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COVID-19, Donald Trump And The False Dilemma Fallacy

Greg Raymond

Gregory A. Raymond is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at Boise State University. A former Pew Faculty Fellow at Harvard University, he has published 19 books and over 100 articles, essays, and reviews on current affairs. In addition to receiving Boise State’s outstanding researcher and outstanding teacher awards, he is a past recipient of the Idaho Professor of the Year award from the Carnegie Foundation.

Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian.

Political journalists and researchers in the field of communication studies have done an admirable job analyzing the patterns in U.S. President Donald Trump’s meandering oratory. Besides documenting over 20 thousand false and misleading claims that he made during his first three- and one-half years in office, they have methodically described how he employs various rhetorical tactics to distract, deflect, and delude. As countless news reports and scholarly publications demonstrate, Trump regularly engages in vilification, projection, obfuscation, exaggeration, fabrication, and repetition in order to shift attention away from sensitive topics, transfer blame to others, and manipulate his audience.

Following the onset of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic, Trump added another rhetorical tactic to his repertoire. Although he had originally discounted the threat posed by COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, insisting that it was less worrisome than the seasonal flu and that the United States was better prepared than any other country to contain its effects, Trump began using dilemmic arguments to frame his response to the virus as concerns among his campaign advisers mounted over whether the economic side effects of the pandemic would undermine the prospects for his reelection.

The Nature of Dilemmic Arguments

The subject of moral dilemmas has intrigued people since antiquity. The ancient Greek playwrights Aeschylus and Sophocles, for example, explored situations of conflicting duties in Agamemnon and Antigone, respectively. Each play involved a clash between inescapable obligations that, if considered in isolation, would be justified. Yet they could not be taken up separately and fulfilling the responsibilities of one prevented fulfilling those of the other. The leading character in the former play faced a choice between saving his daughter or sustaining the troops under his military command; the lead in the latter confronted a choice between adhering to religious conventions or obeying a government edict. Although the choices they wrestled with were different, no matter what the protagonists in these tragedies did, they would commit a wrong.

In a genuine moral dilemma, equally strong reasons exist for you to take each of two possible actions; you are able to carry out either action; but you cannot do both. Because neither alternative supersedes the other, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Regardless of the option selected, you fail to do something that ought to have been done.

The strategy of those who make dilemmic arguments about public policy issues is to depict challenging problems as genuine dilemmas, where only two mutually exclusive alternatives are available. This strategy has several aims. The first is to abridge the number of options that members of a target audience consider. The second is to bias their choice by attaching different weights to each side of the either/or conditional. Finally, the third aim is to convince the audience that since one alternative is clearly superior to the other, it is imperative to do whatever is required to implement that option, costs and risks notwithstanding. Difficulties with each alternative may be acknowledged, but unlike in a genuine dilemma the deck is stacked in favor a preferred option, which is implicitly framed as obligatory.

Poster from Kirovabad Theater’s 1976 production of Antigone by Sophocles. Dimitri Tavadze, Wikimedia creative commons.

Trump’s Application of Dilemmic Arguments to the Coronavirus Pandemic

By the summer of 2020, President Trump’s initial predictions about the coronavirus pandemic proved hopelessly wide of the mark. America was reeling. The virus had infected over five million citizens and COVID-19 was responsible for more than 160 thousand deaths. With a case-fatality ratio of 4.48 percent and 42.8 deaths per 100,000 population, the United States suffered terribly compared to most other countries. Its per capita death rate was five times the global average and 10 times that in the European Union. Yet Trump continued to deny the gravity of the threat. By early July, the Washington Post had recorded 977 false or misleading claims that he had made about the coronavirus. According to an ABC News/Ipsos poll taken at that time, two-thirds of the respondents disapproved of his handling of the nation’s deepening health crisis.

The way that Trump delineated the nation’s options for responding to the coronavirus was one of many factors that contributed to his administration’s inept performance. Any important policy problem evokes a distinct group of questions, depending on how the problem is framed. Framing the problem one way gives rise to certain questions; framing it another way prompts other questions. Trump’s use of dilemmic constructions to influence people’s perceptions of the choices for coping with this frightening new respiratory disease steered public discourse in a particular direction, which accentuated economic questions but obscured topics that the president wished to dodge.

In crafting a response to the coronavirus, Trump and his surrogates sought to depress support for vigorous anti-contagion policies, such as temporarily shutting businesses, closing schools, and suspending religious, sporting, and entertainment gatherings. Seeing economic growth as critical to the president’s political fortunes, they concocted dilemmic arguments to persuade citizens that commercial lockdowns and restrictions on large-scale assemblies were counterproductive, despite evidence that they significantly lowered transmission of the virus in Europe.

As the number of infections in the United States soared, belying Trump’s frequent claims that the coronavirus was under control, pressure on the administration to take decisive action intensified. On March 13 Trump declared a national emergency. Although a growing number of governors ordered the closure of nonessential businesses to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the president chafed at measures that might stymie economic activity. Despite granting that there were trade-offs between saving lives and saving livelihoods, over the ensuing weeks he repeatedly framed these alternatives categorically, while maintaining that protecting livelihoods was a higher priority. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” Trump tweeted in capital letters shortly after making his emergency declaration.

