After the White House released a damning transcript of Trump’s conversation with the leader of Ukraine and Trump and his fellows essentially confessed on television to their misdeeds, Trump’s defenders continue to rally around him. A key part of his early defense was claiming the whistle blower did not directly hear the conversation, therefore their assertions are but hearsay. This defense has been torpedoed as first-hand witnesses have begun testifying. One of these is Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.
Given what the transcript already reveals, it is hardly surprising that Vindman’s testimony would be damaging to Trump. In response, Trump’s defenders have rushed to discredit Vindman. Addressing the credibility of a witness is a legitimate tactic, provided that the assessment is on relevant grounds. These include such factors as the witness’ knowledge and objectivity. In the case of Vindman, his expertise is not in question, so the focus is on his objectivity.
It is at this point that a Two Sides Problem arises. Trump’s defenders are one side, his foes on the other side. In this situation, the manifestation of the problem is that Trump’s side is concerned with winning; that is defending Trump regardless of what he has done. These defenders will certainly paint their opponents with the same brush, seeing them as concerned only with defeating Trump by any means necessary.
When people focus solely on winning, they are not following on any principle beyond victory for their side. Because of this, they are often willing to use whatever means will help them achieve this goal. Considerations of truth, morality, and justice often seem to have no weight. People caught up in this Two Sides situation also accept claims offered by their side and reject those presented by the other side simply because of their origin rather than their merit.
Naturally, a utilitarian moral argument could be used to try to justify this approach—the good generated by the Trump presidency warrants all means to keep him in office. Or the evil generated by the Trump presidency warrants any means to remove him from office.
It is worth noting that to simply assume that because there are two sides that both must automatically fall into this Two Sides trap would be an error. People can resist the psychological and pragmatic appeal of sticking to their side in the face of the truth and goodness. Also, it would be an error to infer that because there are two sides with a stake in the matter, that they must be equally bad or in error. One side can be better, although both could be bad.
In this case, Trump’s defenders seem to be the worse side—the facts, law and morality are against them. Naturally, a clever Trump defender will assert that I must be a victim of the Two Sides problem and infer that I am therefore wrong. This logic would look like this:
Premise 1. Person A says X.
Premise 2. Person A is on the other side (not mine).
Conclusion: X is false.
This is simply a variant of an ad hominem and thus a fallacy. What would be needed is more than pointing out I am on the non-Trump side; evidence is needed to show that I am wrong.
As would be expected in a Two Sides situation like this, there has been a concerted effort to try to demonize those who are testifying. Trump’s Defenders been advancing the narrative that Vindman might have been secretly working for Ukrainian interests at the expense of the United States. One piece of “evidence” being offered is the assertion that Vindman is from Ukraine and this is supposed to affect his loyalty. The historical fact is that Vindman’s family was forced to flee the Soviet Union, which seems an unlikely basis for an alleged loyalty to Ukraine. This accusation of dual loyalty is also especially insulting because Vindman is Jewish and this is a stock tool of anti-Semitism. They are trying to cast Vindman as a villain. Those who disagree with Trump, while right to defend Vindman using good methods need to beware of falling into the hero trap—believing that someone who advances your side must thus be right and good. This does not follow and is a positive ad hominem fallacy.
Trump’s defenders have been working this talking point asserting that Vindman has an “affinity for the Ukraine.” Sean Duffy presented this in a rather odd argument. Duffy tried to smear Vindman by asserting that he had an affinity for Ukraine and hence would put the defense of Ukraine ahead of the defense of the United States. When challenged on this point, Duffy referenced his own Irish heritage and asserted that he had an affinity for Ireland. Interviewer John Berman drew the obvious inference from what Duffy said, inquiring if he would pick Irish defense over U.S. defense.
While Duffy is correct that many Americans with foreign heritage have an affinity for these countries, it is quite a leap from that to the notion that most would prioritize these countries over the United States. If Duffy were right that Americans with foreign heritage (which would include Trump’s wife and children) should be regarded as likely traitors, then it would follow that nearly all Americans are likely to be traitors. To his credit, Duffy seemed to be making that very point about himself.
Accepting that America is a nation of traitors seems to be a high price to pay to discredit Vindman. But when victory for one’s side is all that matters, there seem to be few limits on the means employed. Fortunately, Duffy is relying on an inductive generalization from a sample of one (himself) to make this point. Since the strength of an inductive generalization depends on the size and representativeness of the sample, Duffy’s argument here is extremely weak. Even if he harbors treasonous thoughts in favor of Ireland over the United States, it hardly follows that others do.
Duffy could also be seen as making an argument by analogy. He seemed to be asserting that he would pick Ireland over the United States because of his Irish heritage and inferring from this that Vindman would do the same for his country of origin. Being an argument by analogy, this would be assessed in terms of the similarity between the two men. Vindman is a Lieutenant Colonel who received a Purple Heart in combat and has served his country well. Duffy’s claim to fame is his time served on MTV’s The Real World and Real World/Road Rules Challenge. As such, the two men are not that alike, and it would be a poor argument to draw an inference about Vindman’s loyalty to America from Duffy’s apparent profession of a lack of loyalty.
It must be noted that it is legitimate to consider the objectivity of a witness. If there was actual evidence that Vindman was biased or had dual loyalty, then this would undermine his credibility. But the attacks against him simply assert that because he has a foreign origin, he must be biased or have a dual loyalty. As noted above, this attack would discredit almost all Americans if it worked. As such, until evidence that specifically shows that Vindman is biased or has dual loyalty, then these attacks are baseless.
These attacks against Vindman show how those trapped in the Two Sides Problem can quickly cast those they present as heroes as villains whenever the need suits them—that is, when they believe doing so will help their side win. Republicans and Trump are happy to exploit the troops and rush to use them for political purposes (such as in Trump’s attacks on Colin Kaepernick), but when a soldier shows true patriotism by doing what is right and putting country over Trump, then Trump and many Republicans rush to cast him as a villain.