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Trump Rhetoric: Naming, Insulting & Mocking

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 3, 2016

Listening to one of Trump’s speeches, I tried to remember when I had heard this style of rhetoric before. While negative rhetoric is a stock part of modern American politics, he had created a brand that stands out in its negative magnificence. My first thought was it reminded me a great deal of the incoherent hate spewing I recall from gaming on Xbox Live. Then I realized it matched much earlier memories, that of the bullying and name calling of junior high school and earlier. I realized then that Trump’s main rhetorical style was a more polished version of that deployed by angry children.

One tactic that most people should recall from their youth is that of name calling. Kids would call each other things like “Stinky Susan” or “Fat Fred” in order to mock and insult each other. As people grew up, their name calling and mockery tended to become more sophisticated—at least in terms of the vocabulary.

Trump, however, seems to instinctively grasp the appeal of schoolyard level name calling, insults and mockery. He gives his foes (and almost everyone gets to be a foe of Trump) names such as “crooked Hillary”, “Lying Ted Cruz”, “Goofy Elizabeth”, and “Crazy Bernie.”

While name calling has no logical force (it proves nothing), it can have considerable rhetorical force. One obvious intended effect is to persuade the audience that the person given the insulting name is thus “bad” or “failed” as Trump loves to say. Perhaps the most important effect is how it impacts status: giving someone an insulting name is, at the core, a power play about relative status. The insulting name is intended to lower the targets status (from Senator Ted Cruz to “lying Ted) and thus raise the relative status of the attacker. Trump has used this with great effect against foes such as “low energy George Bush” and “Little lightweight Marco Rubio.” While these men were both professional politicians, they never seemed to hit on an effective counter to this attack. Trying to engage Trump in a battle of naming, insults and mockery is rather like trying to out squeeze a python—so it is no wonder this did not work. Trying to elevate the battle to the usual political style of negative rhetoric also proved ineffective—Trump’s schoolyard bullying seems to have won the hearts of many Americans who were not inclined to accept a change of rhetorical venue. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Trump swept aside his Republican foes like a bully swats aside the smaller and weaker children. Trump won the status battle by playing the schoolyard status game with his usual skill. His opponents were playing politics as usual, which was the wrong game to play with a population largely tired of that game.

From a logical standpoint, no one should be convinced by name calling. It has, obviously enough, no function as evidence or reasons for a claim. Calling Elizabeth Warren “goofy” does nothing to refute her claims. As such, the defense against being swayed by name calling is to be aware of this, to think “that is an insulting name…that proves nothing.”

If one is the target of an insulting or mocking name calling, then the defense is a bit more challenging. This is because what tends to matter is how other people are influenced by the name calling. While it is tempting to think about “sticks and stones”, Trump has established that name calling can hurt—at least in terms of a person’s status. Which means it hurts a lot. We are, after all, status obsessed monkeys in pants.

One way to reply is to respond with crude name calling, insults and mockery. From a logical standpoint, this proves nothing. From a practical standpoint, the main question is whether or not it will work. Part of the concern is whether or not one can engage and “beat” the name caller using this tactic. That is, whether one can out-insult the person and lower his status in the eyes of the other primates. Another part of the concern is whether or not this is the right tactic to use in terms of getting the desired result. A person might, for example, get in good shots at the name caller, yet end up losing in the long term. As might be imagined, people vary in their ability to name call as well as the impact name calling will have on how they are perceived. People expect Trump to be vulgar and insulting, so he loses nothing with this tactic. While people tend to think Hillary Clinton is corrupt, they also expect her to have a much higher degree of class and professionalism than Trump: playing his game would be a loss for her, even if she “won.”

Another way to reply is with more sophisticated name calling, insults and mockery. This, of course, is still logically empty—but can be combined with actual arguments. Hillary Clinton, for example, presented a speech aimed at mocking Trump. While she used the same basic tactic as Trump, trying to lower his status, her attacks were far more refined. To use an analogy, Trump is a barbarian hacking away with a great axe, while Hillary is fencing. The goal is the same (kill the other person) but one is crude and the other rather more elegant. The question is, of course, which will work. In the case of the rhetorical battle, the outcome is decided by the audience—do American voters prefer the axe of Trump or the rapier of Hillary? Or neither?

