Donald J. Trump would drown in a puddle. Exaggeration? Perhaps, but not by much. There is considerable evidence to show that Trump does not have the emotional or intellectual skills to contemplate important questions of the day, let alone the discernment to arrive at measured, sage judgments. Enumerating that evidence would take too long, but a brief survey of recent activity should suffice:
- Trump retweets a GIF of assaulting Hillary Clinton with a golf ball (September 17, 2017)
- Trump says there were “some very fine people” among the white nationalist protestors in Charlottesville, VA. He continued versions of his claim later. (August 12-15; September 15, 2017)
- Trump claimed the terrorist responsible for the London subway attack was in the Metropolitan Police’s “sights”. (September 15, 2017)
It is almost inconceivable to maintain, therefore, that he ever should have been elevated to the most important, and arguably most venerated, political position in the world. What were those who now express misgivings about his ability to execute the duties of his office thinking when they supported his candidacy for U.S. President? He always was an inveterate egoist, an intellectually incompetent, emotionally stunted, and spoiled boor more concerned about his own popularity than the wellbeing of fellow human beings. These features combine into a noxious brew that has, and will, adversely affect the U.S. and the world.
To anyone who cares about truth, careful reasoning, and informed judgments, Trump’s utterances are seemingly bottomless pits of bullshit, his “arguments” only presentations of convoluted thinking, his syntax mangled often to the point of unintelligibility, and his declarations merely impetuous, exaggerated, inconsistent, often self-aggrandizing, and dangerously ignorant opinions.
The transcript of his news conference on August 15, 2017, for example, is a mind-boggling array of non-sequiturs, ungrammatical utterances, imprecise word choices, half-formed ideas, contorted thinking, and an apparent belief that saying something makes it so. Consequently, it’s hard to know where to begin thinking about what’s wrong. But set aside, for the moment, the content of Trump’s policies—regressive approaches to the environment, women’s health, and international relations, for example. Set aside the grammatical and other infelicities that characterize a typical Trump utterance. Focus instead on the quality of his reasoning. Take, for example, his apparent inability to distinguish concepts:
TRUMP: Okay, what about the alt-left that came charging at [indiscernible] – excuse me – what about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?
REPORTERS YELL INDISTINCTLY
TRUMP: What about this? What about the fact that they came charging – they came charging with clubs in their hands swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.
REPORTERS YELL INDISTINCTLY
TRUMP: As far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day. Wait a minute, I'm not finished. I'm not finished, fake news. That was a horrible day.
REPORTERS YELL INDISTINCTLY
TRUMP: I will tell you something. I watched those very closely, much more closely than you people watched it. And you had, you had a group on one side that was bad. And you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I'll say it right now. You had a group – you had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent.
REPORTER: Do you think what you call the alt left is the same as neo-Nazis?
TRUMP: Those people – all of those people, excuse me – I've condemned neo-Nazis. I've condemned many different groups, but not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.
REPORTER: Well, white nationalists –
TRUMP: Those people were also there, because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue Robert E. Lee. So – excuse me – and you take a look at some of the groups and you see, and you’d know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you’re not. Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. So this week, it’s Robert E. Lee, I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after. You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?...
REPORTER: Mr. President, are you putting what you’re calling the alt-left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?
TRUMP: I am not putting anybody on a moral plane, what I’m saying is this: you had a group on one side and a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and horrible and it was a horrible thing to watch, but there is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You’ve just called them the left, that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that's the way it is…
First, Trump morally and conceptually conflates two groups: the white nationalist and white supremacist protestors, and the counter-protestors. Their members are not, however, equally responsible for the bodily harm done to the counter-protestors, let alone the death of one of their number. The murderer was associated with with a white supremacist group, Vanguard America. No murder was committed by counter-protestors.
Moreover, in claiming that there was ‘violence on both sides,’ Trump commits two fallacies of reasoning: Two Wrongs (Make a Right) and Tu Quoque. The implication of asserting that there were ‘bad people’ on ‘both sides’ that day is that each cancels the other out, so that we can’t really critique the racists. That is the application of the Two Wrongs fallacy, in which one wrong is justified by pointing to another wrong. The related error is Tu Quoque, or ‘You’re one, too.’ Rather than address the claim that the white nationalist and white supremacist views are morally repugnant and intolerable, Trump chose to deflect. He said, effectively, ‘Well, what about the alt-left? They’re bad, too. Why should I accept criticism of the alt-right when the critics are members of the alt-left?’ Spelled out in this way, the error is obvious.
Second, by making up a name for the counter-protestors — the “alt-left,” by which is presumably meant the Antifa groups — Trump attempts to poison the well. In other words, he mounts a pre-emptive attack on the counter-protestors by labeling them in a way that morally mirrors the implicitly negative meaning of “alt-right.” Trump stated, “What about this? What about the fact that [the alt-left] came charging – they came charging with clubs in their hands swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.” The facts, however, do not bear out this insinuation.
Moreover, it is not the case that the counter-protestors acted in a vacuum. They responded to the provocative chants, “Blood and soil!” “White lives matter!” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!” It is also worth bearing in mind the symbolism of the Friday night torch march preceding Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally. Finally, the protestors’ conduct was militaristic. Members wore paramilitary gear, brandished weapons, and shouted commands like, “Stay in formation!” The counter-protestors? A group of approximately 30 diverse University of Virginia students who had formed a ring around a statue. It was after the protestors hurled insults at the students, the Washington Post reports, physical violence broke out for the first time.
Two other points about Trump’s poor reasoning skills leap out. On the one hand, he claims he’s not making any sort of moral evaluation, but on the other, he decries the violence that occurred as “vicious and horrible,” and then goes on to say, “there’s blame on both sides.” When discussing a major national crisis — and an ongoing one, at that, the President of the United States has a responsibility to speak clearly, exactingly, and consistently.
He also has a responsibility to reason carefully, which brings us to the last fallacy Trump commits during the news conference excerpted here. Trump implicitly argues that removing Confederate statues from public places will lead to the removal of statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He says, “You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” The insinuation is that, since we wouldn’t want to remove statues of Washington or Jefferson, we should therefore not take steps to remove the Confederate statues at issue. This, however, is slippery slope reasoning. The origin of the error lies in not distinguishing the objectionable features and purpose of the Confederate statues from those of Washington and Jefferson, which then allows Trump to see what’s not there: an inexorable series of outcomes — a domino effect — set off by removing the first statue.
Trump likes to talk about how smart he is, but there’s little evidence on display. Perhaps what he means is that he’s cunning and wily, cynically creating drama and chaos, and persistently attacking friend and foe alike in order to humiliate the recipient or to advance his position in some real or imagined negotiating process. These are not the qualities of a thoughtful individual who cares deeply about getting things right.
It took the media a while to cotton onto the idea that Trump is a dissembler. It is now high time that they — and we — hold him to basic standards of reason, not letting him escape with noises about ‘what he really meant’ or that ‘he shouldn’t be taken literally.’ Too many of his defenders and critics gloss over, excuse, or don’t even acknowledge his disregard of basic reasoning skills. It matters because these skills can lead one to some catastrophic decisions and actions. “Muslim ban,” anyone? Fire or attack those who oppose you? Think racists are “very fine” people? Words matter. Reason matters. They are not just more things for Trump to abuse.