Donald Trump, You Failed: An English Teacher Speaks to Trump Supporters

USA, Washington State, Bellevue, Interlake High School
USA, Washington State, Bellevue, Interlake High School

I taught freshman English at the college level for almost 20 years. My courses covered the typical freshman comp essentials: the five-paragraph essay, critical thinking, logical fallacies, and clarity of language.

I think that's why today's political climate creates so much despair in me. As a teacher, I started with a premise that is really the foundation of all of education: that reason and discourse trumped -- oh, the irony -- all else. In other words, to be an adult in this complicated world, we had to learn how to make a cogent argument, prove a point, and say something that might help others see your point of view, while considering all other arguments.

Mr. Trump, you would have failed my course miserably. In fact, any Trump supporter who ignores the basic truths of his candidacy would also probably fail, after getting back marked-up papers from me with comments like "huh?" and "where is the evidence for this?"

Especially in my argument courses, where it didn't matter what topic a student chose as long as he could bring in evidence to support it. I even remember the student who wanted to argue that Tupac Shakur was still alive. Remember 1996? Okay, I might have laughed at that idea. No disrespect, man.

But overall my students selected fascinating topics for research and debate. Even the personal essays I had them write had to have a foundation. Don't just say you were sad when you didn't make the swim team. Show it. Did you hug a friend? Splash the water? Have a fight with your mom?

But it was the classes on argument that I felt I could have the greatest effect on my students (who, by the way, have gone on to become clerks for federal judges, loving parents, and intelligent writers -- and those are just the few who have kept in touch).

When I taught argument and critical thinking, I argued that it didn't mean that everyone needed to go on to a career in writing. So many careers require the ability to think through the muddle of information out there. Getting to that point meant they had to develop a convincing argument and lay out their case with evidence. Emotion could come in, but only at the service of truth.

I loved the time I devoted to logical fallacies in particular. It was almost a game, and I could pick up the newspaper nearly every morning and tell students, "Find the logical fallacy in this argument."

Today, logical fallacies from the Trump campaign rule the day. Let's look at some of my favorite examples. I can't list them all. There isn't enough room or time in my day to lay them out. Besides, some logical fallacies are based on the premise that an arguer is actually trying to build some kind of case. But here's a start.

Ad hominem attack. This is an argument directed at a person rather than the position they maintain. Now Donald Trump says he's being "viciously" attacked because his critics have some beef with his statements. That's not an ad hominem attack. But he, in fact, uses the fallacy all the time. If a reporter asks a tough question, he's a "loser." If an opponent challenges him, he'll comment on the state of their marriage, their size ("little Marco Rubio"), or their face (Carly Fiorina).

Red herring. That's when the person distracts the debate from the real issue at hand. When Ted Cruz started to make headway against Trump in some states, Trump questioned whether his birth in Canada would make him ineligible for the presidency. When asked about his immigration policy, Trump famously said that Mexico had conspired to send murderers and rapists into this country. Or when Kizr Khan says at the Democratic convention that Trump is insulting Muslim service members, Trump asks why Kahn's wife didn't speak.

Straw man fallacy. If you are challenged, knock down a different, weaker, or irrelevant point, a "straw man." When the Trump campaign put out an anti-Semitic ad against Hillary Clinton showing her with a Star of David and a pile of money, Trump's response was that the sticker book for the Disney movie "Frozen" also had a star on it.

False attribution. When a person uses an unqualified or made-up source of information. This one is kind of a mixture of several fallacies. In criticizing Ted Cruz, Trump cites the National Enquirer as proof that Cruz's father was with Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald before he was shot. (Points, also for red herring, ad hominem)

Appeal to fear. Trump plays on our fears of terrorism, crime, and other bad things in the world to say that he alone can protect us.

Appeal to emotion. We are the best; the rest of the world is taking advantage of us.

Hasty generalization. If Muslim extremists have done some of the terror in this country, we should ban all Muslims from entering. (This one is another blob of fallacies and plain old racism.)

Appeal to authority. In most cases, that means an arguer says that if an expert in something says it, it must be so. In Donald Trump's case, he's the expert, and we should just trust him because he alone can fix our problems. That's beyond a logical fallacy; it's hubris, which in many religions is a sin and in a democracy is just scary. I'll leave the moral arguments for another day.

I'm not saying that Hillary Clinton hasn't taken a few logical shortcuts of her own, but Donald Trump is the living proof of what happens when logical fallacies abscond with reason.

Donald Trump, you'd have failed my class. And I hope you see this and respond in your usual way. It would just prove my argument.