I had not heard the term dog-whistle before Donald J. Trump entered the White House. It refers to the use of coded language that may appear normal to the average listener but that communicates specific things to its intended audiences without provoking controversy or attracting negative attention. It can be an effective way to rally a particular group of people in an election while at the same time calming the overall electorate.
A dog whistle is also a logical fallacy that intends to cast its object in a certain subjective light. While it has been decades since I took a course in logic (and even back then I could not get my Ps and Qs right), I can still recognize that Trump is a master at strategically employing the informal persuasive fallacy. Recognizing this, prompted me to have a closer look at a few of Trump’s effective fallacies.
Birther theories galore
The dog whistle that most recently jumped back into the political fray is the “birther” invention. After the Democrat Party’s presidential candidate, Joe Biden, chose as his running mate, the junior Senator from California, Kamala Harris, Trump floated the idea that she might not be not eligible to be vice president because her parents were not U.S. citizens at the time of her birth. Trump said similar falsehoods about former president Barack Obama, which was so successful that Obama made his birth certificate public. In 2016, during the Republican primaries, Trump used the birther canard against his rival Ted Cruz.
While the birther lie is easily debunked, and plenty of constitutional lawyers were quoted in the press saying that Trump’s allegations were “garbage,” taking Trump to task for being illogical misses the point. Trump is not appealing to anyone’s objective understanding of who qualifies to be president, he is tapping into something far more emotive. In fact, Trump is stoking racial animosity and attempting to whip up misdirected resentments against the likes of “welfare queens” and “illegal aliens.”
In a discussion about my last column, which called into question Trump’s Republican credentials, a friend who also happens to be Trump supporter, voiced what I will call the “what aboutism” fallacy. My friend argued that Trump has been under the microscope and criticized at every turn but the illegal activities conducted by Obama are ignored. Logicians label this argument a tu quoque fallacy, which is Latin for “you too,” because the appeal to hypocrisy distracts from the main argument.
I agree with my friend that crimes were committed in the Obama administration. In fact, Robert Gates, who was George W. Bush’s second Secretary of Defense and Obama’s first Secretary of Defense, wrote in his memoir Duty that he knew that someone within the $700bn-a-year department that he led was committing a crime all the time. I myself wrote about the thinly-legal framework that Obama used as a justification for his exponential increase of targeted drone strikes in America’s war in Afghanistan.
However, despite the fact that crimes were committed in the Obama administration, my friend’s argument is still a fallacy. The focusing on another person’s so-called hypocrisy is a diversionary tactic that deflects criticism because it accuses the other of the same problem or something comparable. Such fallacies are a favorite retort by people who do not want to be held accountable for their actions. For instance, Russian president Vladimir Putin makes frequent use of the tu quoque fallacy.
The above two fallacies may be harder to detect by the casual observer but everyone should recognize Trump’s most utilized fallacy: the ad hominem, which is in evidence when someone rejects or criticizes another person’s view on the basis of their personal characteristics, background, physical appearance or other features that are irrelevant to the argument at issue.
In Trump’s case, the number of times he uses this fallacy in one campaign rally can be in the hundreds, with name-calling and mocking in abundance. In one infamous case, he mocked a reporter with a physical disability by gesticulating wildly at the podium. Trump’s insults on Twitter are so common that The New York Times compiled a list and Wikipedia has a page of insulting names that is helpfully divided into eight categories, with domestic political figures registering the highest number of negative labels.
Divide and then Conquer
All of these fallacies are designed to divide the American nation by deliberating manipulating and stoking existing prejudices for electoral gain. The use of such fallacies are socially destructive and their repeated use shatters the “we” society that I have written about in previous columns.
But, there is one good thing about Trump and his fallacies that his latest dog whistle against Kamala Harris exposes: his playbook is a limited one. Since Trump uses the same fallacies with great frequency, perhaps between now and the 3rd of November my friend who parroted what aboutisms to me, will begin to recognize the fallacies for their true intent.