On Both Sides, The Media Is Peddling A False Dilemma About Trump
An op-ed headline in The Washington Post this week intrigued me: “Our town’s newspaper was mocked for endorsing Trump. Here’s what we think now.”
The column was from Gary Abernathy, publisher and editor of the Hillsboro, Ohio Times-Gazette. It was accompanied by a photo of an idyllic rural scene: a field of soybeans, a combine harvester, a setting sun.
Abernathy is eminently reasonable, saying Trump’s tweets are “as annoying to his supporters as to his opponents” and pointing out that a local heroin epidemic is more important to their community than Comey or the Russians. Fair enough.
Where he goes astray, though, is where many seem to go astray. “What Trump’s supporters also appreciate about him,” writes Abernathy, “are the very attributes for which he is relentlessly criticized in the media… They’re weary of politicians whose every statement seems carefully crafted to say nothing and offend no one.”
He goes further: “I know what candidates and politicians are supposed to say and how they are supposed to say it. I sometimes find myself cringing at things Trump says, wishing he would behave more like a typical politician. But then I remind myself that if he did, he would likely lose the support of the grass-roots movement that put him where he is.”
And there it is: the false dilemma.
False dilemmas, also known as the either-or fallacy, are when a situation is presented as a choice between only two options, when in reality there may be many more.
George W Bush used this trick after 9/11: “Either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” But the options were deceptive. It was entirely possible to be not with the terrorists and yet not approve of the President’s response.
The thing that made Bush’s scenario super-effective was that one of the options is undesirable. After all, who would want to be with the terrorists?
So what’s the false dilemma with Trump? The options presented in Abernathy’s commentary are clear: either he behaves “like a typical politician…” or he says things that make you cringe.
To put it another way: politicians are either lying or they’re offending people.
It isn’t just Abernathy offering this artificially limited choice, and I’m not bringing it up to trash a Trump supporter. This bogus either/or narrative has been presented in all sorts of media outlets: from HuffPo to Real Clear Politics to the Washington Examiner. Either you “tell it like it is” and make people mad, or you lie, and don’t. The truth, it seems, is only ever awful.
Like the “with us or with the terrorists” choice, one of these options is undesirable. Nobody wants a politician who lies. Nobody wants a politician who doesn’t tell it like it is.
But isn’t there another option? Isn’t it possible to be both truthful and not cringe-inducing?
This is the narrative the media needs to present: that our options are greater than a simple -- yet false -- choice between lies or nastiness.
There’s a New Yorker cartoon that shows a flock of sheep standing under a billboard. On the billboard, a wolf in a suit is saying, “I am going to eat you.” One sheep says to the other, “He tells it like it is.”
But their choice should not be limited to a wolf or a liar. There must be an honest sheep in there, one who “tells it like it is” and yet doesn’t make even its own supporters cringe.
We’ve been sold a false choice between two unpalatable options. We deserve more.