It is also possible to engage name calling with logic and counter with actual arguments. While this can work with some people, those who are subject to logic would tend to already reject such tactics and those who are not so amendable to logic will be unaffected. In fact, they would probably regard the use of such a method as confirming the bestowed name. Aristotle was among the first to point out the weakness of logic as a persuasive device and nothing has proven him wrong.

 

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I’m not moving to Canada even if Trump is elected

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on March 16, 2016

Americans have a habit of threatening to move to Canada if a presidential election does not go their way; however, few actually follow up on this threat. While I am worried that Trump might be elected President, I have not made this threat and have no intention of leaving should the Trumpocracy come to pass. While some of my reasons are purely practical, I also have philosophical reasons. Getting to these will, however, require a short trip through some other issues.

When I was much younger, I was into politics and dreamed of holding political office. This dream gave way to cynicism about American politics and the embracing of anarchism and then apathy. I got better, though.

When I was an anarchist, I decided not to vote. This was based on the anarchist principle that voting is both ineffective and entails acknowledging the legitimacy of the oppressive system. When I became apathetic, I did not vote on the basis of an analogy to picking a movie. As I saw it, picking between candidates was like picking between bad movies. The rational choice, it would seem, would be not to pick any: vote none of the above. I accepted this until I had a revelation while watching a movie I did not like while on a date. Elections, it turns out, are like being on a movie date when only bad movies are playing. Since you are stuck going to a movie, you need to pick among the bad choices. The goal is not to pick what you like—since all choices are bad. The goal is to pick the least bad option. In the case of elections, you are stuck with the results if you vote or do not vote. If all the options are bad, you can still try to avoid the worst option by voting for the least bad. If all options are identical in badness, then you could avoid voting at all or use an alternative method. In my case, I often vote for the one that most resembles an animal I like or vote against the one that most resembles a creature I dislike.

There is, however, a downside to voting when you regard all the options as bad: you have become part of the process and are a party to the crimes of the person you voted for—should that person win. On the plus side, if you helped the lesser evil win, then you deserve kudos for preventing a greater evil.

One problem with becoming part of the voting process is that this would seem to acknowledge the legitimacy of the process (assuming one is not compelled to vote). This would seem to commit the voter to accepting the results of a fair election. Since it looks like it will be Trump vs. Hillary, when I vote for Hillary it would seem that I am accepting the voting process. This would seem to entail that when Trump wins, I have to accept that he is my president. This is required by consistency: if Hillary wins, I would expect those who voted for Trump to accept this result. This, of course, assumes that the election was fair—if it was rigged, then that is another matter.

Locke addressed this matter—he was well aware that the losing side in a vote might be tempted to refuse to go along. Locke’s response to the problem was to point out that doing this would tear apart the system and send us back to the state of nature. As such, he reasoned, we should follow the majority in regards to voting. This, of course, leads to the problem of the tyranny of the majority, something that could be used to argue that one should not accept the election of a person who will engage in such tyrannical behavior. My own view is that the election should be accepted on the basis of majority rule. However, the tyrannical, immoral, or illegal actions of an elected official should not be accepted. So, if Trump wins the 2016 election fair and square, then he would be my president. If he started implementing his various absurd, immoral, illegal and perhaps even unconstitutional harebrained schemes, then I would certainly not accept these schemes. This opposition would be based in part on Locke’s view of tyranny and in part on John Stuart Mill’s discussion of the tyranny of the majority. The gist of both is that a ruler acts wrongly if he uses the power of office in a way that is not for the good of the people or imposes on the liberty of others without the justification that it prevents harm to others.

So, if Trump gets elected, he will be my president. I will stay here—and will certainly do what I can to oppose his likely attempts to do awful, immoral, and illegal things. Oddly, I think that the Republican controlled congress will be on my side in most of these matters.

 

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Cannot Dump the Trump

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 9, 2016

As of March, 2016 Donald Trump has continued as the leading Republican presidential candidate. Before his string of victories, Trump was regarded by most pundits as a joke candidate, one that would burn out like a hair fire. After his victories, the Republican establishment and its allies launched a massive (and massively expensive) attack on Trump. So far, this attack has failed and the Republican elite have been unable to dump Trump.

