Virgil: Arguments from Bad Authority: How the Mainstream Media Tries to Trick You
In rhetoric, there’s an ancient concept called “argument from authority.” In Latin, it’s called argumentum ad verecundiam. The idea is that the person making an argument invokes a big name, saying, in effect, “So-and-so agrees with me, so I must be right!”
Of course, an argument from authority can be false. One of the many possible fallacies is, most obviously, that the cited authority might not be an authority on the subject at all. So the fallacy could be the mixing of apples and oranges; the authority might simply not be relevant. As with any tool, it can be used, or misused.
And as we shall see, argument from authority is a particularly favored rhetorical tactic of the Mainstream Media: The MSM introduces an authority figure, builds him or her up, and then, having created a giant, uses that giant to smack down its foes, usually, a Republican.
And what if the exemplars of authority are fallacious? In the minds of the MSM, of course, the duty to oppose Donald Trump and the GOP is the prime imperative. So to that end, in pursuit of this higher truth, any rhetorical sleight-of-hand is not only allowed, but admired.
We can cite three recent examples:
First, in the January 6 Washington Post, we were presented with a headline, “I knew Gov. Schwarzenegger. Mr. Trump, you’re no Gov. Schwarzenegger.” We can immediately note that this wording, of course, is a play on the famous jibe of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX)–“I knew Jack Kennedy . . . ”—aimed at Dan Quayle during the 1988 presidential campaign. So that’s an example of argument from authority, right there.
In the piece itself, writer Abby Lunardini, a former aide to Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was governor of California, seeks to contrast her former boss with Donald Trump. In Lunardini’s telling, Schwarzenegger, now back in the news for his new role on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice, becomes the authority on executive leadership by which Trump should be judged. And, of course, this being the MSM, Trump is deemed to come up short.
Indeed, in making her argument, Lunardini describes virtues in Schwarzenegger that many observers had failed to notice. In office in Sacramento, he was, she assures us, “a dedicated student of policy and government,” adding, “Schwarzenegger prided himself on being the best-briefed person in the room.”
Having built up Schwarzenegger to Solomonic status, Lunardini now uses the august authority she has conferred on the onetime action-movie star to dump on Trump. In contrast to her ex-boss, she writes, Trump has a “legendarily short attention span,” and a habit of “blowing-off of debate prep and intelligence briefings.”
Having thus dismissed Trump, Lunardini recalls that Schwarzenegger himself had troubles early on in his governorship, and yet he solved them by changing course; he brought in a Democratic chief of staff who proceeded to “work with” (read: cave in to) the Democrats in the state legislature. The implication is clear: In her mind, President Trump could save himself by similarly caving in to the Democrats in Washington.
As the author puts it:
Perhaps Trump, like Schwarzenegger, will turn out to be a pragmatic social moderate who uses his charm and business negotiation skills to forge consensus.
And yet, Lunardini sighs, that’s not likely to happen. As she puts it, “That’s more than we can reasonably expect from Trump.”
Okay, so there we have one argument from authority, MSM-style: Judged by the standards of the Great Governor Schwarzenegger, President Trump is likely to be a failure.
Now let’s take a second example, also from January 6. The headline in Politico reads, “Bill Perry Is Terrified. Why Aren’t You? How an 89-year-old cold warrior became America’s nuclear conscience.”
Perhaps William J. Perry is not a household name, although some time back, from 1994 to 1997, he was an important figure, serving as secretary of defense under President Clinton. And yet even then, he cut a relatively low profile; he hasn’t really been heard from in decades.
Yet now, if Politico has anything to say about it, that will change—his stature will rise. According to this MSM outlet, Perry, now in his ninth decade, has reluctantly taken on the new role as “America’s nuclear conscience,” because he is worried. And what is he worried about? Why, Donald Trump, of course!
In the explanation of writers John Harris and Bryan Bender, Perry, supposedly a quiet sage all these years, has now been inspired to action by the president-elect’s supposedly careless talk about nuclear weapons and the nuclear arms race.
Perry had supported Hillary Clinton, and had assumed that she would win. And yet, in the Politico account:
Now comes Donald Trump with a long trail of statements effectively shrugging his shoulders about a world newly bristling with bombs and people with reasons to use them.
