What is the Straw Man Fallacy?
When Donald Trump was confronted about comments made about women in his 2016 campaign, the presidential hopeful had a simple response: “The big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he argued (Chow). Political correctness, a simple problem with a simple solution. During the same presidential race, Ted Cruz hammered on about how, “political correctness is killing people,” and Ben Carson warned of deteriorating American values “for the sake of political correctness” (Sunstein). But who are these people vehemently threatening the American way?
A straw man is a logical fallacy that creates the illusion of having defeated the opponent’s proposition by replacing it with a false argument. Straw man arguments are particularly common regarding highly charged, emotional subjects. And boy, do conservatives sure love using them.
Let’s recall Richard Nixon’s famous “Checkers speech” in 1952. Whilst campaigning for vice president, Nixon supposedly illegally appropriated $18,000 in campaign funds for personal use. When asked about the funds, Nixon spoke about a dog, “Checkers” that was given to him as a gift by supporters. Despite the fact that no one had criticized it, Nixon successfully distracted the public from the missing funds and portrayed his critics as heartless for suggesting that he give the dog away (Nixon).
President George W. Bush was an avid user of the straw man argument. Bush ran his entire platform off vague, generalized statements that critics never actually said, like “Some say that if you’re Muslim you can’t be free,” or “Some look at the challenges in Iraq and conclude that the war is lost” (CBS News). He famously omitted important nuance in his speeches and appearances, leaving onlookers to wonder if he even knew what the hell was going on.
Build a Straw Man, Then Knock it Down
When politicians start a sentence with, “some say,” it’s almost certain that a straw man will follow. The “some” they’re talking about is code for Democrats, and they’re opposing some extreme view that bears little resemblance to the actual argument at hand.
During the third presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Trump claimed that Clinton advocated for totally open borders when the topic of immigration reform came up. As evidence, Trump pointed to a speech Clinton gave in 2013. In the speech, Clinton discussed the free movement of goods and energy across borders, she never discussed the movement of people (Lee).
Clinton’s mention of the term open borders, paired with a liberal stance on immigration, allowed Trump to construct a more easily-refutable argument against open borders. An idea that basically no one likes. Immigration reform was a pivotal issue in the 2016 election, and it definitely had an impact on people who didn’t know the full story. The straw man can be used as a dangerous tool of manipulation in highly emotional debates, like that of immigration reform.
The War on Christmas
A comical (but no less annoying) example of the straw man in action is the supposed “War on Christmas.” The false claim of Christian persecution has recently emerged as a result of religious diversity becoming an increasing priority in the United States. Proponents of religious tolerance and inclusion are unfairly cast as wanting to destroy Christmas. But, of course, no one actually wants to abolish Christmas. Okay, there’s maybe a few people, but the fact that Donald Trump made it a campaign promise to say “Merry Christmas” a lot is bewildering, at best (Cummings).
The Future of the Political Straw Man
The straw man tactic bears a close resemblance to the hasty generalization, in which the refutation of an opposing position is claimed as a refutation of all opposing arguments. It is also closely related to the slippery slope fallacy, in which the opponent makes a claim about a series of falsely related events that would culminate in disaster. Researchers have found significantly increased use of these logical fallacies in modern political argumentation, and identifying these forms of argument is an important new tool for improving public discourse (Talisse).
The straw man can also be seen as an oversimplification of the opponent’s actual position. Trump is often guilty of distorting the liberal agenda to an extreme, then mocking this caricature version of his made-up opponent. In 2019, for example, Trump tweeted, “The Democrat position on abortion is now so extreme that they don’t mind executing babies AFTER birth” (Wise). This distorted representation of the left’s position on women’s reproductive rights accomplishes nothing but to appeal to the emotions of his supporters and is in no way representative of what’s really going on.
According to the Washington Post, President Donald Trump has made 20,055 false or misleading claims (an average of 15 per day!) since he took office (Rizzo). Who can keep up with such frequent factual missteps?
CBS News. (2006, March 18). The President And The Straw Man. Retrieved August 03, 2020, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-president-and-the-straw-man/
Chow, K. (2016, December 15). 'Politically Correct': The Phrase Has Gone From Wisdom To Weapon. Retrieved August 03, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/12/14/505324427/politically-correct-the-phrase-has-gone-from-wisdom-to-weapon
Cummings, W. (2017, December 23). TV ad thanks Trump for letting us say 'merry Christmas' again. Retrieved August 03, 2020, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2017/12/22/thank-you-trump-commerical/978155001/
Lee, K., & Tanfani, J. (2016, October 20). Donald Trump's claim that Hillary Clinton wants 'open borders' doesn't hold up. Retrieved August 03, 2020, from https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-open-border-fact-check-20161019-snap-story.html
Nixon, R. (1952, September 23). Nixon's Checkers Speech. Retrieved August 03, 2020, from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/eisenhower-checkers/
Rizzo, S., & Kessler, G. (2020, July 13). Analysis | President Trump has made more than 20,000 false or misleading claims. Retrieved August 03, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/07/13/president-trump-has-made-more-than-20000-false-or-misleading-claims/
Sunstein, C. (2019, August 21). Political Incorrectness is a Sham. Retrieved August 03, 2020, from https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-politically-incorrect-donald-trump-ted-cruz-20151230-story.html
Wise, J. (2019, February 26). Trump claims Democrats 'don't mind executing babies after birth' after blocked abortion bill. Retrieved August 03, 2020, from https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/431532-trump-claims-democrats-dont-mind-executing-babies-after-birth-after
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Ariba Fida Chattha from Kasur Pakistan on July 26, 2020: