Most Republicans who’ve been confronted with Donald Trump’s campaign to discredit Gonzalo Curiel, the “Mexican” judge overseeing fraud allegations against Trump University, have either condemned his remarks—“the textbook definition of a racist comment,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan—or at least wisely declined to defend him.
But an intrepid handful have taken it upon themselves to condone Trump’s suggestion that ethnic minorities can’t be counted on to judge impartially—or, failing that, to spin it into something that falls within normal political bounds.
Even by the low standards of debate that Trump’s congressional supporters normally face on Capitol Hill, their efforts are half-witted. They would have accomplished nearly as much by comparing Trump to Colonel Sanders and Curiel to a flock of chickens. But the purpose of these defenses isn’t to demonstrate logical rigor. It’s to lend a sheen of plausibility to the idea that what Trump did wasn’t wildly inappropriate. Treating them as serious arguments reveals how unserious his protectors are.
Below, a representative sampling of the surprisingly awful campaign to justify the unjustifiable.
I think that you don’t have any more trouble with what Trump said than when [Sonia] Sotomayor said that—when she was found saying in speeches that, quote, “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male.” I don’t hear any criticism of that sort of comment by a justice of the Supreme Court.
The generic term for this kind of fallacy is tu quoque. The generic term for this specific argument is “stupid.”
The fallacy is straightforward: If Sotomayor genuinely did believe Latinas were inherently better judges than white men, it would still not justify Trump’s suggestion of the inverse.
But it’s difficult to indulge Grassley’s fallacy even for the sake of argument, because his account of the “wise Latina” controversy is a straw man. Sotomayor’s comments were so widely criticized when conservatives unearthed them in 2009 that she was forced to clarify and contextualize them in her Supreme Court confirmation hearings: “I do not believe that any ethnic, racial, or gender group has an advantage in sound judging.”
Moreover, Sotomayor’s point rather plainly was that ethnic minorities who enter the legal profession—intelligent people with diversity of experience—will have a wider range of understanding than their more cloistered peers, and that will aide their judgment. It was not to say that white judges, by virtue of their whiteness, are incapable of standing in judgment of certain minorities impartially.
This failure of reasoning was brought to you by the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who is currently refusing to hold confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland so that Trump can fill the existing Supreme Court vacancy with an even wiser white man next year.
What I like to do is take these arguments out to there logical extremes. So let’s say that Chris Kyle, the American sniper, is still alive and he was on trial for something, and his judge was a Muslim-American of Iraqi descent. Here you have Chris Kyle, who’s killed a whole bunch of bad guys in Iraq. Would that be a fair trial for Chris Kyle? If you had that judge there? Probably not. And Chris Kyle could probably say, “this guy’s not gonna like me.”
This is an attempt to discredit the view that one’s ethnicity doesn’t inherently impair good judgment by using an argumentative technique known as reductio ad absurdum. It is a badly failed attempt.
In Hunter’s metaphor, he compares draft-dodging fabulist Donald Trump to Navy SEAL sniper fabulist Chris Kyle, who killed scores of Iraqi insurgents before he was tragically murdered stateside by a disturbed Marine Corps veteran. The ridiculousness of the analogy doesn’t in and of itself undermine Hunter’s point, but it provides a decent sense of the quality of thought we’re dealing with.
To the extent that there’s a real idea here, it’s that Trump’s critics might take a different view of the controversy if the person alleging the bias was a lionized war hero, rather than a widely disliked racist. It is true that many observers would heap less scorn on an Iraq War veteran who believed an Iraqi-descended judge might be biased against him. But that wouldn’t make the veteran correct.
For the reductio to work, Hunter would need to demonstrate that assuming judicial impartiality leads to absurd outcomes–and that absent Trump’s various calumnies about Mexicans, the argument that Judge Curiel should recuse himself might not be so controversial. To that end, the thought exercise fails entirely. Hunter was attempting to show that Trump’s conflict-of-interest concerns were reasonable. Instead, he showed he harbors the same bigotries that gave rise to the Curiel controversy in the first place.
You can look at the O.J. trial, too. Was that fair?
Here, Hunter was implying (I think?) that defendants tried by juries of their peers sometimes get away with crimes as a result, and, thus, if O.J. Simpson could be acquitted of murder, then Trump deserves a white judge.
The mix of wrongheadedness and irrelevance here is astounding. For starters:
- Simpson’s jury wasn’t all-black.
- Trump’s trial is a jury trial.
- It is possible for someone who committed a crime to be found not guilty, and for that to be the proper verdict.
But the most important point is that Hunter’s suggesting the Simpson trial would have been fair if the jury had been whiter. In other words, in defending Trump from accusations of racism, he is restating Trump’s view that minorities have a hard time being impartial.
You can easily argue that the president of the United States is a racist with his policies and his rhetoric. ... Being a little racist or very racist is not okay, but, quite frankly, the agenda that I see and all the microtargeting to blacks and Hispanics from a policy standpoint, you know, that’s more offensive to me, what I’ve seen through the years, than this one statement.
This argument is pretty much identical in form to Grassley’s, but it is somehow much dumber. So much dumber that, setting aside the pot-kettle-black problem, it probably isn’t worth explaining at length why policy aimed at improving the lives of disproportionately poor minorities isn’t comparable to saying those same minorities can’t be impartial judges.
The Republicans who condemned Trump or hid from the press clearly had the right idea. Those who insist on defending Trump will spend much of the next five months embarrassing themselves, and in some cases revealing views they’d intended to keep to themselves.
It seems to me Trump supporters can adopt one of four reasonably consistent positions in this and similar cases:
- Trump’s a racist, but he’s worth supporting anyhow.
- Trump’s comments are sometimes racist, though he may not be a racist person in general, and in any case he’s worth supporting.
- I agree with Donald Trump, and continue to support him.
- Trump’s comments are unacceptable, and I therefore no longer support him.
What they cannot credibly do is claim that Trump’s campaign against Curiel wasn’t racist, or that it was no big deal, by dint of some supposedly comparable liberal transgression. Not, at least, without accidentally reinforcing the point that in nominating Trump, Republicans have done something extraordinary.