So that leaves Perry, according to Politico, with no choice but to speak up as the voice of “rationality”:
Donald Trump was not the voice he was looking for, to put it mildly, but he has responded to the Trump cyclone with modulated restraint. Perry said he assumes his most truculent rhetoric isn’t serious, the utterances of a man who assumed his words were for political effect only and had no real consequences.
Okay, got that? As far as Politico is concerned, Trump is a blowhard for sure, and probably menace to boot. And yet maybe, just maybe, he will heed the wise counsel of Perry. And what if Trump doesn’t? Well, then, in the MSM view, that’s just one more strike against Trump: He doesn’t heed the wisdom of good authority.
Now we can come to our third example, seen in this headline in the
December 31 Politico: “What the ‘Godfather of Populism’ Thinks of Donald Trump: In the 1970s, Fred Harris invented the “new populism.” Now, with a so-called populist taking the White House, he’s aghast—and wants to reclaim the term.”
By now, the reader is not surprised that the MSM has once again found an elder figure to elevate, thereby lowering the stature of Trump.
The wise man in this case is former Sen. Fred R. Harris (D-OK), here to tell us who is, and who isn’t, a proper populist. And so already we can figure it out: Trump will flunk the Harris test.
Harris was once a figure of some renown. Born in 1930 in Cotton County, OK, he became prominent when appointed to the US Senate in 1964. He was re-elected two years later and then, in the late 60s, became a media darling: While retaining his twangy country & western persona, he became a safe vote for every limousine-liberal cause of that era, even as he persisted in calling himself a “populist.” And for their part, East Coast leftists were happy to go along with Harris’ word-play; if he could be a reliable liberal vote in conservative Oklahoma, he was welcome to call himself whatever he wanted, if that’s what it took to give himself some political cover.
Yet Harris’ rhetorical ploys didn’t work out so well. He avoided seeking a third term in 1972, choosing instead to run for president; his national campaign fizzled. And in fact, at the time, it was thought that Harris couldn’t win re-election in Oklahoma, as he was too liberal for the state; he was, for example, pro-choice on abortion. Harris sought the presidency again in 1976, and, once more, his campaign went nowhere.
And for the last four decades, Harris has been a professor at the University of New Mexico, although he has continued to be a liberal Democrat in good standing. Now 86, he has been a delegate to every Democratic convention, a campaign co-chair for Barack Obama in 2008, and a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton last year.
In other words, while it certainly can be said that Harris’ progressive credential are in good order, it’s harder to say the same of his populist credentials.
After all, populism is all about the rule of the people—their voice, their vision. And the people in Harris’ home state aren’t so liberal and they no longer vote for Democrats: In 2016, for example, Trump won 65 percent of the vote in the Sooner State, while Clinton won less than 29 percent
So again, it would seem that Harris is more of a leftist than a populist. And yet in this instance, it behooves Politico writer Richard Linnett to extoll Harris’ populist credentials—he’s the “Godfather of Populism,” after all—because populism is the standard by which he seeks to judge, and convict, Trump.
As Politico puts it:
When Harris looks at Donald Trump’s campaign, he sees a vision of populism fundamentally opposed to the way he saw the movement. In the 1970s, Harris aimed to build political clout by creating new coalitions across boundaries of race, gender and class, uniting people on the basis of their shared struggle.
As we have seen, Harris’ vision of populism—in reality, liberalism, complete with sneering references to the purported “racism” of political foes—was rejected by the voters, both in Oklahoma and nationwide.
And yet because Trump has so much populist support, it’s a clever MSM tactic to try to belittle his populist credibility. Here’s more from Politico:
In electing Trump, Fred Harris believes the people voted against their own interests, choosing a man who will enrich himself and not them. He sees Trump as a leader who has built walls between groups and emphasized their differences in order to gain power—in fact, Harris isn’t so sure that the president-elect’s views can even be called populist.
So there we have it: The Godfather of Populism isn’t so sure that the president-elect is at all a populist. Yes, it might seem cheeky that Harris, out of office for nearly half a century, presumes to explain why it is that Trump, who just won 63 million votes, carrying 30 states—including, of course, Oklahoma—is not actually populist. And yet, of course, the MSM eats it up.
Yes, argument from authority is a strong rhetorical tactic. It can be used to reveal the truth, or it can be used to conceal the truth. And by their own words, MSMers have shown us which approach they prefer.