If you have discussed or witnessed any discussion on politics since the beginning of the Trump era, you will have noticed that something is missing. Maybe it’s all the ad hominem attacks, disturbingly reactionary language and “alternative facts” that are shrouding and displacing substantial rhetoric and factual arguments. Whatever the case, debate is suffering. Before Trump was elected, I did not take him and his supporters seriously; a folly shared by many on the left from Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders to Barack Obama. A few liberal intellectuals such as Van Jones and Michael Moore not only took the phenomenon seriously, but took Trump’s diehard supporters seriously. When it became clear to myself and the rest of the left that these individuals were correct in their predictions, I decided to try understanding the perspective of Trump voters.
By interviewing some Trump supporters at rallies and subjecting myself to reading the chaotic yet enticingly fanatical forums of 4chan, Breitbart and Trump subreddits, I have attempted to gain some perspective on just how Trump supporters see the world. One thing I have learned is that, while they do have some legitimate concerns on certain issues such as government corruption, their arguments have many flaws both in substance and style.
Despite the politically diverse coalition of Trump supporters from different backgrounds, cultures and worldviews who use all kinds of means of communication to express their views they all have flawed ways of doing so. Not only are they flawed, but some are fundamentally and severely lacking in logic, facts or evidence. Other arguments are riddled with fatal fallacies to the point where they should lose all relevance. Yet, for some reason, they don’t.
So let’s now discuss some of the mistakes and fallacies these debaters make. They set up straw men, creating a distorted or simplified caricature of what they’re arguing against (“If Hillary Clinton were here she’d probably call you deplorable, so you shouldn’t vote for her”). They use ad hominem attacks to delegitimize those who disagree with them (“Well you only believe that because you’re a coastal snowflake elite
who can buy their way out of any problem”) or circumstance ad hominem (“You’re only voting for Hillary because you’re a woman”). They try to imply guilt by association (“The Democrats are the party of the KKK therefore they’re the real racists”). One Trump supporter I talked to, a pastor, used false relativism to defend Trump’s travel ban, saying, “Well you lock your home at night to keep out intruders, right? Well that’s exactly what Trump is doing with our borders.” All of these arguments have logical flaws, referred to as fallacies, which make them weak in structured arguments.
What about Trump himself? He’s guilty of the undistributed middle fallacy, asserting that because two things share a property, that makes them the essentially same thing (“To all of those Bernie Sanders voters who have been left out in the cold by a rigged system of superdelegates, we welcome you with open arms”). He has many a time been found to make sweeping generalizations (“They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, they’re murderers”). Of course, he is a master of the red herring, which is diverting attention to something irrelevant to distract from an issue that hurts the debater’s side (“I looked out, the field was — it looked like a million, million and a half people. They showed a field where there were practically nobody standing there.”)
Before liberals jump on the idea that all conservatives are bad debaters, it should be noted that I have witnessed plenty of bad, if not some of the worst, arguments from the liberal side. A lot of the difficulties for liberal debaters stem from identity politics and their quickness to make harsh judgments, whether deserved or perceived, upon their opponents.
To be sure, if you were to dismiss your opponent’s arguments in a formal debate setting by calling them racist, homophobic, transphobic etc. without offering any evidence that back up those diagnoses, you would lose. Furthermore, assigning these labels based upon weak evidence such as the person being a Republican, a Trump voter or supporter or based on isolated remarks or incidents would also fail to substantiate any argument. Whether or not the target of these labels is truly a racist or sexist or homophobe is not important, because it doesn’t delegitimize that person’s argument. If they are correct or convincing, and you are less so, labeling them negatively will not change anybody’s mind about who won the debate.
Nor is it acceptable to call your opponent idiotic, foolish or naive, even if their arguments suggest as much. It would, however, be acceptable to make an argument that proves their argument to be foolish or even idiotic. That really feeds into the whole issue that liberal debaters face: presenting a logical flow for arguments. Liberals who are often convinced of their correctness, a typically justified notion in my opinion, sometimes feel it unnecessary to explain their points and instead simply jump to conclusions. This can be a fatal mistake and one that is easily fixable. Everywhere on the political spectrum you will find shortcomings. Why did this happen? There is no easy answer to that question. Perhaps it is the growing importance of TV, and specifically reality TV, culture that makes us value entertainment value over proper diction and poise. Maybe it is the new habit we have with obtaining our information in as brief a form as possible. Perhaps it is the one minute sound bytes that politicians use that spoil us on good sounding phrases with little value to them. Or maybe it is the slow, agonizing death of long-form journalism at the hands of self-professed “explanatory journalism” sites like Vox which boil the news down to manageable doses.
Finally, there is the question of how to fix this issue. This is quite simple; there are various methods through which you can improve their debating skills. The first step is recognizing that while you can improve you can improve your own performance, you cannot force your opponent to improve. This means that they might still attempt to troll or frustrate you, or hurt you by making personal attack. The victory for you comes when you know you have made a truly logical and sustainable argument. After you do that, the next step is to learn more. Go to online forums such as procon.com or debate.org where people try to construct relevant and convincing arguments to support their sides. Finally, be open-minded about both sides of every argument, keep reading, learning and expanding your ideology and try as best you can to think logically and rationally.