|Donald Trump, WH portrait|
This is the fallacy of using words that mean different things in different contexts.
Yes, Trump Said He Played the Virus Down…
First, here’s what he told reporter Bob Woodward a few months ago, in a sound recording:
“I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
That’s clear as a bell, isn’t it? So we thought….
Unfortunately, people need accurate information during an international crisis, and Trump admitted – on the record – that he was speaking falsely.
… But Now He Says He Played the Virus Up
But now let’s look at what he
said in yesterday’s ABC Town Hall in Pennsylvania, where he faced questions
from undecided voters. I’ll quote his entire exchange with voter Joni Powell:
STEPHANOPOULOS: Let’s get one final question on COVID.
And, a bit later, responding to a question by moderator George Stephanopoulos, Trump said:
“I'm not looking to be dishonest. I don't want people to panic. And we are going to be OK. We're going to be OK, and it is going away. And it's probably going to go away now a lot faster because of the vaccines.”
That exchange gave the press great mirth. He said he played the virus down, but now he says he played it up. Both statements can’t be true, can they?
But Trump actually played a clever magic trick. A stage magician can convince you that the rabbit is inside the hat when it’s really under the table. A magician can pull an ordinary object from a place in which it could not possibly be. A seemingly sadistic magician can apparently saw a young woman in half without harming her at all.
In this case, Trump played a trick with words.
Trump's Word Games
First move: In his interview with Bob Woodward, Trump was talking about playing the virus down rhetorically. He said his goal was to avoid panic by not saying anything that would spook people. Telling people that there was a bad virus would spook them, maybe hurting the stock market or causing disruptive public behavior. By playing it down, Trump gave people hope that the whole thing would go away shortly. Unfortunately, the virus did not go away; it has gotten much worse and there are now almost 200,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths in the United States alone.
Here are some of the
things he said to play it down:
“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus.… This is their new hoax.”
“It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
“Now, this is just my hunch, but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this, because a lot of people have this and it is very mild.”
Second move: Responding to Powell’s question, Trump did not talk about what he said. He talked about what he did, not what he told people. The Trump administration has obviously failed to provide adequate personal protective equipment for medical professionals, much less the public. Trump implemented a national testing policy slowly, and repeatedly pushed schools and businesses to reopen when it was obviously unsafe. He did one useful thing of which he was very proud. That is, he instituted a partial ban against travel from China. Since the virus originated in China, it’s reasonable to think that the partial ban slowed the virus’ spread into the United States for a time. He emphasized and perhaps overstated that one positive point.
Third move: Finally, Trump pretended that his position had not changed at all. In yesterday’s Town Hall, Trump actually stuck to his rhetorical point: he reiterated that “I don’t want people to panic.” That is, he repeated and reinforced the original point that he made to Bob Woodward. Rhetorically speaking, he was still saying a version of the same thing.
At the same time, Trump can no longer reasonably repeat his absurd denials about the virus. During the Town Hall, he reinforced that “I don’t want people to panic” while not repeating the absurd claims, which only a fool would believe today, that the virus was “their new hoax” or that it would go away “like a miracle.” Nevertheless, he still insisted that the virus would go away, but he shifted a little bit about what that meant: “it is going away” now meant that it would go away when the vaccine became available. That is not what he said the first time.
Trump could, however, claim that he was playing the virus up, not down, because of his travel ban. If he had done something else positive to slow down the virus, I’m sure he would have said it. Alas…
Worse, Trump told people what the fallacy was even as he committed it: “So that was called action, not with the mouth, but an actual fact.” It’s as if a robber says, “I’m going to rob you,” and thinks it’s okay because he told the victim what he was doing. This, however, was not a robbery; Trump's rhetorical move was trickier than a Las Vegas magic act.
How Not to Be Fooled
If you’re watching a magic show, and the magician tells you to look at her hands, you need to look somewhere else because the hands are misdirecting you. If you’re watching a magic act, and you hear a loud noise, and you want to understand the trick, look anywhere except at the noise. The noise is a distraction.
Similarly, when figuring out Donald Trump, do not just listen to what he says. Listen to what he doesn’t say. In the Town Hall, Trump didn’t deny that he told Bob Woodward that he wanted to “play it down.” Nor did he deny that he had misinformed the public. He obviously had; it was on tape.
Once you notice what Trump did not say, your next step is to look for word games. In his Bob Woodward interview, “play it down” referred to his efforts to say things to keep the public from worrying. In yesterday’s Town Hall, “play it down” referred to his policy actions, not his words.
Words are tricky, for an argument to be logical, we must use words with the same meaning from the beginning of the argument to the end. In this case, Trump played word games.
Yes, Trump contradicted himself completely. He had talked himself into an inconsistent position. He was desperate for a way to wiggle out of it. No one who listened carefully would be fooled. However, his trick was not as simple as just contradicting himself, and his word games gave his supporters an excuse to justify his actions. This, by the way, is why everyone needs to study critical thinking and learn the basic principles of logic. Trump played the virus down in one way, while playing it up in another way, and then pretended that they were the same things. His technique was illogical and disreputable, but cunning.
Technical note: The trick that Trump played represents what philosophers call the fallacy of equivocation. Sometimes equivocation is funny. Do you remember when the Queen refused to give Alice any jam in Through the Looking Glass? ”It's jam every other day: to-day isn't any other day, you know.” To Alice, “every other day” meant alternate days, but “any other day” means that it is a different day, not an alternate day. Confused, poor Alice decided that the whole thing was “complicated.” When tricky people commit fallacies, they want to make simple things seem more complicated than they really are. Fallacies persuade people because they confuse people. When Trump commits equivocation in public policy, however, lives are at stake. It is not funny at all. People are dying.
We can short-circuit tricksters if we define our terms at the start of a discussion. Dr. Alan Fuchs, one of my favorite William and Mary professors, said that you should begin every discourse by defining your terms. Oh, was he ever right!
I've occasionally published technical articles about fallacies. If you're interested, click on "William D. Harpine's Publications" above and browse around.