Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation

As we have previously stated, the Institute endorses no candidates and no policy positions. However, occasionally a political figure will say or do something that pertains to civility and deserves comment. Donald Trump’s recent proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States falls into this category, insofar as it is contrary to the spirit of open dialog and free expression that is necessary for the health of a vibrant pluralist society.

In a press release Monday, his campaign wrote that: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. To the Associated Press, Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski clarified that this means not only immigration, but tourists seeking to enter the country. And Trump himself strongly implied that the ban would include Muslims who are U.S. citizens and travel outside of the country.

Beyond the fact that this plan would violate constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, Trump’s words have the effect of polarizing and provoking. They close, rather than open, avenues of civil dialog. And they have the potential to incite violence against a group that is already frequently the target of hate crimes in the United States. Just hours before Trump’s statement, for example, police and the FBI confirmed that they were investigating an incident in which a severed pig’s head was left outside of a mosque in North Philadelphia.

Several members of Trump’s political party have denounced his proposal. Jeb Bush offered a strong rebuke through Twitter. And, as CNN reports, state chairs of the Republican Party in New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina were critical as well. Matt Moore, the Republican chair in South Carolina, tweeted that we must remain vigilant about defending our inalienable rights, not attacking them when it’s politically convenient. And Jennifer Horn, head of the New Hampshire GOP, called the proposal “un-American” and “un-Republican.”

That said, there is a second strain of criticism being leveled against Donald Trump that is as unacceptable as the proposal itself. That is, what philosopher Leo Strauss in 1951 dubbed reductio ad Hitlerum. Reductio ad Hitlerum is a type of ad hominem logical fallacy that proposes that a person’s views, and therefore the person him- or herself, is like Hitler, a Nazi, a fascist, or the Nazi Party.

This was clear Monday when The Times of Israel ran an image with their story on Trump’s proposal of the candidate seemingly engaged in the Nazi salute. And it was clear this morning in the Philadelphia Daily News’s punning headline: “The New Furor.”

Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation
Times of Israel, December 7, 2015

 

Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation
Philadelphia Daily News, December 8, 2015

But the Nazi – or more generally fascist – comparison is not limited to images and three-word tags. Journalist Xeni Jardin, writing at BoingBoing.net, called Donald Trump a candidate for Führer of the United Fascist States of America. And an article at Quartz.com by Uzra Khan of the Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy called this proposal, and earlier comments about tracking Muslim Americans, a set of ideas reeking of Nazism.

Finally, on social media, this meme has been circulating for the past twenty-four hours:

Donald Trump, His Detractors, and the Rhetoric of Provocation
The Institute obviously DOES NOT endorse any comparison of anybody, least of all Donald Trump, to Hitler.

The trouble with the reductio ad Hitlerum argument is almost precisely the same as the problem with Donald Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslim immigration: it is alarmist, overwrought, and privileges polarization and provocation over the sort of meaningful dialog that has a chance to disarm bigotry and lead to productive changes in policy and attitude alike. How can one respond to a comparison to Nazi Germany? With blanket denial, defensiveness, or an equally sweeping counter-attack. And none of those responses are useful.

The fact of the matter is that our attitudes toward and policies regarding immigration do require serious public scrutiny. Violence perpetrated by extremists of all creeds is currently an exigent problem in the United States. And America’s undercurrent of festering anti-Islamic sentiment does require open dialog if it’s ever to find resolution.

But when candidates for high office propose extreme measures, and when those proposals are met with disproportionate and ad hominem attacks, we cannot collectively do any of those things. To foster dialog, to resolve hate, and to countenance scrutiny, America needs the kind of safe space created through civility. And it is civility that these kinds of rhetorical tactics threaten, if not destroy.

Civility Linkblogging: Iran, Kentucky, and George Washington

Civility Linkblogging
A Lynx, because Linkblogging

This post is part of an ongoing series that highlights discourse about civility from around the Web. We glean the links in this segment from as broad a cross-section as we can manage of blogs, newspapers, magazines, and other online venues, from the United States and around the world.

This week takes on some hot-button issues in the current landscape of political news. Here we have perspective on the Iran nuclear deal, and an example of a civil way forward among Americans who disagree. We have a take on Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis and the line between disagreeing with her ideologies and actions, and abusing her online. And we have some discussion of the current presidential race, and some lessons the candidates could take from a young George Washington.

As always, if you have an article that you think would be right for future civility linkblogging posts, please do not hesitate to email it to us at editor@instituteforcivility.org. Include the title, url, and a short summary, and we will gladly review it for publication.

Now — the list:

Kim Davis Might Be Wrong, But So Is Demonizing Her For Her Convictions
Posted by Qasim Rashid at The Daily Caller, September 7, 2015

Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who has stated that she is willing to go to jail for the sake of her religious beliefs, became the punchline of jokes for things that had nothing to do with her stance on gay marriage.

“How could someone this ugly be married three times?” read one meme. “Who gave her a license to eat that much?” read another.

What is it about the social media age that makes us behave so cruelly towards one another?

I Cannot Tell a Lie: I Miss Political Civility
Posted by Sean Coletti at The Idaho Statesman, September 8, 2015

Over 200 years have come and gone since Washington wrote these maxims. It is incredible that a giant as great as Washington was the epitome of these qualities — even his enemies recognized it.

And it is deplorable that the level of public discourse of some of our presidential candidates and other leaders has fallen so far off of this course.

Modesty. Reason. Humility. Kindness. Politeness. Respect. These qualities do not go out of style — nor should we let them — regardless of how some in positions of status may talk or act publicly.

Booker’s Visit to Livingston Temple Brings Needed Civility to the Iran Debate
Posted by Tom Moran at NJ.com, September 8, 2015

What really struck me was that both sides spoke with respect, and even affection, despite the strong emotions this deal has roused.

Booker noted that he and his Democratic partner, Sen. Robert Menendez, came to different conclusions, and both have been vilified.

“It’s unacceptable to me on both sides,” Booker said. “Bob Menendez is brilliant. We disagree on this issue, but to see him demeaned, to be called a warmonger? He voted against the war in Iraq….It makes me so mad. He stays awake at night worrying about these issues.”

Finding Ways to Maintain Civility With Your Competitors
Posted by Dena Lefkowitz at The Legal Intelligencer, September 17, 2015

Lack of civility is not only unpleasant, it can also make cases harder to resolve, because people take greater risks when they are angry and that can be bad for business. Jennifer Smith wrote about this in a Wall Street Journal article titled “Lawyers Behaving Badly Get a Dressing Down From Civility Cops,” about the New York Inn of Court, a legal group that promotes collegiality and ethical behavior. She quoted an attorney who said, “‘When I’m upset, I can feel the testosterone rising, and I can literally feel my judgment declining.'” He was a co-chair of the American Board of Trial Advocates’ committee on professionalism, ethics and civility.

Lawyers who successfully compartmentalize the client, the case and the counsel on the other side will have richer, more satisfying careers. Every person we meet represents an opportunity, and if you automatically disqualify those who oppose you in litigation or negotiation, you miss out.

Take a Course in Civility
Posted by Bill Black and Tom Tozer at The Daily News Journal, September 18, 2015

We’re not sure that any school in the nation will ever require students to take a course in civility. Not civics. Civility.

But we think it would be a good idea. We are not a civil society these days. We have replaced conversation with confrontation. In many cases, violence is the first resort. And it’s not a question of teaching morals. It goes more deeply than that. It’s a matter of values.

Our values define us.

A value is an intangible ideal that we personify by the way we live and conduct ourselves in society. If we hold sacred the value that every human being deserves respect, then we wouldn’t think of hurting another person by our words or actions.