For students and scholars of philosophy, politicians often present examples of the worst forms of logic. These logical errors are studied by experts in debate, rhetoric, and argument. It seems too that logical fallacies are a go-to for political speechwriters as well, and not for the best reasons. The current President of the United States is a master of false logic; truly a master: he can articulate his opinions as facts and at the same time deny or obfuscate dissenters through his mastery of debate. He is not the first celebrity tied to fallacies of logic (see McNamara’s Fallacy, Noah Sweat, Jr., Gish Gallop, etc.), but Trump has mastered several tactics, such as argumentum ad ignorantiam (Argument from Ignorance and Argument from Incredulity), argumentum ad lapidem (Appeal to the stone), and his favorite, argumentum ad nauseam or argumentum ad infinitum, Argument from Repetition.
Trump entered the public arena of politics crusading against President Obama’s legitimacy as President of the United States. The so-called birther movement was argumentum ad ignorantiam at its finest. And it worked. How or why else would a sitting President of the United States lower himself to releasing his personal birth certificate when no other had done so before? Trump’s bombastic style of argumentum ad lapidem prevented career politicians from both parties as well as the mainstream media from taking Trump seriously early in Election 2016. And again, Trump’s argument of Appeal to the Stone worked. It worked on Twitter, it worked on the campaign trail, and it ultimately led to victory in the ballot boxes. Why should Trump release his taxes? Why should we believe the sexual assault claims? Isn’t climate-change a convenient Chinese hoax? And while belittling critics with Appeal to the Stone, Trump skillfully played argumentum ad nauseam or argumentum ad infinitum to his base: I will Make America Great Again, I will repeal Obamacare on Day One, I will withdraw from NATO, I will scrap NAFTA, I will build The Wall and Mexico will pay for it. Altogether, Trump’s campaign was a masterful exercise in Appeal to Emotion – where an argument is made due to the manipulation of emotions, rather than the use of valid reasoning.
Most of this is water under the bridge, so why write about it now? While the election may be over, using the rules or logic to interpret Trump’s governing style is a useful lens. As pundits have said before, Trump seems to be running the Administration like a campaign and has yet to transform campaign tactics into an effective leadership style or governance strategy. The logical fallacies that play so well in 140 unchallenged characters and 30-second soundbites, ring hollow in the halls of power in Washington, D.C.
Enter the argument of False Equivalence. This fallacy or tool in Trump’s arsenal is the describing a situation of logical and apparent equivalence, when in fact there is none. That’s the game when suddenly non-violent protests by NFL players receive equivalent attention, dare I say even more attention than a nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, hurricane relief in Puerto Rico, and the genocide of the Rohingya in southeast Asia. And it’s working. Trump is the Entertainer-in-Chief, he knows ratings and he can smell rhetorical opportunities. Before Trump called out NFL “sons of bitches,” Trump’s solid 38% had dipped to 35%. Small, but quite significant if you’re seeking legislative traction and/or considering reelection at all. I doubt many Americans think that a sports athlete kneeling is tantamount to nuclear holocaust, but Trump skillfully changed the headlines.
The rhetorical attacks on NFL players is also an example of Appeal to Motive, a subtype of ad hominem, that dismisses an idea by questioning the motives of its proposer. Adrian Peterson, Keelan Johnson, Ray McDonald, Greg Hardy, TJ Ward, Aaron Hernandez, Pacman Jones… the list goes on and on. For years, Americans have criticized NFL players for their criminal behavior and appealed for them to be role models. Now, NFL players have endangered their livelihood and agitated their fanbase to participate in a form of non-violent protest to raise awareness of civil rights. In a parallel universe, that would be admirable, but here, at the feet of the Twitter-in-Chief, it has become dishonoring the flag à la Appeal to Motive.
Certainly, Donald J. Trump did not invent the idea that the NFL players were “dishonoring the flag,” but he masterfully excited not only his base, but has guilted others into agreement by argumentum ad verecundiam, or Appeal to Authority, where an assertion is deemed true because of the position or authority of the person asserting it. This could also be called Proof by Assertion which is when an argument, kneeling is disrespectful, is repeatedly restated regardless of contradiction. If the President says its disrespectful, it must be true. Personally, I also feel Trump has focused on an issue, patriotism, that is more likely to trigger emotional responses than critical thinking. The fact of the matter is that in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protected Americans from being forced to salute the American flag. End of story. It’s not illegal. Period. Is it disrespectful? Not compared to burning the flag, I would think.
