Muddy Waters: The DJT Arguments

The video below is “Trump mocks reporter with disability.” Meryl Steep brought this moment back to light with her acceptance speech at The Golden Globes for the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. Donald Trump’s response on Twitter was predictable, calling Meryl “overrated,” which, although an opinion, is difficult to see how it would apply to Meryl, one of the greatest actors of our time.

Donald’s other response is below: “I never ‘mocked’ a disabled reporter….” You can judge for yourself.

I handed my syllabus out yesterday for a class called Justice in Literature. There are a few rules of discussion that I include.  One of them is “no personal attacks: critique the issue, not the person.”  It’s one of few rules I enforce, and I wrote it years ago, but I watch and read a lot of news media, and it’s apparent we’re in a new era of personal attacks.

In this instance, even if Trump is not mocking the reporter’s disability, he’s still mocking the man’s intelligence, which is still a personal attack (an ad hominem logical fallacy). It’s designed to distract us from the issue. And it works for Trump. I don’t remember what the issue was then.  Do you? And even if it was true that Trump had no intent to mock the man’s disability, it sure looks like he is mocking disability. A human being with any trace of compassion would apologize for even the appearance of mocking someone in that way.

Trump’s main rhetorical strategy is muddying the waters.  Ad hominem attacks distract us from the issue.  People will remember Lyin’ Ted, Low-Energy Jeb, Crooked Hillary, but few will remember the substance of the issues. His larger strategy is distraction: Trump is letting fly with tweets about nuclear weapons and North Korea and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s television ratings, meanwhile confirmations of his crony-capitalist unqualified nominations are flying through the senate at record pace and the man isn’t even sworn in yet.

So the argument strategy is not just distraction, it’s a certain kind of distraction. Back in 2014, Ted Cruz seemed the most likely demagogue to win office, and The New Yorker ran a profile of him where he gave away his trade secret:

In both law and politics, I think the essential battle is the meta-battle of framing the narrative . . . . As Sun Tzu said, Every battle is won before it’s fought. It’s won by choosing the terrain on which it will be fought.

Setting aside the philosophy-lite reference to Sun Tzu, this passage is a key insight into image-based politics. It’s next-level argumentation.

I play Magic: The Gathering, and I’ve played for a little over a year now.  The rules are relatively easy to learn.  The first thing I learned that improved my game was that although you can win by playing the best cards that fit the rules, but you’re more likely to win by playing cards that change the rules in your favor.

Trump has framed the narrative from the beginning. He has, by his own admission, sought a strategy to dominate the discussion:

I’m going to suck all the oxygen out of the room. I know how to work the media in a way that they will never take the lights off of me.

So he out Cruzed Cruz.  “Lyin’ Ted” he said.  It is true: Ted Cruz lies a lot. But somehow, Donald Trump managed to lie more and make Ted Cruz out to be the liar, the same way he out-crooked “Crooked Hillary.”

In fact DJT is so slippery, it’s hard to quote him, because whatever he’s said, he’s said the opposite at some point. Meryl Streep was apparently “excellent” in 2015.

The man lies so much that he makes the idea of truth seem impossible.

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