Tag Archives: Donald Trump

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Will the Indictments Refuel Chaos Voters?

The 2024 election will be a chance to see whether the republic we have is–as Ben Franklin wondered–something that we can keep.

This site has invested in the idea that our political disfunction is increasingly fueled by a sizable portion of the public that welcomes the chance to oppose big and sometimes small American Institutions. Opposition is its own reward. In recent years more voters have been interested in challenging the motives of national and sometimes local cornerstone organizations: everything from the FBI and Presidency, all the way down to the local library. As we have seen, the impulse to intervene even extends to local school districts, with some parents seeking to upend professional curriculum planning, library acquisition standards, and even the plays their drama coach is planning to mount.  Rhetorically, these frustrated Americans engage in a Rhetoric of No, using some of the same tropes—if not the script—of sixties radicals on the left who sought to defy official power. (Think of the turmoil of the left unleashed at the 1968 Democratic Convention.)

The current urge at the other end of the political spectrum seems to be motivated by a sense of powerlessness, as well as a loss of meaningful connections to local groups or institutions. Social media feed these feelings of isolation without providing functional ways to curb them.

2000px Vertical United States Flag.svg By now, anyone still grounded in the observable world must understand that Donald Trump was and is an outlier. There can be little question even among most members of his party that he has bent the norms (and, presumably, laws) that usually govern presidential behavior. There are the obvious character issues: cheating others out of payment for their services, sexual predation, playing the victim, lying, and long bouts of narcissist rhetoric.  And then there is the stale but vivid verbal abuse of federal and state officials, members of his party, and even his own vice president.  Only fascism can use ad hominem attacks  on others as a pathway to leadership.

The federal and state indictments documenting improper intimidation of election officials are yet to be proven in court, but seem hard to deny. As most know, he is on tape asking Georgia officials to “find” more votes that would allow him to reverse his loss.  And he has shamelessly accused election officials in his own party of improperly adding or withholding votes. We now know that–against the odds–the election process in 2020 was generally well run. It makes the blanket accusation that the current indictments are “witch hunts” seem increasingly hallow.

The wildcard here is the boomerang effect: the catch-all idea  that persuasion theorists reserve to describe individuals who grow more antagonistic in the face of evidence that should convince them. It happens more than we might think. We can ask people to accept a clear truth.  But we can’t make them accept it. Perhaps people do not want to appear to change while under the thumb of another’s compelling case.

This counterintuitive effect  seems to be happening with each new indictment of the President.  The maelstrom of this news asks supporters to simply affirm deeply held views.

But. . . 

Persuasion is typically an incremental process.  Most of us need time to change our attitudes. In the meantime, there may be a fair amount of  cognitive dissonance attached to the act of continuing to support a flawed idea or candidate. In time, that dissonance may be relieved  with attitude realignments that can be face-saving.

The coming election will be a test of whether the nation can collectively handle what the indictments of Trump administration imply.  Americans still live in very different rhetorical realities. But can that diversity occur while we acknowledge what is true and known about this whole sordid period of our political life? The 2024 election is a chance to see whether the republic we have is–and Ben Franklin noted–something that we can keep.

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What Reasons-Based Dispute Looks Like

Good counterarguments may slightly raise the chances of receiving a  thoughtful response.

In the previous post I noted that we have evidence suggesting that people do not change their views, even in the face of compelling evidence and counterarguments. One response is to give up and not even bother. Moving on from someone’s rage can preserve our sanity.

A middle course is to imagine what kinds of counterarguments can be made that will raise the chances—if only slightly–of receiving a thoughtful hearing.

Having lived through another multi-year deluge of dubious ideas badly argued, it is good to pause and remember what a more thoughtful exchange of views should look like.

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To begin, in any exchange we would expect contested assertions to be backed up by evidence or evident good reasons. A person interested in rattling off opinions with no reference to sound reasons or evidence is not worth your effort. Even in an informal conversation we expect to hear compelling support for claims. A judge or a responsible policy maker would expect tangible evidence.  But it is true also our classrooms, where student debaters cannot simply offer unsubstantiated claims.

The basic unit of a counter-response is an argument. Its basic structure is simple and contains at least two parts: (1) An assertion or claim and (2) supporting evidence or good reasons. Those reasons may be widely honored values, or specific examples and–better yet–the testimony of experts who have a history of making accurate statements.  The quality of supporting evidence increases the force of an argument.

The claim “the 2020 presidential election was free of fraud” is a common example.  If I stop there in the presence of a MAGA true-believer, I am uttering a statement that—in formal terms—lacks “force.” To be sure, we are extremely happy to display our opinions like flags. They signal our attitudes and beliefs. But they have no power to bind doubters.

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How can I meaningfully assert that the last election was fair and accurate? Where is my evidence? I ought to be able to supply it, and not—as the former President does with claims reworded to appear to be reasons. So, if I am making a claim, I ought to be able to put “because” after it and find that the reasons that follow will make sense: will sound right. Our example might unfold in the following sequence.

“The Election was free of fraud.”

                                    Because. . .

  1. The Attorney General in the Trump Administration said so.
  2. The administration’s head of cyber-security said so.
  3.  No state government found evidence of significant instances of fraud.
  4.  Respected journalists covering the election found no significant evidence of a corrupted vote.
  5. A vast array of American courts could not evidence of vote tampering, except for a scattering of Trump supporters (i.e., some fake electoral college delegates).

To be sure, each of these assertions may need their own specifics or testimony. An example for the first claim could include Attorney General William Barr’s own words: “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” As testimony, Barr’s words are especially credible because he is (1) in a position to know, and (2) he is a “reluctant” source, meaning that Barr’s natural bias would be to support the views of the president who appointed him.

Arguments work best with truth claims. What can you do with your Uncle Fred’s assertion that he still “believes” some dead Democrats “voted” in 2020? You can ask him for evidence. But Fred may use the intellectual slight-of-hand of converting a belief into a claim of fact. That is dishonest, but telling him so probably will not keep him up at night. As we have noted before, you cannot usually do much about changing the fantasies that individuals need to believe them.

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