How about kneeling during the National Anthem? Is that an act of dishonoring the flag, and the soldiers who fought and died protecting America? Woe. How about that for a use of rhetorical strategy? That’s Appeal to Emotion and Appeal to Ridicule all in one. Bringing in the Soldier’s Sacrifice and loading the argument with terms like protecting or defending. Appeal to emotion, the argument is made due to the manipulation of emotions, rather than the use of valid reasoning, and Appeal to Ridicule, the argument is made by presenting the opponent’s argument in a way that makes it appear ridiculous, after all, do you want to be the person that looks into the eyes of a soldier’s mother and says that its ok for people to disrespect the flag? [Or go on Twitter and tell America that a Gold Star casualty like Capt. Kahn, or a POW like Senator McCain, are not heroes? Seems like patriotism can a bit selective.]
The President’s trump card is this invoking of the Soldier’s Sacrifice to make the Soldier’s Argument. The Soldier’ Argument is a form of identity politics, where one’s tribal affiliation not only determines one’s political opinion but necessitates that a) all members of the tribe agree, and b) that either only members of the tribe have a right to an opinion on the issue or that tribal members’ opinions are intrinsically more accurate opinions. (Ultimately, the Soldier’s Argument, as literally invoked by President Trump, also shows Trump’s own hypocrisy too, since Trump himself did not serve in the US Armed Forces.) Of course, any hyperbolic extension of this argument illuminates its inherent fallacy and implies a Hive Mind. Do all police officers agree on the use of force or the limits of the 4th Amendment? Do all women have the same opinion on reproductive rights? I suppose Clarence Thomas must not be a real African-American because he has differing opinions on Civil Rights than most African-Americans. This is the danger and fallacy of identity politics and the Soldier’s Argument. It is one manifestation of ideological protectionism. Common strategies used by those who take this worldview include the use of rhetorical manipulation and logical fallacies to persuade others of things that are essentially false.
The Soldier’s Argument is any argument used to compel or influence others to agree with a particular preconceived position, rather than being a means of analyzing evidence and thereby arriving at a better understanding of the truth. As Paul Krugman puts it, “the way a drunkard uses a lamppost: for support, not for illumination.” Such arguments are often made only when it suits a predetermined agenda, in this case, that the NFL kneelers are unpatriotic and disrespectful, and ignored when it conflicts with that agenda (again, Trump’s treatment of McCain and the Kahn family). Simply put, it is a form of hypocrisy, i.e. advancing a given principle in cases where it supports one’s beliefs but ignoring or denying it in cases where it contradicts those beliefs.
Soldier arguments are used to create and maintain a self-congratulatory epistemic closure, labeling opposing arguments of any kind the “enemy” and therefore erroneous and a threat which must be attacked rather than legitimate criticism which must be considered if it cannot be logically refuted. It’s similar to the Psychologist’s Fallacy that occurs when an observer assumes that his or her subjective experience reflects the true nature of an event. I’m a teacher, therefore I know everything about teaching, I’m in the health profession, so I know everything about medicine, I have a small business, so don’t tell me about government regulation, etc., etc.
The coup de grâce of Trump’s rhetorical style is the No True Scotsman argument. No True Scotsman makes a generalization true by changing the generalization to exclude a counterexample. After all, no truly patriotic American could possible condone kneeling NFL players, right? It is an easy argument to make. Like waving red meat in front of a hungry animal. After all, it’s easier to defend a symbol, than to talk to those you disagree with, right? Tolerance is uncomfortable. Understanding is hard work. Embracing divergent opinions is a difficult way of life. By the way, that US Supreme Court case? West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943)? The decision was written by Justice Robert H. Jackson who was also the US Judge who presided over the Nuremberg Trials of former Nazis after World War II. Jackson knew something of autocratic despotism, is remembered for his forceful defense of free speech and constitutional rights generally as being placed “beyond the reach of majorities and officials.”
So, no, Mr. President, I don’t buy your Soldier’s Argument. I see through your rhetorical devices. I recognize your mastery of logical fallacies and I laugh. I laugh at Trump for all his logical errors, I laugh at Americans for falling for your manipulation of fact and emotion, but mostly I laugh at myself, since my observances don’t seem to make a difference and, after all, Mr. President, you did win.
But, while I reject the Soldier’s Argument, I asked myself… what do soldier’s think? So, I asked my current students who served in the US Armed Forces, what do they think of the current debate over the flag and the NFL kneelers? I have approximately 12 students this semester who are US Veterans. This survey is qualitative, not quantitative and by no means do I intend to make sweeping generalizations of all veterans’ opinions. That would be the same mistake of the Soldier’s Argument. However, each of these responses is valid, because they are the expressed opinions of veterans that have “fought for the flag.” I received a response from seven of the twelve veterans that I solicited for an opinion. The seven included 4 Army veterans, 2 Navy veterans, and 1 Marine veteran. Five were male, two females. Five Caucasian, and two non-Caucasian. All were deployed overseas. Two are combat veterans. All are enlisted. (Students had been coded as A1, A2, A3, A4, M1, N1, and N2.)