It would be foolish to claim that Trump’s nomination is inevitable. But, it would be equally foolish to cling to the belief that Trump will be taken down by the establishment or that he will gaffe himself to political death. While I have examined how Trump magnificently filled a niche crafted by the Republican party, in this essay I will examine why Trump can probably not be dumped.

As I have argued before, the Republican party is largely responsible for creating the opening for Trump. They have also made it very difficult for attacks on Trump to succeed. This is because the party has systematically undermined (at least for many Republicans) the institutions that could effectively criticize Trump. These include the media, the political establishment, the academy, and the church (broadly construed).

Since about the time of Nixon, the Republican party has engaged in a systematic campaign to cast the mainstream media as liberal and biased. This has been a rather effective campaign (thanks, in part, to the media itself) and there is considerable distrust and distaste regarding the media among Republicans. Trump has worked hard to reinforce this view—lashing out at the media that has enabled him to grow so very fat politically.

While this sustained demolition of the media has paid handsome dividends for the Republicans, the Republicans who oppose Trump now find themselves a victim of their own successful tactic: Trump is effectively immune to criticism coming from the media. When attacked, even by conservative media, he can simply avail himself of the well-worn Republican talking points. This result is exactly as should be expected: degrading an important public institution cannot be good for the health of a democratic state.

While modern Republicans have preached small government, the party firmly embraced the anti-establishment position in recent years. In the past, this approach has been rather ironic: well-entrenched Republicans would wax poetically about their outsider status in order to get re-elected to term after term. While the establishment no doubt hoped it could keep milking the inconsistent cow of outside insiders, Trump has taken advantage of this rhetoric against the established insiders. This time, the insiders are the Republicans.

This provides Trump with a readymade set of tools to counter criticisms and attacks from the Republican establishment—tools that this establishment forged. As such, Trump has little to fear from the attacks of the establishment Republicans. In fact, he should welcome their attacks: each criticism can be melted down and remade as support for Trump being an anti-establishment outsider.

While there were some significant conservative intellectuals and scholars, the Republican party has made a practice of bashing the academy (colleges, universities and intellectuals in general) as being a foul pit of liberalism. There has also been a sustained campaign against reason and expertise—with Republicans actually making ludicrous claims that ignorance is better than knowledge and that expertise is a mark of incompetence.

This approach served the Republicans fairly well when it came to certain political matters, such as climate change. However, this discrediting of the academy in the eyes of many Republican voters has served to protect Trump. Any criticism of Trump from academics or intellectuals can be dismissed with the same rhetorical weapons deployed so often in the past by the same Republicans who now weep at the prospect of a Trump victory. While the sleep of reason breeds monsters, the attack on reason has allowed Trump to flourish. This should be taken as a warning sign of what can follow Trump: when the rational defenses of society are weakened, monsters are free to take the stage.

While the Republican party often embraces religion, this embrace is often limited to anti-abortion, anti-contraception and anti-gay matters. When religious leaders, such as Pope Francis, stray beyond this zone and start taking God’s command to love each other as He loves us seriously, the Republican party generally reacts with hostility. Witness, for example, the incredibly ironic calls of the Republicans for the Pope to keep religion out of politics.

In general, the Republican party has been fine with religion that matches a conservative social agenda and does not stray into positive ethics of social responsibility and moral criticism of an ethics of selfishness (what philosophers call ethical egoism). Straying beyond this, as noted above, results in hostile attacks. To this end, the party has taken steps to undermine these aspects of religion.

One impact of this has been that Trump is able to use these same tools against religious and moral criticisms. He has even been able to go head-to-head with the Pope, thus showing that even religion cannot oppose Trump. Interestingly, many evangelical leaders have condemned Trump—although their flocks seem to rather like him. Since the conservatives like to cast the left as being the foe of religion and ethics, there is considerable irony here.

In addition to taking advantage of the systematic degrading of critical institutions, Trump can also count on the fact that the methods used against him will most likely be ineffective. Some pundits and some establishment members have endeavored to use rational argumentation against Trump. Mitt Romney, for example, has presented a well-reasoned critique of Trump that is right on the mark. Trump responded by asserting that Romney would have been happy to blow him in 2012.