Having portrayed the nation’s choices in either/or terms, Trump proposed how to realize what he deemed was the better of the two alternatives. During a March 30 news conference, the president cited encouragement that he received from some unnamed business leaders. “Ride it out,” they allegedly urged. “Don’t do anything” that shackles the economy. Buoyed by support from these anonymous bankers and corporate executives, Trump pressed governors to end stay-at-home orders, even before their states met the administration’s own guidelines for reopening. High unemployment, weak consumer demand, disrupted supply chains, and volatile financial markets, he reasoned, were eroding his political support.

To shore up his position, Trump began using emotionally charged words that tacitly reinforced his preferred solution to the coronavirus problem, as can be seen in his tweets calling for protesters in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia to “liberate” their states from lockdowns and quarantines. Professing that 99 percent of COVID-19 infections were harmless, Trump defended his administration’s actions by explaining that the mental strain from sheltering in place would lead to more fatalities than those caused by the virus. “Staying at home,” he asserted, “leads to deaths.”

Nor was Trump alone in declaring that getting the economy up and running was preferable to preventing a new wave of COVID-19 deaths. U.S. Congressman Trey Hollingsworth (R-IN), for example, described reopening the economy as the lesser of two evils. “In the choice between the loss of our way of life . . . and the loss of life,” he said to radio station WIBC-FM in Indianapolis, “we have to always choose the latter.” Other Trump supporters, from Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick (R) to radio talk show host Glenn Beck, echoed his opinion, contending that citizens should be willing to risk their lives to save the economy. COVID-19 “is not a death sentence,” U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “except for maybe no more than 3.4 percent of our population” (which, he failed to mention, would total millions of fatalities).

Framing public policy problems with the vocabulary of a dilemmic argument is seductive. It taps into what cognitive scientists call loss aversion. The findings from various psychological studies reveal that (1) people are guided by the immediate emotional impact of losses and gains; (2) the prospect of loss looms larger in people’s minds than an equivalent opportunity for gain; and (3) people tend to be risk-acceptant when a problem is framed as a loss. In other words, most human beings gamble when their options look grim, gravitating toward policies that could easily make matters worse in exchange for the small hope that these policies will allow them to avoid a significant loss. To put this in terms of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus: Ending business lockdowns and opening schools could easily cause a future spike in viral infections, but they seemed to offer an outside chance of avoiding immediately painful economic and educational losses.

U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Tony Harp/Released

The Drawbacks of Dilemmic Arguments

Donald Trump has a unique rhetorical style. Linguists have highlighted the simplicity of his manner of speaking, which contains short sentences, a narrow vocabulary, and words with low syllable counts. Other scholars have noted that like a novice poker player whose unconscious habits divulge the strength of his or her hand, Trump has several tells that signal his impending dissemination of a false narrative, including such tipoffs as assertions that “a lot of people are saying,” “many people don’t know,” and “nobody talks about.” Still other commentators have discussed his taunting, gaslighting, dog-whistling, and magical thinking. Far less attention has been given to Trump’s use of dilemmic arguments, even though they impair efforts to cope with pressing public policy problems, such as the coronavirus pandemic.

Dilemmic arguments are troublesome for various reasons. To begin with, they rivet the target audience’s attention on a one alternative in binary choice, when there may be other viable options. False dichotomies stifle the imagination. By spurring a headlong rush in a preordained direction, they discourage questioning assumptions, frustrate improvisation, and inhibit reexamining a budding problem as new information accumulates. Framing potential responses to the coronavirus in dichotomous terms—locking down versus opening up—hampers our ability to pivot to a more judicious, nuanced approach to managing the coronavirus crisis, one that recognizes the interdependence of the nation’s health and its economic well-being.

Additional drawbacks to dilemmic arguments arise from language that conveys the impression that a certain course of action is necessitated rather than simply being what someone thinks ought to be done. Though based on a hidden ought, dilemmic arguments imply an explicit must, which leads the target audience to a focus on when an action is to be taken, not whether it should occur. Shifting the discussion to matters of timing and away from questions of appropriateness encourages listeners to believe that what is necessary is also achievable, with the result that they become inclined to suppress personal doubts, reject information that contradicts exaggerated expectations of success, and marginalize dissenters.

Concluding Remarks

As someone who frequently makes arguments that appeal to the crowd, to threats of force, and to derogatory allegations about his opponents (what logicians call ad populum, ad baculum, and ad hominem arguments), it is not surprising that Trump also resorts to the argument from false dilemma. Relatives, aides, and pundits who have closely observed Trump report that he has little knowledge of policy issues, scant interest in learning about the intricacies of programs designed to address serious problems, and hostility toward anyone who criticizes his off-the-cuff opinions on how these problems should be handled. Posing an asymmetric twofold choice fits his rhetorical style. It simplifies reality, reducing complex, multifaceted options to a tightly scripted preference. Epidemiological expertise is beside the point when the correct course of action is already known.

As noted earlier, ancient Greek tragedians grappled with situations where two wrenching alternatives existed but neither one prevailed over the other. The question that spectators attending their plays came away asking arose from what the poet W. H. Auden called the tragedy of necessity: “Why did things have to be this way?”

Our situation is different. President Trump and his associates have falsely characterized the nation’s predicament as a genuine dilemma by disingenuously posing an either/or choice and by tipping the scales toward what they see as the politically expedient alternative. The question that we must ask ourselves about their handling of the coronavirus crisis arises from a tragedy of possibility: “Why did things have to be this way when they might have been otherwise?”

Note: This article is part of The Blue Review’s Coronavirus Conversations, a special series on the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.