up, just as he claimed at various times that the 2017 tax bill would increase GDP growth to 4, 5, and then 6 percent -- all based on nothing at all.  Yet we are to believe that any other administration would have allowed this search for vaccines to languish for years and would have kept it bottled up (literally? figuratively? both?) in an administrative agency.

There is also the constant resort to ad hominem attacks.  John Bolton is not my idea of an admirable person, to say the least, but on the naive/stupid/evil taxonomy, he is clearly not naive or stupid.  Even so, when Bolton last week criticized Trump's refusal to accept the reality of the election results, Trump tweeted in response that Bolton was "one of the dumbest people in government" and "a real dope."  This type of response does not even achieve the low level of "good things will happen because I say so" non-logic, settling instead for the logical fallacy of attacking the speaker and not the content of the speech.

Does all of this affect the way people interact?  Of course it does.  Just as Newt Gingrich almost singlehandedly turned Republicans into the party that calls their opponents sad pathetic traitors, Trump's preference to skip past even simple syllogisms to mindless "it will happen" assertions accompanied by insults is now standard operating procedure on the right.

And this is not limited to the "non-college-educated white" Trump supporters on which media accounts focus.  Because my two writing outlets (Verdict and Dorf on Law) tend to draw readers with law degrees, the anti-anti-Trump trickle of hate mail that comes my way comes from people with advanced (if failed) educations.  Two recent examples came from lawyers in different parts of Texas.  Here is one:
Mr. Buchanan:

As a 35 year trial lawyer, I found your opinion piece below embarrassing. In my opinion it is a good thing you live in the fictional world of “academia” as you may not survive elsewhere.

You clearly don’t know what a constitutional crisis and coup are. Please feel free to vacation in Venezuela.
This was signed with the lawyer's real name, even including his phone number and URL to his law firm.  Notice the Trumpian pattern.  Start with a content-free insult, then add a sneering attack for being a smarty-pants academic who supposedly is incapable of dealing with the real world.  Then add a weird argument of the form: "Venezuela had a coup, so what Trump is doing is not a coup."  Trump would be proud.  That lawyer's former professors -- stuck as they are in the fictional world of "academia" (and I am not sure why there are quotation marks around that word, by the way) -- would be ashamed.

The second Texas lawyer in question wrote to me more than once.  I reproduced his first email in full in a subsequent Verdict column:

I read the articles put forth by Justia Law primarily because it is so obvious that it is merely a propaganda arm for the liberal & DNC agenda to destroy America.

Good to keep an eye on the enemies of freedom.

Your article today gave a good chuckle as it is so clear that Trump’s certain re-election is giving you and other liberal idiots total fits.

Loving every minute of it!

Other than the false assertion that Trump will certainly be re-elected, this is nothing but a series of insults.  Days later, he followed up with this second email:

It’s actually funny that you have the audacity to claim outrage about a possible contested election … especially because that is what the DEMOCRATS have been threatening since they lost fair and square the last time around. They been playing that bullshit game for 4 years now.

Do you get paid a contingency fee for spouting the Democratic Party propaganda?
Here, there is the bare bones of an argument, but it is a Trump-style argument: When Democrats criticize the guy who won the 2016 election (but do nothing to contest that election), that is the same thing as Trump's openly stated plans to refuse to accept the results of any election that he loses.  "You say I'm doing a bad thing.  Well you did something that I don't like that is not at all the same, but I'm going to say it's the same."  And then toss in another ad hominem attack for good measure.

Finally, there was this from a reader (who did not identify himself as a lawyer, or anything else) ten days after Election Day:
Your article accusing President Trump of attempting a coup for challenging election results where there has been documented illegal activity (dead people voting, ballots taken from a van adorned with the Biden-Harris logo to a ballot counting location through the back door to name a few) and at the least irregularities (Dominion computer program automatically changing 6,000 Michigan votes for President Trump to vote for Joe Biden, numerous incidents of poll watchers not being able to view mail-in ballot tabulations despite state laws allowing for that) simply ignores evidence presented, and is nothing less than reckless and dangerous.  No one should ever condone sweeping illegal voting activity and even "irregular" voting activity under the rug, that is an enormous attack on our democracy. 
There, of course, we have a different problem, which is simply that the writer believes factual assertions that had all been debunked already.  This is the "believe what I say" problem in microcosm.

This is hardly a scientifically selected sample.  People who bother to click through to find an author's university email address are especially motivated to have their say.  I reproduce some of their emails here not because they are necessarily representative of Trump supporters more generally, although they might be.  The point is that they are quintessentially Trumpian in the way that they engage with their selected foes.