The argumentation approach is not working and will almost certainly not work. As Aristotle argued, the vast majority of people are not convinced by “arguments and fine ideals” but are ruled by their emotions. In fact, all the people are ruled by emotions some of the time and some of the people are ruled by emotions all the time. As such, it is no surprise that philosophers have established that reason is largely ineffective as a tool of persuasion—it is trumped by rhetoric and fallacies (that is, no logic and bad logic). Bringing logic to an emotion fight is a losing proposition.

There is also the fact that the Republican party has, as noted above, consistently bashed intellectualism and expertise—thus making it even less likely that reasoning will be effective against Trump in regards to turning his supporters against him.

Political commitment, like being a sports fan, is also more a matter of irrational feeling than of considered logic. Just as one is unlikely to get a dedicated Cubs fan to abandon her team via syllogisms, one is not going to turn a Trump supporter by logic. Ditto for Sanders and Hillary supporters. This is not to say their supporters are stupid, just that politics is a not a game of logic.

Since Trump is effectively immune to argumentation, his opponents might try to use rhetoric and emotion against him. His Republican opponents face a serious challenge here: they are simply not as good at it as Trump. Trump has also managed to get the battle for the nomination down to the level of basic cable stand-up comedy or a junior high locker room: dick jokes, blow job innuendo, and other presidential subjects. Trump is a master, albeit short-fingered, vulgarian.  Only fellow masters and fools go up against a master vulgarian in vulgarity. While Rubio has tried some stand-up against Trump, he cannot match the man. Cruz and Kasich also lack what it takes to get into the pit with Trump and if they do, it will simply be a case of grabbing a fecal-baby (like the metaphorical tar baby, but worse).

One avenue is to avoid the pit and employ high road rhetoric and emotion against Trump. Unfortunately, the Republican contenders seem utterly inept at doing this and Trump is quite skilled at throwing rhetorical feces on anything that catches his eye. As such, it seems that Trump will not be dumped. What remains to be seen is whether or not these factors will be as effective in the general election against Hillary or Sanders. Assuming, of course, that Trump gets the nomination.

 

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Trumping Along

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 28, 2016

Despite the predictions of many pundits, presidential candidate Donald Trump still leads the Republican pack as of the end of January.  As should be expected, Trump’s remarks have resulted in criticism from the left. Somewhat unexpectedly, he has also been condemned by many conservatives. The National Review, a bastion of conservative thought, devoted an entire issue to harsh condemnation of Trump. This is certainly a fascinating situation and will no doubt become a chapter in many future political science textbooks.

That Trump is doing well should itself not be surprising. As I have argued in previous essays, he is the logical result of the strategies and tactics of the Republican Party. The Republican establishment has been feeding the beast; they should not be shocked that it has grown large. They crafted the ideal political ecosystem for Trump; they should not be dismayed that he has dominated this niche. As in so many horror stories, perhaps they realize they have created a monster and now they are endeavoring to destroy it.

It is not entirely clear what the “(un)friendly fire” of fellow Republicans is supposed to accomplish. One possibility is that the establishment hopes that these attacks will knock Trump down and allow a candidate more appealing to the establishment to win the nomination. Trump, many pundits claim, would lose in the general election and the Republicans certainly wish to win. However, Trump should not be counted out—he has repeatedly proven the pundits wrong and he might be, oddly enough, the best chance for a Republican victory in 2016.

The United States electorate has changed in recent years and Trump seems to be able to appeal very strongly to certain elements of this population. Bernie Sanders has also been able to appeal very strongly to other elements—and perhaps some of the same. As such, the Republican establishment might wish to reconsider their view of Trump’s chances relative to the other candidates.

That said, while Trump has done quite well in the polls, this is rather different from doing well in the actually trench work of politics. Doing well in the polls is rather like being a popular actor or athlete—this does not require a broad organization and a nationwide political machine. Trump is certainly a media star—quite literally. Soon, however, the “ground game” begins and the received opinion is this is where organization and political chops are decisive. Critics have pointed out, sweating just a bit, that Trump does not seem to have much of a ground game and certainly has little political chop building experience. Doing well in this ground game is analogous to doing well in a war; it remains to be seen if Trump can transition from reality TV star to political general.

