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Trump Fails Logic

The president is blithely indifferent to basic reasoning.

By Louis René Beres 

University professors normally expect that every graduate be at least marginally acquainted with elementary logic. For me, as a retired professor, it is especially odd that the current president of the United States can be so blithely indifferent to these well-established rules of correct inference. Even stranger, perhaps, is that neither the press nor the public ever calls him out specifically for such an inexcusable and consequential failing.

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To wit, with little or no hesitation, President Donald Trump routinely points to the improved economy and stock market as a result of his brief presidency. Although even common sense dictates that any such citation must be ill-founded – in other words, this self-serving argument is readily ascertainable without any conscious analytic reflection – it also expresses the single most easily recognizable fallacy of logic.

Known formally as post hoc, ergo propter hoc, or simply post hoc, this reasoning error maintains simplistically that because one selected event just happens to be followed by another, the second event (here, economic and stock market growth) is a verifiably direct effect of the first (in this case, the 2016 election).

post hoc argument is invariably fallacious because it discounts all other potentially relevant factors. More precisely, Trump’s claim of credit in this case is unwarranted because it falsely assumes that all other conceivably influential factors have somehow remained constant.

A second major Trump manipulation of elementary logic has to do with this president’s undiminished and persistently illegitimate association of brute force with both truth and efficacy. Known formally as the argumentum ad baculum(appeal to force), it is committed by Trump whenever he substitutes pure coercion or threats of force for analytic reason in justifying a predetermined conclusion.

For a clear example, in his most recent dealings with North Korea, the president has attempted to influence Kim Jong Un not with any inferential or deliberative discourse, but instead with primal howls of “fire and fury.”
In this radically unstable region of conflict, Trump seeks to persuade his adversary by offering a gratuitously graphic description of punishment. In essence, “fire and fury” is what Kim should expect to receive in return for inflicting a largely unspecified and substantially wide ranging set of possible harms. At no point in this incoherent colloquy has Trump convincingly or persuasively correlated any specific North Korean aggressions with certain identifiable American reprisals.
To be sure, presidential threats may prove problematic on international legal or operational grounds, but these other deficiencies would be unrelated to any logical fallacy per se. “Operational” means that argumentum ad baculum postures are often not merely illogical, but also more-or-less likely to fail.

A third notable fallacy of Trump’s daily (or hourly) communications has taken a variety of nuanced or different forms, but is still generally known as the argumentum ad hominem. Here, the president tries to make his point by intentionally sidestepping the inherent logic and reasonableness of his pertinent “opponent” (virtually all subject persons are at best “opponents”) and then relies entirely upon discrediting him as a person.

For example, when Trump sought to counter Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s, D-Conn., allegations about Russian manipulations of Trump’s election and administration, he fully ignored the actual substance of Blumenthal’s argument, and focused instead on the senator’s earlier war record exaggerations.

Although it may well be true that Blumenthal acted badly and foolishly in claiming Vietnam war service, that behavior was logically irrelevant to the accuracy of his anti-Trump collusion charge. Separately, in the argumentum ad hominem argument Trump made against an Indiana judge (because he was of Hispanic origin), that particular victim of presidential misrepresentation was not even “guilty” of any purported wrongdoing. In that case, rather, Trump simply (and conveniently) substituted raw racial prejudice for normally acceptable logic and truth.

A frequent reciprocal of this argumentum ad hominem, negative are Trump’s positivearguments made from illegitimate authority. Well known as a popular technique of commercial advertising, such inherently fallacious argument intends to transfer the respect or even reverence one may have for an authority in one area to another, one in which he or she has no meaningful judgment or expertise.

A good example is Trump’s recurrent defense of plainly unqualified appointees as “good guys,” and his corresponding inclination to argue that these appointees who were successful in accumulating personal fortunes are thereby certain to become exemplary public officials.

Another and even more egregious example of the argumentum ad hominem, positive is the president’s unapologetic appointment of close family members to positions of high national responsibility. Can anyone seriously believe that son-in-law Jared Kushner is the best suited person to seek peace in the Middle East, or that Ivanka Trump ought to be representing the president of the United States on utterly core economic and trade issues?

These three fallacies represent just the most obvious of Trump’s grievously destructive affronts against reason and science. There are, of course, many other noteworthy Trump manipulations of logic, including his contrived identification with audience (“Like you, I eat fast food, and will always tell it like it is.”); flattery (“I’m so happy to be in the great state of ______”); condemnation (“I’m so unhappy to bear witness to a state that is really just a ‘den of thieves'”); alarm (“We now face the greatest threat to America ever … Only I can fix it.”); crude appeal to emotion (“You, my friends, have been neglected for too long; when I make American great again, you especially will be made whole again.”); and symmetrical responsibility (“many sides are responsible for the rioting and violence in Charlottesville”).

One could plausibly infer, from this last and arguably most refractory manipulation of correct reasoning, that had Trump been president of the United States during the April 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, he would seamlessly have blamed “many sides” for the “violence.”

In sum, it is time for Americans to worry not only about this president’s increasingly stark moral and political transgressions, but also his distinctly related intellectual debilities. With particular regard to North Korea, Trump’s multiple and conspicuous manipulations of reasoning could bring us to the brink of a first ever nuclear war. Accordingly, it is high time for us to restore a sense of deep respect for “Logic 101” in the White House.

The alternative could be far worse than a failing grade.

Louis Rene Beres is professor emeritus of political science at  Purdue University. Beres’ lectures and research focus on international relations, terrorism, and international law. He is the author of several books, including, “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy,” which was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield.

This article was first published at US News



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