Arguing is easy; persuasion is hard: what Donald Trump teaches us about debate.
An illustrated look at flawed arguments and how to avoid them.
Ask a handful of Donald Trump supporters what first caught their attention about the GOP nominee, and you're bound to hear a few familiar responses — among them, the impression that the business tycoon "tells it like it is."
He's a "straight shooter" who comes off as lively and spontaneous at rallies, on social media, and at debates. He gives off the impression of being a man of the people despite the fact that he lives in a literal gold tower.
What many probably don't notice about Trump's arguments, however, is that they're bad. They're really, really bad.
When you detach Trump's words from his bluster, what might seem like convincing arguments are actually just highly-rehearsed rhetorical tricks.
Stripped bare, Trump sidesteps having to argue his position by using common rhetorical devices instead. While persuasive (after all, he has millions of supporters), these arguments tend to be without substance and well ... bad.
See, not all arguments are created equal. In fact, some arguments are just plain bad. They use logical fallacies (flaws in thinking) to make a point that may not be true. And that's all the more reason to learn to identify them when you see them.
By learning to identify these fallacies, you'll be able to improve your own argument skills and — perhaps even better — you'll be better able to identify when someone is trying to use a bad argument on you.
Below are nine examples of bad arguments to keep an eye out for, as illustrated by Donald Trump:
1. The "straw man" argument
A straw man is when you deliberately misrepresent your opponent’s argument to make it easier for you to attack. Straw man arguments are usually deployed as a way of making your opponent seem extreme, making your own argument appear more reasonable by comparison.
“Hillary Clinton wants to abolish the Second Amendment,” Donald Trump said during a rally. “Hillary Clinton wants to take your guns away, and she wants to abolish the Second Amendment!"
The truth is that while Clinton supports a number of gun safety measures — such as background checks and preventing members of the terrorism watch list from purchasing guns — there’s no reason to believe she would support repealing the Second Amendment.
Saying that she wants to abolish the Second Amendment, as Trump did, is a gross simplification of her actual position, and the perfect example of a straw man argument.
2. The ad hominem argument.
Basically, ad hominem is the strategy Donald Trump uses when he calls Marco Rubio “Little Marco,” refers to Hillary Clinton as “Crooked,” or says Elizabeth Warren is “Goofy.” The target of an ad hominem attack is the person you’re arguing against, rather than their ideas.
“Look at that face!” Trump said about rival candidate Carly Fiorina in an interview with Rolling Stone in September 2015. "Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?! I mean, she's a woman, and I'm not s'posedta say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?”
Rather than pushing back on Fiorina’s ideas, experience, or policy proposals, Trump focused on her appearance — something that should be irrelevant in a presidential election.
3. The "appeal to fear" argument.
Tapping into people's heightened emotions is a powerful rhetorical device, and when used in the context of arguments, it can be incredibly persuasive. Fear is an especially potent emotion to tap into during an argument. When we’re afraid, our decision-making skills are impaired; we don’t think clearly, and we don’t look at arguments from a rational perspective.
When Donald Trump says things like, “There is a great hatred toward Americans by a large segments of the Muslim population. It’s gonna get worse and worse. You’re gonna have more World Trade Centers,” he’s appealing to fear.
While there are questions about the facts involved (Is there a “great hatred toward Americans by large segments of the Muslim population”? Are we at risk of more World Trade Center-style attacks? Trump doesn’t provide facts to support either claim), our brains are conditioned to set those aside in favor of doing what he tells us will keep us safe: in this case, voting for Donald Trump.
4. The "personal incredulity" and "appeal to ignorance" arguments.
Leaning heavily on your own disbelief or ignorance on any given subject is a flawed approach to winning an argument. “I can’t believe x, therefore y must be true” makes for a pretty weak argument in most cases — especially when facts are left out of the equation.
“It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably from the Middle East,” Trump said in reference to illegal immigration. “But we don’t know 'cause we have no protection.”
If that sounds like word salad, that’s because it is. Trump’s whole argument rests on information he doesn’t have — and that he knows you don’t have either. When he says “we don’t know,” he really means that he doesn’t know.
5. The "bandwagon" argument.
Also known as appeal to belief, appeal to the masses, appeal to popularity, and other names, the bandwagon fallacy is an argument that rests on the belief that because a lot of people agree on something, it must be correct.
This is another favorite tactic Donald Trump uses during his rallies. “I only wish these cameras — because there is nothing as dishonest as the media, that I can tell you,” he has said. “I only wish these cameras would spin around and show the kind of people that we have here. The numbers of people that we have. I just wish they'd for once do it.”
His boastful argument is meant to suggest that because a lot of people come out to support him at his rallies, or that because he has a lot of Twitter followers, he would be the best president. In truth, while this may (or may not) be a decent predictor of whether he’ll receive a lot of votes, his popularity doesn’t mean that his policy proposals would be any more effective than his opponent’s.
Similarly, Trump has a tendency to appeal to authority (another logical fallacy) in citing his endorsements (such as those of religious leaders, basketball coaches, boxing promoters, and just broadly "many people"), to tie into the bandwagon argument, suggesting that if certain other people support Trump, you should too.
