Arguing and winning can be difficult, especially when there is a lot at stake for the individuals on either side. In those instances, it can be appealing for the less rhetorically responsible to engage in logical fallacies in order to gain the upper hand. Fallacies are illicit shortcuts in reasoning, bad arguments that sound good but don’t actually make logical sense. Politicians and other public figures use them all the time ad nauseam in speeches and debates in order to better capture the hearts and minds of their audience. This past year brought the United States perhaps the most contentious election in modern history, marked by an uptick in all kinds of this verbal manipulation. But of all the logical fallacies out there, one stands out as being particularly powerful and popular, especially in politics: the straw man.
The straw man fallacy involves the construction of a second argument that to some degree resembles, in a simplified or exaggerated way, the argument that your opponent is really making. It is much easier for you to attack that perverted point than it is to address the original point being made. For example: Bill wants to buy a car, but Mindy doesn’t think it makes good financial sense right now. So Bill says, “What? You don’t want us to be able to drive anywhere?” Mindy never said that, of course, but Bill is no longer arguing on the grounds of financial responsibility. In this case, the fallacy is easy to spot, but coming from the mouth of a skilled manipulator, such as Donald Trump, it can be much harder to identify.
So, without further ado, here are some of the most egregious straw men of fact-free America’s 2016:
Hillary Clinton wants “open borders”
During the third presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton, when the topic of immigration reform came up, Trump asserted that Clinton was advocating for open borders. “Under her plan,” he said, “you have open borders. You would have a disaster on trade and you will have a disaster with your open borders.” He pointed, as evidence of this, to a speech Clinton gave to a Brazilian bank in 2013, from which moderator Chris Wallace read an excerpt.
As Clinton said — and as PolitiFact mostly confirmed — she was not speaking about the movement of people but rather the movement of goods and energy.
But that’s the truth, and the truth is irrelevant when it comes to fallacies. Just the fact that Clinton mentioned the term open borders, combined with her more liberal stance on immigration, was enough for Trump to say that she’s in favor of totally open borders, an idea that pretty much no one likes. He totally misrepresented her original position. Attacking her for that is much easier than debating the real-life nuances of immigration reform, plus it sticks more firmly in people’s minds afterwards. Since immigration was one of the pivotal issues of the election, it’s hard to imagine that this straw man didn’t have an impact when it came to people’s perceptions of where the candidates stood.
Hillary Clinton wants to abolish the Second Amendment
In for a penny, in for a pound. That’s the thinking here, where even the slightest support for something other than the current state of gun laws gets you labeled as someone who wants to do away entirely with this most precious of Amendments. Clinton did not say she wanted to get rid of the Second Amendment in any sense. She had expressed support for expanding background checks and a possible assault weapons ban. Those things are reasonable (moderate, even), so it’s much simpler for Trump to ignore her argument and make one up for her (Fair warning, that hyperlink leads to Breitbart). By doing so, he is drawing on one of the oldest and most powerful straw men in American politics. Moreover, this kind of fallacy makes a meaningful debate about gun control all but impossible, since one side is flatly refusing to argue within the actual limits of the debate.
Political correctness versus American values
One of the early rallying cries for Republicans in the 2016 election was a mutual hatred of political correctness. Trump, in response to a debate question about his past misogynistic comments, said, “The big problem this country has is being politically correct.” For Trump and other top Republicans, political correctness is little more than a shield behind which liberals hide their inability to identify and solve problems.
What are in large part reasonable measures taken to avoid unnecessary offences are recast by these Republicans to be softness or attacks on people’s freedom of speech. By connoting political correctness with these attributes, Republican politicians can ensure that their constituent remains hostile to the idea. Then, when they come across an argument in need of simplification, they can call back to that already-crafted association. The Washington Post writes that Trump “said there are ‘major problems’ with having women in combat but the military is proceeding because ‘they want to be politically correct.’ He defended profiling of Muslims by law enforcement and said anybody who disagrees ‘wants to be politically correct.’” Instead of engaging in actual discussion on these topics, Trump depends on these hollow arguments as a crutch.
Bernie Sanders wants to dismantle Medicare
During the Democratic primaries, one of Bernie Sanders’s chief proposals was moving to a single-payer healthcare system. In arguing against this, Clinton claimed that Sanders wanted to “dismantle Medicare” and the Affordable Care Act, whereas she wanted to build upon them. This is an example of the creation of a straw man through gross simplification and omission.
In reality, Sanders’s healthcare plan would have ended Medicare and the ACA as we know them, but only to replace them with a universal healthcare system. No one stood to lose their coverage, but the way Clinton was arguing, it looked like people might. By essentially leaving out half of Sanders’s argument, Clinton made a case against a fictional version of Sanders that seemed just real enough to fool the average voter.
The War on Christmas
This isn’t necessarily a new controversy — conservatives have been bemoaning the supposed persecution of Christians in America for some time — but it is new to the presidential stage. As explained in the New York Times, the War on Christmas emerged from the disdain of Christians who have become increasingly angered to have their presence curbed in public spaces in the name of religious diversity. In truth, of course, Christians and in no way persecuted, but it’s a losing arguments to simply lament the loss of a nativity scene in a public park.
Instead, why not recast proponents of toleration and inclusion as a bunch of Grinches who hate Christmas and want to see it done away with? Suddenly your struggle to keep menorahs out of public spaces doesn’t seem quite so petty anymore, does it? But of course no one actually wants to abolish Christmas, which is what makes this such a comical example of a straw man.
Climate change is like the flat Earth theory
Anthony Scaramucci, adviser to President-elect Trump, recently compared climate change science to the “science” in favor of a flat Earth. “There was an overwhelming science that the Earth was flat, and there was an overwhelming science that we were the center of the world” in Galileo’s day, he said. “We get a lot of things wrong in the scientific community.” While this is a patently ridiculous assertion, credit must be given where credit is due. Scaramucci’s claim is an extremely clever straw man.
It must first be said that the “science” to which Scaramucci is referring wasn’t really science at all, but rather the pseudo-scientific doctrine of the Catholic Church. That fact is irrelevant, however, because the average person, lacking a complete understanding of the scientific method, isn’t going to find a meaningful distinction there. Still, mostly everyone today understands that the Earth isn’t flat. They recognize that, as Scaramucci said, “science” got one wrong there. By equating these two concepts, he assumes any argument that recognizes climate change to also be one that claims the Earth is flat. For that reason, this particular brand of climate change denial wins the award for best (or maybe worst) straw man of 2016.