An ever-growing list of ad-hominem attacks from Donald Trump is one of the more discouraging features of our current public life.
Before Donald Trump became president he got into a public fight with comedian Rosie O’Donnell. The result was a series of ad hominem attacks noting that Rosie was “not smart,” “crude,” “disgusting,” “a slob,” and “an animal.”[i] We could not have known then what we know now. It wasn’t long before we would hear Trump go after all of his political opponents and many of his own party members using the same crude language. Just one of his political opponents, Marco Rubio, was described by Trump to national television audiences as a “loser,” “a lightweight,” “a puppet,””a choker,” “a little boy,” and so on. [ii] Add about 350 others who got the same treatment, and you begin to understand the tsunami of invective that has swamped our public rhetoric.
Ad hominem occurs when statements worded as halfway arguments are actually directed against persons rather than their ideas. The language is personal and negative, often in an attempt to deflect attention from the merits of an idea and toward supposed defects of an individual or a group. This formal reasoning fallacy is a clear ethical breach, which is why it is taught in virtually every argumentation course from middle school to university level in the United States. To the credit of our students, it almost never shows up in their work. If only we could say the same for this President.
In private, former President Richard Nixon uttered what a former aide called an “undeniably ugly” range of attacks on his opponents. Nixon was, notes Leonard Garment, “a champion hater,”[iii] a fact that has been revealed in releases of conversations Nixon taped in the Oval Office. Crude epithets were uttered about Supreme Court members, publishers, and his famous lists of White House enemies[iv] Of course Trump has taken the process further by publicly calling out critics and members of the press with epitaphs most Americans thought they would never hear from a chief executive. An ever-growing list of these attacks from Trump is one of the more discouraging features of our current public life, and testimony to the poverty of his rhetoric. Since the President is traditionally the first contact most children have with American politics, the fact of his endless verbal abuse must give parents pause.
The language-challenged New Yorker has seeded a wholesale decline in the quality of our public discourse.
Thanks in part to Trump, we are now awash in reactive and mean-spirited “commentary” from the web to newspapers to prime-time cable talk shows. The language-challenged New Yorker has seeded a wholesale decline in the quality of our public discourse. The rest of us are beginning to talk in screeds about the “pinhead,” “narcissist” or “jerk.” We naturally want to counterpunch to the blows inflicted on others by his words.
In many ways this kind of language is as old as politics, but there is now a crucial difference. Because web “comments” are frequently posted by Americans anonymously, respondents to articles and other content can now say anything they want in the vast spaces of the internet. There is no personal cost for being a rhetorical bully.
Ad hominem has thus been given an unfortunate new life as a refuge for individuals unwilling to expend the effort to argue the merits of ideas. A reliance on personal invective is sign of intellectual laziness and an indication of a person’s inability to find the higher ground of a common cause: a lethal defect in a President. Of Course we can’t blame all of this collapse of civil discourse on Trump. But he surely is “Exhibit A.”
[i] Jacques Steinberg, “Back to ‘Talking Smack’ with Rosie, Donald and Barbara,” New York Times, January 11, 2007.
[iii] Leonard Garment, Crazy Rhythm (New York: Random House, 1997), p. 199.
[iv] Leonard Garment, “Richard Nixon, Unedited,” New York Times, October 19, 2001, p. A23.