Consider an actual U.S. Senator, North Dakota's Kevin Cramer, who said on television this past Sunday: "I don’t know why we are so easily offended by a president that is carrying out all his legal options in court.  Everyone ought to calm down a little bit, I don’t see this as an attack on our democracy."  This claim, of course, merely repeats what his party's leader said two weeks before, but it adds to the problem by accusing Trump's detractors of being thin-skinned and too excitable.
Abuse of process is a real problem, however, and "He can go to court if he wants to" is in no way inconsistent with Trump's actions in and out of court constituting an attack on our democracy.  "Nothing to see here, folks," is sometimes good advice, but not when there is very much something to see -- and it is dangerous.  And as an aside, that a Republican would be so hypocritical as to say that abusive lawsuits are no big deal is especially notable.

Finally, consider the argument from Trump's supporters that any evidence of mistakes is proof that the whole thing is corrupt.  When news reports say that there is no evidence of "widespread" problems, they merely mean that any election is going to have human errors and some isolated bad behavior.  Saying those problems are not widespread is a bit like the contract doctrine of "substantial performance," which is actually not about "substantial" in the sense of "a lot" but in the sense of "in substance."  A party who has substantially performed is deemed to have deviated in various ways from the contract but to have done what the other party actually wanted.  An election without widespread errors or fraud might have deviated in various ways from a perfectly administered election, but those deviations do not mean that the outcome of the election is wrong.

For Trumpists, though, everything is a where-there's-smoke-there's-fire tragedy.  Any evidence at all of someone, somewhere violating a rule is taken as proof positive that everything is corrupt.  Again, that is not a logical argument.  It is simply a way of saying that the outcome is not what Trumpists wanted, so they will turn everything into a global conspiracy.

Not needing to acknowledge reality, to make logical arguments, or to engage with one's opponents' arguments was already a problem among Republicans.  Trump, however, has made it all much, much worse.


Michael A Livingston said...

I think Trump’s problem is that, because of the difficulty of overturning an election in several states, he was forced to argue “fraud” which is extremely rare. But there are many odd things about this election nonetheless. Mail in ballots are typically rejected at a rate of 1 to 3 percent, the higher rate if first-tame voters. Virtually none were rejected in PA, and similarly in other states. When Republican lawyers pointed out that numerous ballots did not meet legal standards for signatures and so forth they were told this was a “technicality” and would result in “disenfranchising” of the relevant voters. Demonstrators threatened to retaliate against lawyers or law firms who argued Trump’s case. While Biden will formally take office, I think he will have very little substantive credibility among Republicans and perhaps some Democrats, as well. One can assume that 40-50 percent of the country are merely stupid, but that’s not convincing going forward. It’s a long haul.

Greg said...

Unfortunately, I don't think this is exclusively on the right. The "fake news" argument has taken on a life of its own in both parties. It's come to mean "facts that I don't like or might lead to conclusions I disagree with" rather than the literally FAKE news that it was intended to cover. If we can't agree on facts (or at least on sources of facts like the CDC or Bureau of Labor and Statistics) then I don't know how anyone can even begin to have a reasoned argument.

As I find myself saying to both Republicans and Democrats far more than I like:
"CNN, NY Times, Washington Post are not fake news.
"Your local newspaper is not fake news.
"Fox News is not fake news.
"Even Breitbart and Huffington Post are not fake news.
"Fake news is literally and intentionally FAKE news.
"If you don't like what any of the news sources say then they might be wrong about the facts or they might be interpreting the facts in a way you don't agree with, but they aren't fake."

Brilian Ajab said...

Oh my goodness! an amazing article dude. Thank you However I am experiencing issue with ur rss. Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting identical rss problem? Anyone who knows kindly respond. Thnkx

Click Here

James Freiberger said...

Fantastic as always. But minor typo in the second paragraph. I don't generally mention such things, yet you're very cautious with words, so I thought you'd like to fix it. I do silly writing on silly subjects, I like to fix my typos.

Fred Raymond said...

I do think that the DT followers are predisposed against reasoned arguments because their beliefs in large part contradict independently verifiable true facts. This makes them very receptive to having someone like DT in a position of great influence.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

My thanks to James Freiberger. Typo fixed.

James Freiberger said...

I do baseball game recaps, and I pretty much always have to fix them. Who knows why, nobody notices the typos but me.

JS said...


egarber said...

My dream here in Georgia is for Trump’s invention of election fraud conspiracies to backfire - i.e., supporters stay home for the two senate runoffs, because it’s a waste of time voting in rigged elections. OR, they stay home as a form of retribution against Republicans who are insufficiently loyal to Trump. You know, like our “corrupt” Secretary of State who thinks we should count votes.