..For how can you compete,
Being honour-bred, with one
Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbours’ eyes?
I came across this quote today in my Twitter feed, and it’s clearly aimed at President Trump. The general sentiment of the quotation is, if you’re raised to be an honorable person, how can you combat someone whose lies don’t shame himself or the people around him who know he’s lying?
It’s a similar sentiment to one that I frequently return to here about basketball fouls. The people you’re playing against consider that fouls are part of the game, and so by playing the game how you understand it should be played, you are at a disadvantage.
I read a book on argument recently. It talks about formal logic - the thing where there are rules about how you make arguments and try to avoid logical fallacies. The thing about argument is that it’s not formal logic. You are free to pass logical fallacies if they persuade your audience. In argument, calling out logical fallacies isn’t even a way to “win” because, if you’re any good at argument, when you call your opponent on pointing out logical fallacies, they basically look like a jackass, playing the game of formal logic when you’re playing argument, and your point still stands.
One of the interesting things when thinking about argument in this way is that it changes based on where it happens any among whom. It’s this factor that is relevant to the Yates quote.
One of the things that Trump opponents seem to get wrong is that they’re not playing the right game, the one of argument. They think that lying is a foul in the game, and that by committing enough fouls, you’ve lost. Well clearly, Trump hasn’t lost. And yet his opponents stand confounded.
Don’t let what I’m saying suggest to you that I’m a Trump sympathizer. Quite the contrary. What’s fascinating me at this point is how long he’s managed to play a different game than the one his opponents are playing and still get away with it.
Argument suggests a “simple” (but perhaps not easy) way to combat this situation. The problem is that his opposition is obsessed with revealing his lies, inaction, poor policies, etc. to people who simply don’t care about those things. They need to stop. Instead, they need to appeal to the people in the same way Trump does.
An appropriate argument tool when standing in a room of people and arguing with one person is to sway the audience. This is the root of election politics, after all. What we seem to have missed is that the revelation of lies is not swaying the audience. Instead, we’ve got to find the knob that turns the audience to our side without losing our higher moral ground.
Simplifying their message may be hard for the Democratic opposition. They’re so fixed on how awful Trump is, they’re not really speaking to the issues that Trump’s supporters want to hear, particularly not in a way that will resonate with them. The whole of the Democratic party seems out of touch with the people they need to persuade.
Instead of pointing out lies and expecting people to fall in line behind any other idea, explain how, in the simplest of terms, Democratic policies will help them directly. Do not contrast with Trump’s policies, but instead contrast with the current reality. “Your children are overburdened with student loans, and nothing has changed in more than four years. Has Trump done anything for you? No? We can fix that.” Replace “student loans” with any policy. Don’t even bother to describe how, even if you know how.
People will say that this is too simple. We need to include the policy for it to be legitimate. I’m not saying to not have one, I’m saying to frame it in a way that resonates with the people you’re trying to persuade away from Trump. Get the audience on your side. When they get used to a politician not lying to them, maybe they’ll start to value that when election time comes around.