The Death of Argument

As I've talked to friends throughout the country over the past ten days, we have spent enormous amounts of time wondering what went wrong this past election and consulting a bevy of commentators weighing in on the subject.

The answers have ranged from the reasonable -- lower turnout among erstwhile Democratic voters, the enthusiasm gap, frustration among old economy workers, the media's obsession with "info-tainment" as opposed to information -- to the ridiculous -- anyone who voted for Trump is stupid . . . or racist . . . or sexist.

I have a different culprit. It is . . .

The death of argument.

I am talking about "argument" in the classical sense, not in the screaming-at-your-drunk-uncle sense. Real argument, as classically taught, is about premises, facts, logic and conclusions that follow. It abjures -- in fact, disdains -- personal insult, grandstanding, and the mindless repetition of unproven assertions. Apropos of the disdain for personal insult, there is even a short-hand term used to disqualify any embrace of that approach; you just point out that your adversary is engaging in ad hominem attack, that he or she is attacking your person but not your position, and the attack is rejected.

Not so long ago, political argument occupied a place in the world where it at least lived close to that classical construct. There was always hyperbole and campaigns trucked in dirt and tricks and everything in between as they strove to render their opponents not just unqualified but also unfit. Still, however, if you read transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates from 1858, or even the Kennedy-Nixon debates from 1960, and then compare those to what was on offer for the past year and a half in our most recent election season, the difference is beyond striking.

It is scary.

It's hard to even imagine Lincoln, Douglas, Kennedy or Nixon going after an opponent because their "face" (as in "Look at that face") was unacceptable, but that is what Donald Trump did to Carly Fiorina. Nor can one imagine those storied combatants commenting on their opponents' height (Stephen Douglas was short) or propensity to sweat (Nixon under the lights), but that was a routine trope from Trump and others in the GOP debates.

We now live in the world of Twitter. 140 characters and no more. It is a world that makes argument in the classical sense impossible. There isn't the space to structure the required fact-based premises that lead to reasonable conclusions.

This is bad enough when it comes to characterizing interactions between friends and family on a host of every day back-and-forths that matter -- personal relationships, for example, that require trust and the type of transparency abbreviated computer-speak can hardly encourage. It is fatal. however, in the context of serious public decision-making -- as in, for example, a Presidential election.

Put differently, I am more than happy to embrace Twitter as a functional and efficient tool that either helps avoid mix-ups (tweeting "Please pick up a quart of milk" to your spouse at the store) or sends someone to a link that actually develops an argument.

I do not, however, want it to become the President's default means of communication.

And therein lies the problem.

I am being told by assorted relatives and others that I must give Trump a chance.

To do what?

Tell me in a tweet that everything on his transition is going smoothly when I can see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears as heads roll, names are taken, and national security experts like Mike Rogers and Eliot Cohen are black-listed?

When I observe erstwhile allies consigned to the dungeon because they were not allied enough when those Access Hollywood tapes were disclosed (I am thinking of you Chris Christie), and early appointees include those who have trucked in white supremacy (that'd be you, Bannon)?

Trump has many problems. In fact, he has too many problems (misogyny, racism, inattentiveness, a hair trigger temper, boorishness, vulgarity, narcissism, etc.). He is lucky the list is so long. It has led to a sort of public ennui. No one can focus on any one problem and explain how it will hurt us because in the time it takes to do so Trump has exhibited yet another fatal flaw. Meanwhile, no one -- or at least not enough "ones" -- noticed that, amidst the ever-growing litany of negatives, Trump offered no positive arguments, no thought out positions defended with facts where logic was brought to bear and a conclusion followed from a reasonable premise.

It was all assertion.

Punctuated with barnyard epithets, and wrapped in the attitude that the only appropriate response to opponents is the middle finger, an attitude that 140 characters encourages . . .

Because an argument requires many words but "fuck you" requires only two.

This is Trump. Build a wall. Deport 11 million illegals. Lock her up. Cut taxes. The lying media. We will win. And be great again.

Government in seven slogans.

But no why. . . or how . . or truth. In short . . .

No argument.

Many are worried that acceptance of Trump, or even a generalized calm in the face of his ascension to the Presidency, will "normalize" his behavior, that it will now be acceptable to become or be President via a tweetstorm of third-grade rank outs and garish insults.


I have news for you.

Look at the internet, at Facebook, at Twitter.

We're already there.

We killed argument.

And along with it decorum and decency.

And now the consequences are on their way to the White House.