Apologies for the long period between blog updates. I’m in the middle of moving houses. I thought that taking a month off would not be a big deal. What could happen in a month?? Well, a lot has happened since Trump was inaugurated—far too much to deal with in a single blog post. So, I want to focus on just one thing: Why does Trump ramble so much when he talks to the press?
Let’s start with some examples of what I mean. I’m not going to focus on specific things that Trump has said that are questionable, such as asking a black reporter if she could put him in touch with Congress’s Black Caucus (a group of African American Congressional representatives). Yes, the belief that all black people know each other is a sign of casual racism, and yes there are many examples of similar slips (or even intentional ones, such as leaving out the word ‘Jew’ when talking about the Holocaust). These are easy to evaluate for anyone who notices them.
I want to focus on phrases like this, which are definitely made up of words, but not words that fit together into coherent thoughts. This is from his recent press conference:
“Now, again, maybe I’m not going to be able to do a deal with Russia, but at least I will have tried. And if I don’t, does anybody really think that Hillary Clinton would be tougher on Russia than Donald Trump? Does anybody in this room really believe that? OK?
But I tell you one thing, she tried to make a deal. She had the reset. She gave all that valuable uranium away. She did other things. You know, they say I’m close to Russia. Hillary Clinton gave away 20 percent of the uranium in the United States. She’s close to Russia.”
Ok, let’s try to figure this out. Trump is saying that he’d like to make a deal with Russia, because we are better as allies. Sounds good. Maybe he has a point. Russia is a powerful country, and certainly tensions with them haven’t been a great deal for either side, right? Then he adds that if he can’t make a deal, then he would be tougher on Russia than Clinton would have. Ummm….OK. Why is that good? You just said it’s better not to antagonize them. He continues that Clinton wanted to make a deal; she’s close to Russia. But he just said that getting closer with Russia is a good thing; so why is he attacking Clinton on this? Ah, I think I see.
I’m a college professor. That means that I deal with a lot of students who don’t know the answer to a particular question. This is especially problematic for in-class essays, where the student then has the option of leaving it blank (thus leaving half of their test points on the table and guaranteeing a failing grade for the exam), or trying to put down enough bullshit that I might be fooled into thinking they do know something.
One common technique when you don’t know what answer your audience might want is to try to play both sides. Suppose I ask a student whether we should be closer to Russia, but he’s not sure what he should think about this. So he says, “Well, I think we should be closer to Russia, as long as being closer to Russia is a good thing. And it probably is. But then, if it isn’t a good thing, then I definitely wouldn’t want us to be closer to Russia, and the people who would want us to be closer to Russia are very wrong about that!”
You would fail that answer, right? It’s incoherent gibberish. But let’s try to be super generous with Trump here. Maybe he’s saying he would try to make a deal with Russia, but if they would not agree to the deal, he would be super harsh with them. Ok, but then why attack Clinton for trying to make a deal? Perhaps it’s because she gave away uranium, which is basically just nukes, right?? Not really. Uranium can be used for lots of things, including power plants. But whatever. I think he’s trying to deflect here by saying that Clinton was both NOT tough enough on Russia, but also unable to broker a deal with Russia. I think. Maybe I’m being too hard on Trump, though.
So let’s look at a further set of claims in the same press conference (transcript linked again)
“Mike Flynn is a fine person, and I asked for his resignation. He respectfully gave it. He is a man who there was a certain amount of information given to Vice President Pence, who is with us today. And I was not happy with the way that information was given.
He didn’t have to do that, because what he did wasn’t wrong — what he did in terms of the information he saw. What was wrong was the way that other people, including yourselves in this room, were given that information, because that was classified information that was given illegally. That’s the real problem.
And, you know, you can talk all you want about Russia, which was all a, you know, fake news, fabricated deal, to try and make up for the loss of the Democrats and the press plays right into it. In fact, I saw a couple of the people that were supposedly involved with all of this — that they know nothing about it; they weren’t in Russia; they never made a phone call to Russia; they never received a phone call.
It’s all fake news. It’s all fake news. The nice thing is, I see it starting to turn, where people are now looking at the illegal — I think it’s very important — the illegal, giving out classified information. It was — and let me just tell you, it was given out like so much.
[some talk about Mexico and Australia phone calls.] The same thing happened with respect to General Flynn. Everybody saw this. And I’m saying — the first thing I thought of when I heard about it is: How does the press get this information that’s classified? How do they do it?
You know why? Because it’s an illegal process and the press should be ashamed of themselves. But more importantly, the people that gave out the information to the press should be ashamed of themselves, really ashamed.”
Those are Trump’s words. So let’s look at them. He starts by saying Flynn did nothing wrong. It’s fake news. There was no contact with Russia. Then, he repeats the claim that the news is fake. Then he complains that what the media reported came from classified calls. In other words, he’s upset that the media got access to the information about Flynn’s calls. Why is he upset about them receiving information he just said doesn’t really exist?
This is a classic case of someone being caught in a lie because he can’t stop talking. If you are a parent, you have probably seen this a few times. If you can get a child to talk enough, they’ll say something so inconsistent that the lie becomes obvious. Trump is saying that the media is making up all these terrible things about him, like Flynn’s call to Russia, or Trump’s own embarrassing dressing down of one of our own allies in Australia. But then he says those calls were classified, again implying that they happened in just the way the media is reporting.
The truth here is simple. Trump is doing these things. He’s upset that America is watching. The media’s entire job is to do this sort of thing. Many people today are too young to remember that it was the media that exposed the Watergate scandal. It was the media who gave us reports on the horrors of Vietnam. And yes, I’m too young to remember these things too. The media, with people like Walter Kronkite and Dan Rather, used to do real, investigative journalism. Go look it up. It’s great stuff!
Today, if the media isn’t on your side, you just accuse it of being fake news, or too biased to take seriously. This is a version of the circumstantial ad hominem fallacy (also sometimes known as the genitive fallacy), which basically says that you can’t trust any argument that a particular person makes if that person is in a certain circumstance. If you say that all conservatives are automatically wrong, because they are conservatives, then you are committing this fallacy. Similarly, if you say that anyone who works for a particular news channel is biased, you have the same problem. Now, you might be able to prove that a particular website, or even news channel, has a particular political agenda. But even if you could do that, it would not in itself invalidate every argument made by that source. At best, it would lead you to be extra cautious when evaluating the merits of the argument.
In any case, Trump has literally said that any poll that shows him in an unfavorable light is automatically fake. That’s a self-sealing fallacy. It can’t be wrong, because you’ve built the conditions in such a way that he wins either way. It’s like saying heads I win, tails you lose. It’s rigged.
This is not normal Presidential behavior, and that has nothing to do with my own views on Trump or his party. W Bush, who wasn’t overly Presidential at times, at least maintained the basic dignity of the position in most cases. Trump doesn’t care. He thinks he’s the CEO of America, and that he can simply fire anyone who disagrees with him. That’s the most dangerous kind of authoritarian thinking. It’s OK for a CEO, who is running a business. It’s unacceptable from a leading government official.