As this was being written, it was announced that the G-7 summit would be held at Trump’s Miami golf resort. Once again, his defenders have been tasked with explaining why this obvious exploitation of his office and clear violation of the emoluments clause is actually perfectly normal and fine. This adds yet another example in support of the claim that Trump is a tyrant. Trump will simply enrich himself and his family at the expense of the public while providing nothing for the public good. This is a clear case of tyrannical behavior. Now back to the discussion of fallacious responses to the argument by definition that Trump is a tyrant.
Since the Red Herring fallacy is so common, it is no surprise that Trump’s defenders press it into service. A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:
1. Topic A is under discussion.
2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is not relevant to topic A).
3. Topic A is abandoned.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim. This fallacy is often used in conjunction with the similar Two Bad fallacy. This fallacy has the following form:
1. Premises 1: A has done X, which is bad.
2. Premise 2: A (or a defender of A) points out that B has also done X.
3. Conclusion: A doing X was not bad.
This reasoning is fallacious because the fact that someone else has done the same thing does not make it not bad. This fallacy is like Two Wrongs; in Two Wrongs the “reasoning” is that something wrong is not wrong if someone else would or has done it to you. The difference is that this fallacy does not require that the other person would or has done the action to you. It is also somewhat like Common Practice, which justifies something by asserting it is commonly done. The difference is that Two Bad does not involve saying that the practice is common, just that someone else did it as well.
So, how do Trump and Trump’s defenders use these fallacies to try to defend Trump? To illustrate, I will use the famous Obama Netflix example. Trump is understandably enraged at the Mueller Report—it details his many crimes and misdeeds while carefully asserting that a sitting president cannot be indicted. While the report had but little impact beyond enraging Trump, he has endeavored to distract attention from it to someone else—specifically he has called for an investigation of President Obama for his book deal and Netflix deal. Looked at as a Red Herring, this is simply an effort to switch the subject from Trump’s massive self-enriching corruption to Obama’s profiting from his time in office.
While it is true that Obama has profited nicely from the book deal and will presumably profit from his Netflix deal, these are irrelevant to the issue of whether Trump is engaged in corruptly enriching himself. Trump’s approach can also be seen as a False Equivalence as well: while Obama is profiting from his book deal and will profit from the Netflix deal, both of these are legal and within the moral norms (Bush also signed a book deal). More importantly, while Obama is profiting from being president, he is doing so while he is no longer in office. While there are moral concerns with exploiting past office in this manner, these concerns pale in comparison with corruption while in office. Hence, this is just another attempt at a False Equivalency.
Trump and his defenders can also be seen as attempting a Two Bad here as well; by pointing to Obama’s deals, Trump can try to assert that his financial exploitation of the office for his and his family’s enrichment is not bad. His “logic” would be that his deals are not bad because Obama also did deals that were bad. Even if Obama’s deals were morally wrong, it would obviously not follow that Trump’s corruption is not bad. As such, trying to defend Trump against a charge of tyranny by asserting that other people do bad things as well would commit either a Red Herring or a Two Bad (or both). Thus, this defense has no logical merit. This is not to deny that other people do bad things or assert that there is nothing wrong with people exploiting their office after they leave—but those are utterly different matters.