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The King of Fallacies

October 9, 2016

The King of Fallacies


A couple of weeks ago, as I was mulling over the results of the first Presidential debate, I was struck again by Donald Trump’s defense of name-calling.  As everyone knows, he routinely tries to raise his own profile by calling other people names, such as “losers,” “dopes,” and “clowns.” At the debate, when Hillary Clinton reminded voters that Trump has called women “pigs, slobs and dogs,” Trump again defended himself, saying that Rosie O’Donnell had been “very vicious” to him and that “I think everybody would agree she deserves it, and nobody feels sorry for her.”


I have previously written about name-calling[1] as a basic failure of human decency, so I won’t repeat those arguments here.  But what no one seems to have noticed is that name-calling is also one of the simplest forms of logical fallacy:  the ad hominem attack.  Trump is particularly fond of the abusive ad hominem attack, which claims that a person’s position or argument is invalid because he or she is defective in some way.  By calling his opponents an abusive name, it allows him to put them down without addressing the merits of their position.


Trump’s use of ad hominem caused me to wonder what other logical fallacies he might be using, so I pulled out my old Logic textbook from my TCU days.  After a quick review, it was clear that ad hominem is just one of many logical fallacies Trump has used over the years.  Here are just a few more:


Tu quoqueTu quoque means, “you’re another.”  This fallacy deflects criticism against yourself by accusing your opponent of being just as bad.  Trump used it in the debate against Clinton when he was asked about his failure to release his tax returns.  Rather than address the question, he responded with a tu quoque attack:  “I’ll release my tax returns – against my lawyer’s wishes – when she releases her 33,000 emails that have been deleted.”


Ad populum.  This argument bypasses relevant reasons for one’s positions by making base appeals to popular sentiment, such as fear and prejudice, anger and distrust.  Trump’s comments about Mexicans in his arguments about immigration are a perfect example:  “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us.  They’re bringing drugs.  They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”


Ad baculum.  This fallacy uses an appeal to the fear of force to cause the audience to accept a conclusion.  Trump has repeatedly used veiled and not-so-veiled threats against his opponents.  He has threatened to “open up the libel laws” and sue news organizations that have published negative articles about him.   He hinted that Second Amendment supporters should shoot Hillary Clinton to prevent her from being elected and appointing Supreme Court justices.  He implied that he would threaten Mexico with nuclear weapons to get them to pay for the wall he wants to build between Mexico and the United States.  In response to a perceived attack on his wife, Melania, Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on Ted Cruz’ wife.  Some might argue that these are simple threats rather than an ad baculum fallacy, but regardless, it’s pretty clear that threats, rather than logic, are a regular part of the Trump toolkit.


Sadly, Trump’s fallacies have now become a regular part of our public discourse, and those who follow his example excuse their behavior by proudly wearing the badge of being “politically incorrect.”  But name-calling, appeals to fear and prejudice, threats, and other cheap tactics distract us from the serious issues we face.   As the election approaches, I hope that the rest of us will rise above the temptation to resort to these methods.  As the famous painter John Kane once noted, “the public interest is best served by the free exchange of ideas.”  In today’s atmosphere of mud slinging, illogic, and hot air, that’s virtually impossible.




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