The word “absurd” has been thrown around more than a little with regard to the ongoing Republican presidential primaries. The original field of 17 has been winnowed to three during months of unbelievable posturing. It ranged from billionaire frontrunner Donald Trump comparing one of his opponents to a child molester, and then subsequently receiving the same man’s endorsement, to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio claiming that President Obama is actively committing treason.
But a different kind of absurdity has been afoot in this election more frequently than in past contests, and in the last few days most of all: It’s the absurdity identified by the form of argument known as reductio ad absurdum.
Think back a moment to November, when Republican candidates were trying to outdo each other with promises to protect the United States from the Islamic State by barring refugees from the Syrian civil war from entering the country.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was one of the loudest voices against allowing Syrian’s to seek refuge in the US, and in a radio interview with host Hugh Hewitt he found himself taking a position vulnerable to the reductio attack.
The argument can be paraphrased this way:
Hewitt: Governor, your position is that no Syrian refugees should be allowed into the US under any circumstances.
Hewitt: What about refugees who are checked out by the government and determined to be no risk to the country?
Christie: We can’t be sure they aren’t terrorists. No refugees, period.
Hewitt: Okay, governor. What if we’re talking about an orphan under the age of five?
Christie: (actual quote) I don't think orphans under five…should be admitted into the United States at this point.
Hewitt, in effect, forced Christie to claim that he believes that an orphaned infant might pose a terrorism threat to the United States. Absurd, right?
When one employs the reductio in an argument, that’s the object: to prove an opponent wrong by demonstrating that holding his position requires accepting absurd conclusions. It’s one we all learn as children, when we try to justify wrongdoing with the claim, “But it was okay because everybody else was doing it.”
Time out of mind, parents have replied, “Well, if everyone else jumped off a cliff, would it be okay for you to jump off a cliff, too?”
The power of the reductio, though, lies in the assumption that the person trapped in the logical fallacy will be forced to admit the absurdity of their position. And most people do seem to recognize the futility of trying to defend the position “Yes, I would jump off a cliff if everyone else was doing it.”
But it doesn’t seem to be working in the GOP field anymore. Just as Christie was willing to take a stand against terrorist toddlers, other GOP candidates seem equally immune to absurdity.
Take the pledge to support the eventual nominee of the Republican Party, whoever that person might turn out to be.
All of the GOP candidates took the pledge, and Donald Trump’s various bigoted statements, combined with his lead in the polls, have forced them into uncomfortable places in recent weeks, none more so than Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who may have won the prize this weekend.
Again, a paraphrase of Cruz:
Media: Senator, you’ve said you’ll support the party’s nominee, no matter who it is.
Media: So, if it were the billionaire bigot, Donald Trump, whose candidacy would not only assure your party would lose this election, but might actually destroy its credibility with every non-white male demographic in the country for a generation, would you support him?
Media: Okay, just for argument’s sake, what if on top of all the electoral arguments, the billionaire bigot also called your wife ugly in public and leaked a story to the tabloids alleging that you have had not one, not two, but at least five extra-marital affairs? Would you support him as the nominee then?
Cruz: (actual quote) “I'm going to beat him for the nomination.”
Media: (actual quote) You didn’t answer the quest—
Cruz: (actual quote) I’m answering the question. Donald Trump will not be the nominee. Donald Trump will not be the nominee. Donald Trump will not be the nominee.
Cruz, like Christie before him, cleaves so tightly to his original statement of support for the nominee – no matter who it is – that he can’t bring himself to disavow Trump’s candidacy even after the billionaire made him the target of one of the most shocking political attacks in recent memory. The best he can manage is some sort of ritual repetition of what he hopes is the truth.
Trump himself put on a show of dragging one of his (supposed) principles along with him into logical la-la-land over the weekend.
The Republican nominating convention is taking place later this year in Ohio, a state with “open carry” laws that allow licensed gun owners to carry weapons in public places. The Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, though, where the event will take place, has a strict no-guns policy.
An unknown organization claiming to support the rights of gun owners posted a petition on the site Change.org demanding that the GOP press the owners of the area to relax the ban, so that attendees at the convention are allowed to defend themselves against various threats, including a terrorist attack. Though pretty clearly a prank, the petition gained tens of thousands of signatures.
As a result, Trump, who declared himself the “strongest” candidate on Second Amendment issues months ago, had to reconcile his past statements with the demands of the petitioners.
Again, a rough paraphrase:
Media: Mr. Trump, you are a strong supporter of the right to bear arms.
Trump: The strongest.
Media: You have said that various mass shootings in the US and abroad, including massacres in Paris and San Bernardino, would have been stopped in their tracks if weapons were more widely distributed and open carry was allowed in more places.
Trump: Yes. If I had been there in Paris, I’d have taken those shooters down.
Media: So, does that mean you will support a proposal to allow tens of thousands of GOP convention attendees to carry weapons onto the convention floor?
Trump: (actual quote) “I have not seen the petition. I want to see what it says. I want to read the fine print.”
So Trump, while stopping short of a full-endorsement of the idea of an open-carry convention, is unwilling to abandon his absolutist rhetoric. That means he has to suggest that he is willing to consider allowing a large number of participants in what will likely be an angry, confrontational event, show up on the floor with firearms. Oh, and a non-trivial percentage of them will probably be drunk, too.
Again, even if we won’t admit it, as children we learn that, when trapped by a reductio, the only credible response is “Well no, of course I wouldn’t jump off a cliff. That’s absurd.”
In this campaign, though, nobody seems able to admit even that, anymore.