Many of Joe Biden’s official campaign commercials avoid controversy by highlighting the candidate’s commitment to his family, his passion for driving a classic Corvette, or celebrations of working Americans. These are meant to humanize the candidate (by giving examples of him as a loving husband, father and grandfather), counter concerns over his age (by showing him behind the wheel of a cool car), or play to traditional campaign themes (by making the campaign about more than the candidate).
While we could probably fish around to find a fallacy or two in some of the statements in these positive ads, it is in his negative ads where we can find better examples of fallacies at work.
For example, this spot – called Laughed At – uses footage from a global summit where international leaders were caught on camera mocking President Trump to deliver the message that the current President is a laughingstock who is embarrassing the nation and – by extension – the people in that nation (i.e., you):
This is a particularly creative example of an informal fallacy called appeal to popularity. The classic form of this argument is that you should believe something since lots of other people believe it. “I won the election, so live with it,” (a sentiment expressed by both Democratic and Republican Presidents alike) is one form such an appeal can take, implying as it does that everyone should follow along with the “will of the people” demonstrated by a candidate’s electoral success.
Biden’s ad taps into a more primal urge regarding personal popularity, the need not to be laughed at. As anyone who has ever been ridiculed (whether on the playground or in the office) understands, you laugh at those who are unpopular. By creating the impression that Trump’s behavior is causing the world to laugh not just at Trump but at America (and thus Americans), he is hoping voters will do whatever they can to no longer be led by someone who causes them such embarrassment.
One could argue that Biden is making a reasonable case, given that the footage he provides accurately portrays what other world leaders think of our President (at least at the moment they were captured on film). But one could easily create a similar video showing those same leaders listening to President Trump in solemn silence to create the impression that they take the President very seriously. Republicans could also create a video that includes various leaders (including Democrats) mocking Joe Biden over the years to create the impression that he would become an embarrassment to Americans if elected.
None of this should imply that an argument that the current President is held in low regard by other world leaders is off limits. But Laughed At is not making a logical case that tries to identify the scope or potential negative consequences of not being respected on the world stage. Rather, it is making an emotional (and fallacious) appeal for you to not associate yourself with something that might lead the nation – and by extension you – to become an unpopular object of scorn.
Another spot, called Timeline (can anyone tell me when campaign commercials became named objects, akin to works of art?) presents a case that Donald Trump failed to protect the country from the coronavirus pandemic:
This ad uses newspaper headlines, quotes from the President, and statistics about the rise of coronavirus infection in the US to make the case that Donald Trump knew about the deadliness of the virus but either did nothing about it, or played down the threat in order to avoid a stock market meltdown. That case is framed chronologically so that Trump's actions (or inactions) are mapped along a timeline with narration explaining how you should interpret events that unfolded since the beginning of 2020.
Now it may turn out that everything in this ad is true, but given that many accusations in the ad require knowing the internal state of someone else’s (Trump’s) mind, we are left not with verifiable facts but with a sequence of events that are open to interpretation.
For example, when Trump said in January that the virus was “totally under control,” the world looked quite different than it did in March when infections had become so widespread that the nation had to go into severe lockdown. In fact, at the start of the year it was containment (the traditional first step when dealing with an outbreak) that was the primary goal of health officials. It was only after containment failed that we had to move to the more widespread, restrictive measures we live under today.
The general impression of Timeline is that because Trump did or said something before something bad happened, his previous deeds or words were the cause of those bad things. This is an example of an informal fallacy that usually travels under its Latin name of post hoc ergo propter hoc which translates to “after, therefore caused by.” The rooster taking credit for the sun rising due to his crowing is a shorthand example of this fallacy, but any President who takes credit for good things that happen on his or her watch (rise in stock prices, peace between foreign nations) over which they had little to no control is committing a fallacy which says if A (my election) preceded B (stock price increases or peace) then A must have been the cause of B.
Again, this is not meant as a ringing endorsement of Trump’s response to COVID, and one could make a compelling case that his choices at various points over the last year were the wrong ones that led to the crisis ending up worse than it had to be. But Timeline is doing something different. It strings together a narrative based on points in time when many things were happening at once (COVID outbreaks in Asia and then Europe, impeachment in the US, the Democratic primary, etc.) to create a simple narrative the makers of the ad want you to believe.
Again, Trump supporters can (and likely will) come up with a competing timeline that shows the president to have been decisive and strategic while his opponents were dithering. It will likely take many years to fully understand why the nation experienced the pandemic so severely, and how responsibility should be apportioned, allowing history to render judgement. But campaign ads cannot wait that long, which is why they must rely on evocative images, scary narration and music, and simplified stories to sway voters one way or another.
Pretending that campaign spots should adhere to academic standards would itself be a fallacy, a category error in which the rules and values of one category (academia) are used to judge something not in that category (campaign commercials). But knowing when such spots contain arguments that might be built on fallacies can help us determine whether we are being swayed by strong arguments, or manipulated by weak ones.