As a counter to this, it can be argued that Trump could simply ride on his popularity and this would offset any weaknesses he has in regards to his organization and political chops. After all, highly motivated voters could simply get things done for him.

A second possibility is that at least some of the critics of Trump are motivated by more than concerns about pragmatic politics: they have a moral concern about Trump’s words and actions. Some of the concern is based on the assertion that Trump is not a true conservative. These concerns are well-founded: Trump is certainly not a social conservative and, while wealthy, he does not seem to have a strong commitment to classic conservative ideology. Other aspects of the concern are based on Trumps character and style; he is often regarded as a vulgar populist.

Those who oppose Trump on these grounds would presumably not be swayed by evidence that Trump could do well in the general election—if he is an awful candidate, he would presumably be worse as president. This election could be a very interesting test of party loyalty (and Hillary loathing). Some Republicans have said that they will not vote for Trump and most of these have made it clear they will not vote for a Democrat. As such, the Democrat might win in virtue of Republican voters not voting. After all, a Republican who does not vote is almost as good as a vote for the Democrat. As such, it is not surprising that a popular conspiracy theory speculates that Trump is an agent of the Clintons.

 

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Taxing Gold

Posted in Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on August 6, 2012
English: Bronze medal from the 1980 Summer Oly...

English: Bronze medal from the 1980 Summer Olympics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to winning the medal and cash prize, Americans who medal in the Olympics will also “win” a 35% tax from the IRS. While capital gains taxes are capped at 15%, medals and prize money are apparently taxed at 35%. This is also, interestingly enough, the tax percentage I paid when I have received a “bonus” (which we got at Florida A&M University in place of a raise to offset the cost of living increase). It is certainly an interesting tax system that hits Olympic medalists and educators hard while allowing folks like Mitt Romney and Obama to enjoy rather light taxes.

An athlete who takes home the gold will also need to shell out $236 in taxes on the medal (the medal is valued at $650) and $8,750 for the $25,000 prize. Those winning silver and bronze medals will still owe 35%, but will receive less (since the bronze medal is worth $5 the winner would only owe $2 in taxes). While this bite sounds harsh, it could have been worse: Britain decided to set aside the rather harsh tax laws in regards to international athletes earning money on British soil.

Naturally, Olympic medalists can get far more than a medal and a cash prize. The big prizes for American athletes include deals with corporations to help them sell Wheaties and Gatorade. This income is, of course, taxed. However, I do not feel particularly upset that an athlete will pay taxes on a million dollar contract. However, the taxing of medals and Olympic prize money does bother me a bit.  It also seems to bother Marco Rubio, a fellow Floridian. He has proposed a bill to waive the taxes on prizes won by US athletes in London.

I do find it rather tempting to go along with Rubio. After all, there seems to be something both odd and petty about taxing the medals and prizes won by American Olympians who are representing their country. After all, they can be seen as doing a great national service by winning medals. Doing well at the Olympics is a matter of national pride and international status and it seems problematic to take away 35% of what an athlete earns. It seems especially absurd to tax an athlete for the medal s/he wins.

That said, it can be pointed out that the Olympic athletes enjoy considerable support from the state and, as such, it makes sense for them to share a portion of their earnings. Naturally, it would make more sense if the money was put directly into the Olympic program to support athletes rather than just being taxed.

It can also be argued that although the athletes are serving their country in sport, people who serve their country in the military, public service, education and so on still pay taxes. As such, the athletes should be no more exempt from taxes than a soldier or police officer.

That said, the Olympics does seem to be something special and it does, as noted above, seem rather pretty to tax the athletes at 35%.

Having felt the cruel bite of the 35% tax myself, I am inclined to argue that at the very least the athletes should not be taxed at that rate. Rather, the prize money should be treated as normal income (which is still taxed higher than capital gains) and taxed based on the athlete’s normal rate. A medal should also not be taxed, at least not until an athlete sells it. This seems fair.

Given the anti-tax rhetoric about how taxes destroy incentives, it is interesting to note that athletes keep on competing despite that tax (and that I and others keep on working despite the fact that our bonus-instead-of-a-raise gets taxed at 35%). But, perhaps this is because we have different motivations than the 1%.

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