While most people don’t think of contradictions in terms of the metaphysical peril I described last time, by instinct we nearly all recoil when faced with them. This is why voters intensely dislike politicians who behave hypocritically, such as the moralist caught having an extramarital affair, or the populist who lives in luxury. In fact, it sometimes seems we would prefer a politician with no principles over one who betrays them.
Over the last month, President Trump’s poll numbers have gotten stuck well below those of his rival Joe Biden, even at a time when the Democratic candidate’s own party has erupted into civil war over issues such as defunding the police which, however you define that phrase, is unsupported by a majority of Americans. Given this political moment, one would think a law-and-order campaign by the current President could help him capitalize on the situation, yet Trumps numbers refuse to budge.
One of the reasons behind this surprising situation could be that President Trump has spent the last several months demonstrating contradictions that even supporters have trouble ignoring and, as just mentioned, it is very hard for voters to unsee contradictions or overcome their natural dislike of them.
But what is the contradiction in the Trump Presidency that has become so apparent recently?
His long-time critics might pick the contradiction between what the president says is true, and reality, summed up in accusations that the president is a liar. But determining the degree to which the current president lies is not a straightforward as it might seem, not because there is no objective truth to be had in the world but because the term “lie” covers so much ground.
We can say false things out of ignorance, for example, or tell an untruth (or equivocate on the truth) in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings (a so-called "white lie").
Telling falsehoods or equivocating seem worse when they are used to get out of an uncomfortable situation (like telling a friend your phone died when you actually chose to not pick up when she called). Saying things you know to be wrong in order to deceive others seems closer to what we commonly think of as lie, but what about arguments built entirely from true facts that might also be misleading? Now that you know how to logic-check the news, you can identify when premises (including true ones) do not lead to the conclusion. But is someone lying whenever they make a weak argument?
As tempting as it might be to rest our case that the Trump presidency commits the crime of contradiction by lying, once we sort the ignorant statements, equivocations and bad arguments from outright lies, we would likely end up arguing not that President Trump lies more than most people, but that he lies more than most politicians – a rabbit hole we might not emerge from.
Before going down that route, it might be easier to find a contradiction related to something more fundamental to voters: the identity of the person who currently holds the Oval Office.
I don’t believe I am saying anything wildly partisan by pointing out that President Donald J. Trump represents a significant departure from Presidents’ past. The way he won the nomination of his party, and then the presidency, and how he has run his administration are out of step with all past presidencies and precedents. But they all tie back to a fundamental identity Trump has nurtured throughout his political career: that of a smart, tough businessman ready to “make the tough calls” who, as an outsider, is free from the pressure of “Washington culture” and opinion polls.
Every politician tries to craft their public persona around a story the public can easily understand. Senator John Kerry, for example, kicked off his 2004 campaign for the presidency by citing his war record in Vietnam (where he was awarded for his bravery), even bringing his “Band of Brothers” from that war onto stage with him at the Democratic convention when he won the nomination. In fact, it was the centrality of that chosen identity that made him vulnerable to other veterans who claimed Kerry’s actual experience in Vietnam contradicted the candidate’s story.
In Trump’s case, the insurgency that brought him to the White House does bear out his claim of being an outsider, and he has obviously spent his life in the world of business. But in fundamental ways, he seems to depart from the vision most of us have of a serious executive. Exhibit A would be his non-stop Twitter feed, fully of childish taunts directed against political and media enemies and undigested thoughts regarding important policy matters. Those who have worked in large corporations and interacted with experienced executives have always seen a major contradiction between the president’s persona as a serious CEO and his juvenile behavior on social media.
Why might this be impacting the President now? Perhaps Trump’s supporters, including those who enjoyed how his social-media antics riled up his (and their) enemies may have lost their ability to paper over this contradiction once the President was required to deal with a global pandemic with enormous human and economic fallout. That situation required someone claiming to be a serious leader to act like one, not spend time coming up with funny nicknames for his opponents.
We have obviously not even started the Presidential campaign season and, given how much happened in the first half of 2020, it would be foolish to assume the rest of the year will be in any way predictable. Still, if Trump wants to gain ground on his opponent between now and Election Day, he might need to find ways to prove to the public that Biden represents contradictions even greater than his own.