When I was a college student at St. Martins University in Olympia many years ago I took a course in logic. The course explored common devices used in argument that are invalid and constitute logical fallacies. The recent headlines regarding President Donald Trump’s telephone call to the president of the Ukraine brings this to mind. Without taking sides let’s use this as an example of what is and is not logical reasoning.
I’m going to use the Republican supporters of Mr. Trump arguments because they were invited to the White House to discuss the issue. They were provided a recommended list of “talking points.” So, lets examine the expert’s recommended primary responses which include:
(1) Make personal attacks on the integrity, character and motives of those who are demanding investigation;
(2) Claim this is political hypocrisy because there is no investigation of Joe Biden when he was vice president regarding claims he used his official position to stop an investigation of his son’s actions in the Ukraine;
(3) there was no promise by the president to provide benefit or withhold benefit in exchange for improper conduct by Biden & no quid pro quo;
(4) this is just another “witch hunt” by Democrats after a two-year investigation by special counsel failed to reveal any wrongdoing. Now they want another investigation based upon fake accusations. The whistleblower, along with Democratic and others demanding investigation, have violated national security by leaking confidential information in an attempt to seek political gain.
As to the first recommended response, throughout Mr. Trump’s campaign and presidency he and his supporters have continuously engaged in name calling, insults and personal attacks on opponents or those who disagree. Names like “lying Ted” “crooked Hillary” “Little Mario” a as well as direct personal attacks calling people “liars” or “dishonest.” This kind of response is known as Ad Hominem, a logical fallacy because it attempts to refute arguments by attacking the person making the argument instead of responding with logical reasons. Ad hominem is Latin for “against the man.” It refers to a fallacy in logic where, instead of responding with reasoning, and attack unrelated to the truth of the matter is made. The common political response of “mud slinging” instead of addressing the issue is an example. Personal attacks on the other person while ignoring the reasoning of their position suggests paying no attention to what hey are saying because they lack integrity or good character. It is offered as a substitute for logical reasoning. This is one of the most common logical fallacies.
The second defense offered by Trump supporters is illogical. To start with, the claim that there was no proper investigation of Mr. Biden when he was vice president about this alleged contact with the Ukrainian President is documented as being false. The record shows Republicans made the claim, it was looked into and investigated with a determination that he had done nothing wrong. There was an investigation and logically there should be one of Mr. Trump. More importantly, even assuming that no investigation had been made and even assuming that VP Biden had violated the law by asking for a favor involving his son it is irrelevant to Mr Trump’s case. First, it’s irrelevant because that would not excuse Mr. Trump even if true. One wrong does not permit another. Second, it occurred years ago and president trumps call just occurred while he is in the office of the president of the United States. The present violation is the relevant issue. A past violation would not excuse a present violation of law. This fundamentally is the invalid “two wrongs make a right” argument. It’s an attempt to excuse one’s own bad action by pointing out one’s opponents actions. One cannot logically argue that nothing should be done regarding president trumps documented violation of his office at the present time because of a claim of inadequate investigation of an event which occurred many years ago. In logic this would be included with the false arguments of a non sequitur, a red herring or scapegoating.
The third defense is without merit and irrelevant regarding the violation of law involved here. It is not necessary to have made a threat or a promise in exchange for political assistance from a foreign leader to violate the law. The crime involves asking a foreign leader to become involved in a political election in the United States whether promise is or is not made in return. In logic this defense would be no one as a “strawman” defense. The argument misrepresents the law and is a fabrication of what is required for violation of law. It is logically invalid as a defense.
The fourth defense is a classic false argument used by desperate people when they have no valid response. It is consistent with the Ad Hominem logic fallacy as well as a red herring. This defense doesn’t even try to respond to the reasoning of the other party and instead attacks the person making the argument at their motives for doing so. It is an argument of distraction that invites one to ignore the accusation or position being argued because the person making it is unworthy of any credible consideration. It is the argument of the wizard, in the movie the Wizard of Oz, who, when exposed by Dorothy’s dog pulling the curtain back, cried out “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” It invites one to ignore the issue being raised and offers no response to it other than a personal attack.
What is interesting is that logically invalid arguments are frequently all people need to keep their viewpoint and opinions.