6. The "black and white" argument.
The world is filled with possibilities — that is, until you deploy to the black and white fallacy in an argument. Also known as a false dilemma, false dichotomy, false choice, or bifurcation, the black and white fallacy presents situations as only having two distinct options, when in actuality there are numerous possible outcomes.
“We’re going to start winning so much that you’re going to get used to winning instead of getting used to losing,” Trump said in a campaign video.
In this situation, the listener is being given two options: winning or losing. This quote was delivered in the context of trade deals, but has been used throughout Trump's campaign to contrast himself (a winner) with his opponents (losers). Now, of course, elections have winners and losers, but Trump was speaking in a more general sense that doesn’t necessarily support his argument.
7. The "slippery slope" argument.
Ever hear someone make an argument against something on the basis that if we let that thing happen, it’ll lead to something terrible down the road? That’s called the slippery slope, and it’s a wildly popular argument among politicians. This argument style combines an appeal to fear and a straw man argument, and it uses extreme hypothetical outcomes as evidence for why we should (or shouldn’t) do something.
“You know what’s going to happen,” Trump said during an October 2015 rally. “[Ford is] going to build a plant and illegals are going to drive those cars right over the border. Then they’ll probably end up stealing the car and that’ll be the end of it.”
In that example, Trump argues that if Ford builds a manufacturing plant in Mexico, its cars will be used to transport undocumented immigrants into the U.S. and cause a spike in crime. That’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s also a clear use of the slippery slope fallacy due to the fact that his conclusion (Ford shouldn’t move its plant to Mexico) isn’t even directly related to the argument’s premise (undocumented immigrants will steal cars).
Not to mention, Ford has denied Trump’s allegation that they’re considering a move to Mexico. When an argument rests heavily on the use of the phrase “probably will,” it’s a good sign that you might be listening to a slippery slope argument.
8. The "genetic fallacy" argument.
Also known as the fallacy of virtue or fallacy of origins, the genetic fallacy is an argument based on someone or something’s origin, history, or source. Similar to the composition fallacy — that falsely argues that because some portion of a group is one way, all members of that group are — the genetic fallacy relies on irrelevant stereotypes.
In June 2016, Trump went on CNN to defend statements he made about Gonzalo Curiel, a judge who was overseeing a lawsuit brought against Trump University.
“I have had horrible rulings,” Trump said, arguing for Judge Curiel to recuse himself. “I have been treated very unfairly by this judge. This judge is of Mexican heritage. I’m building a wall, OK?”
Here, Trump used the genetic fallacy argument to suggest that, because Judge Curiel (who was born in Indiana, for what it’s worth) is “of Mexican heritage,” he can’t objectively rule in any case Trump is involved in due to Trump’s plans to build a wall along the U.S./Mexico border.
9. The "anecdote" argument.
Stories are great, and when used correctly in the course of making an argument, they can be the key to persuasion. When used in lieu of hard data, however, anecdotes lose their luster.
To be sure, Donald Trump isn't the only politician to regularly rely on the use of anecdotes to make his points. Where Trump differs, however, is in how he deploys them: often without any data to back up his claim, using phrases like “many people are saying.”
Claims like “Many people are now saying I won South Carolina because of the last debate,” “I beat China all the time,” and “I will be the best by far in fighting terror” aren’t rooted in data, but rather in Trump's own feelings.
In many of Trump’s anecdotes, he combines fallacies, sometimes incorporating bandwagon thinking (“Many people are saying…”) or black and white arguments (“I beat China” implies there is a winner and loser in each trade deal — but there doesn't have to be! International trade doesn't need to be a zero-sum game! — and that if Trump isn’t elected, we’ll "lose" to China).
Fallacy-filled arguments like the ones Donald Trump uses are like candy bars: They taste good, and there’s nothing wrong with eating them, but they’re not exactly packed with nutrients.
The goal of being able to recognize these tactics is to merely be aware when people — especially politicians, presidential candidates, and people in positions of power — are making poorly-formed arguments. Identifying these arguments will give you time to look for facts to support whatever decision you’re making based on their argument and to make sure they aren't getting you to agree with something just because it sounds good.
If a bad argument is still persuasive, is it really a bad argument?
"A persuasive argument is one that does in fact succeed in convincing the audience that the conclusion is at least probably true," writes Eastern Kentucky University's Frank Williams. "Logically bad arguments are sometimes very persuasive! And logically good arguments can fail to be persuasive!"
In other words, just because something is technically a "bad" argument (for example, any of the above Trump arguments) doesn't mean that it won't be convincing. As Trump's supporter base can tell you, he's plenty convincing — even if his arguments are sometimes lacking in key components, like facts or substance.
Of course, there is something called the fallacy fallacy, which means assuming that because someone’s argument used a fallacy, the point they were making is automatically untrue or incorrect. In other words, just because someone makes a bad argument doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong.
Finally, a good argument consists of two parts: a conclusion (what you’re arguing for) and a premise (what you’re saying to support your conclusion). Good arguments hinge on believable, factual premises and good reasons for accepting the conclusion as true. It’s as simple as that.
Critical thinking skills are essential for making informed decisions.
To think critically is to examine reason, purpose, assumptions, facts, consequences, alternate viewpoints, and personal biases before choosing to take action, whether you’re in the voting booth or just talking to a friend. Hopefully, with the help of these examples of fallacies, it just got a little bit easier.