Fallacies and rhetoric are common tools in political debates for the same reason hammers and saws are common tools in carpentry: because they work. In the case of politics, “working” means that they enable one to “win.” And “winning” in this context means persuading someone to believe, whether the claim is true or not. Philosophy, in the true sense, has a rather different victory condition: you “win” by having plausible premises and good logic—which tends to lose when it comes to persuasion. Unfortunately, people tend to believe what they are persuaded to believe rather than what has been proven, so it is no surprise that the standard counters to criticisms of Trump (or any politician) tend to be fallacies and rhetoric. I will go through a few of these fallacies to show how they do not refute the claim that Trump is a tyrant.
One common way to reply to this sort of criticism is to make use of a false equivalency. The usual method of this fallacy is to treat a shared quality between two things as showing they are equivalent. This fallacy is very commonly used to argue that because of this shared quality, two things are equal in terms of their degree or magnitude (and this is usually in terms of badness). This fallacy is somewhat like a false/weak analogy in that an inference is made based on an alleged similarity that fails to hold. One way to formalize this fallacy is as follows:
Premise 1: A is X (to degree D) because it has qualities A, B, and C.
Premise 2: B has quality C.
Conclusion: A and B are equivalent, so B is X (to degree D).
This reasoning is defective because it does not follow that because two things have something in common that they are equivalent. To use an extreme example, while it is true that both Hitler and Trump were elected officials, this obviously does not entail that they are equivalent. It also does not follow that they are not equivalent.
What is wanting is a proper comparison of A and B to determine if they are adequately similar to warrant the inference that they are equivalent—which would be a matter of making an argument by analogy. If a strong argument by analogy can be made, then the equivalence would be a true one and the fallacy would be avoided. As such, the logical defense against an accusation that you have made a false equivalence is to present just such a strong argument.
While people often make use of false equivalency for nefarious reasons, people also fall into it due to good intentions. For example, the American press tends to want to include both sides of an issue. This is laudable when both sides are worthy of consideration and roughly on par. To illustrate, giving pro-tax increase and anti-tax increase proponents a chance to present their arguments is reasonable. But when one side is clearly not like the other to treat them as equivalent is to fall into an error. For example, treating the climate change “debate” as if both sides are equal is absurd: the science is solidly on the side of climate change. So, what about Trump?
In the previous essay I contended that one significant piece of evidence that Trump is a tyrant is that he used his office to try to extort foreign leaders to get them to interfere in the 2020 presidential election. Trump and his defenders followed the usual pattern. They denied anything had occurred. When it became evident that things had occurred, it was claimed that the activity was not illegal or impeachable. Trump’s defenders also tried to use the above-described fallacy: the false equivalence.
As noted above, Trump has been accused of using his office to extort foreign powers to interfere in the 2020 presidential election. In response, his defenders are asserting that Joe Biden is just as bad (or worse) because when he was Vice President he used his office to pressure Ukraine to remove a prosecutor who was investigating his son’s business deals.
As is common with Trump and his defenders, this attack is based on lies and exaggerations. While it is true that Hunter Biden cashed in on the family name to secure a lucrative deal in Ukraine and it is true that this common practice is morally corrupt, all available evidence shows that the prosecutor was removed for being corrupt and this removal enjoyed wide bipartisan and international support at the time. The prosecutor was also not investigating Hunter Biden and there is no evidence that Hunter Biden was ever investigated. As such, the Hunter Biden story is the usual story of how the well-connected elites exploit their elite status to give advantages to their friends and family (essentially the backstory for Trump and his children). As such, the only similarities between Trump and Biden here are that Ukraine was involved in both cases and the power of an office was used. One could also add that both parents have children who are riding their family names. Looking at these similarities, they clearly do not show that Joe Biden’s actions were even close to Trump’s actions.
But a Trump defender might say, what if the conspiracy is true and Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who was investigating his son? Surely, they would say, this makes Biden as bad as Trump. They would, of course, be wrong.
Let us suppose, contrary to all the credible evidence, that Joe used his office to quash an investigation into Hunter’s corrupt dealings in Ukraine. That would obviously be an act of tyranny and corruption. But it would still not be equivalent to what Trump did—Biden would, at worse, have used his office to protect his son and give him a significant financial advantage. But Trump engaged in extortion to get foreign powers to interfere in the upcoming election. Biden’s alleged crime is on par with business as usual in the Trump Whitehouse, such as how he and his children are exploiting the office for their financial gain. But even in the worst case scenario, Biden did not act to corrupt the very foundation of the office and the American democratic process. They are not even close, and Trump’s defenders have nothing to offer but lies, exaggerations and the fallacy of false equivalence here.