Four of the veterans were critical of the kneeling to differing degrees, two stating unequivocally that it’s disrespectful, with one of those two saying, “I don’t think nonmilitary people who do this understand that it’s disrespectful to our flag and nation” (A3). Two other veterans were milder in their criticism, saying that, “I won’t lie it does bring a twinge to my heart when I see people not standing for the anthem” (M1) and that “to me it is disrespectful and ‘rubs me the wrong way,’ [but] I see it as a peaceful form of the First Amendment” (N1).
Five veterans continued that recognition of the First Amendment explicitly or implicitly stating that it’s about Free Speech (A2, A4, M1, N1, and N2). A2 went further and said, “As a veteran I do not feel personally insulted when athletes protest the national anthem or abstain from rending honors. I further find threats of violence against those who disrespect (or even desecrate) the flag to be an abhorrent threat to freedom of speech.”
A4, Caucasian male, state that he believed race was a factor in veterans’ opinions. He said, “Personally, I understand that kneeling for the anthem is a protest against the injustice of the police and government, not a protest against our veterans or the flag, which most veterans I’ve noticed seem not to understand given how much this debate has been politicized. Partisan lines are being drawn thanks to the media and our president. In terms of race and dominance it is mostly my white ‘type A’ personality friends and family who are in a rage over Kaepernick’s kneeling, while my foreign-born friends are still confused about what free speech means in America… nowadays it seems people only share the opinion that parrots their favored media outlet.” M1 similarly said, “Being in the service they ingrain a whole lot of customs and courtesies in you, especially for the flag. In that environment, you represent the flag and the flag represents you. However, on the outside as a civilian (with many of the injustices happening every day), from what I can tell, a disproportionate number do not believe the flag represents them. To them, the flag is representing a country where people there is little equity; where it is far easier for some and difficult for many.”
N2 wrote, “As an American and a Veteran, I am frustrated. I see this NFL ‘controversy’ and I get angry, because this shit shouldn’t be as big as it should be. You got President Trump tweeting about it and not to mention all the news sites reporting about it. To me this seems like a distraction from real world issues, and it creates further division in our nation. We still have many issues that should be brought forward, but instead they continuously get buried upon the B.S we call corporate news. Such issues like our homeless Veteran problem (homelessness in general), Veterans suicide rate (mental illness), and the cutting funding for education.”
My takeaways from soliciting opinions from my veteran students is this: Veterans are like other Americans. They have their life experiences and they have their opinions. Like most Americans, my veteran students will always stand for the flag, but many of them believe Americans have the right to not stand too. Two veterans, A1 and N2, question whether the kneelers understand the situation or whether it’s the right protest to make, saying, “We understand that the government is not perfect and that many atrocities have been committed but the flag does not stand for those radical or extreme instances” (A1). N2 sums up the best of the Soldier’s Argument (and I think A1 and A3 would agree) by saying, “I will always choose to stand for the flag no matter what. I know the flag is just a symbol. A symbol that perhaps has been tarnish over the years, but I still stand to honor my fellow brothers and sisters who served. I stand for those who are still stuck in the warzones, I stand for those who took over the watch when my time was done, and I stand for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. We are the ones who denounced a normal life to sail the seven seas or fight in a barbaric war. We sacrifice our sanity, family, happiness, so others can enjoy theirs.”
Conversely, A4 wrote, “I consider Kaepernick a hero because he gave up his career and millions of dollars to protest a cause he felt was worth fighting for. Dozens of NFL players have followed his example and if nothing else has at least got this country talking about the issues involved, in my mind his protest was a success.” And, similarly, N1 concluded, “I see it as a peaceful form of the First Amendment. I see them as expressing themselves and what they stand for through an idiotic, yet ingenious way of getting the attention of everyone in the country. Could the timing have been better? Absolutely. However, kneeling for the flag is a much better protest then burning the flag. The Armed Forces did not go to war to abandon an Amendment. They went to war to defend the rights of all Americans. Regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, sex, and identity.”
Maybe we can respect our soldiers by not subjecting them to the Soldier’s Argument? Maybe honoring our troops means recognizing that each veteran has her or his own opinion. I guess, my final question in all this is, who are you in this chapter of American history? Are you President Trump, defending the flag by attacking Americans? Are you the kneelers, either disrespecting the flag, or making a social protest? Or are you the Chris Long, who stands during the National Anthem, one hand on his heart and the other hand on the shoulder of his fellow Americans to support their rights in the Land of the Free?