Argument from Inaction

Reductio ad stagnation

A few days ago, Donald Trump tweeted this:

While numerous observers, including some of his staunchest enablers in the Senate, have noted Turkey's aggression in Syria with growing alarm, as of this morning Trump is tweeting as though the situation is unchanged, as though Turkey has yet to do anything that is worth getting worked up over.

Conventional political wisdom is that when a politician outlines something as a "red line" and then fails to act, it's a sign of weakness. Donald certainly hammered President Obama over that sort of thing, and if there's one thing he hates, it's showing weakness.

So why this now?

Because he's playing a different angle. He didn't specify a line Turkey couldn't cross. Instead, he set himself up as arbiter of where the line is, and told his followers what he would do if they cross it.

So if you want to know if Turkey has crossed the line, you only have to look at his conduct. Has he obliterated their economy? If the answer is no, you can tell that everything is fine.

Because if it wasn't fine, he would have obliterated Turkey.

This is the same kind of argument that Trump supporter and cartoonist Scott Adams made during the 2016 campaign: if Donald Trump was dangerous, if he in fact was the next Hitler, then Scott Adams himself and other one-time Trump supporters would give their lives to bring him down.

Adams fancies himself a master persuader (though I personally remain unconvinced on this score), and what he was doing with that claim was attempting to weaponize a very real psychological and sociological phenomenon, something we might term the argument from inaction.

The argument from inaction arises out of the human tendency to look around at the crowd around us for cues. If something seems wrong, it's not unusual to feel the need to check in with others before saying or doing something about it. When other people are acting like everything is safe and normal, it may be that everything is safe and normal.

The flipside of the way that panic can spread through a crowd is that before a tipping point is reached, a crowd can dilute a panic. If no one else is saying anything, if no one else is doing anything, if no one else is reacting, then it can't be as bad as it looks, right?

(This might be the scientific explanation for the behavior of the majority of white characters in horror films.)

Trump has a similar understanding of crowd dynamics as Scott Adams, and an even greater tendency to weaponize the inertia of the crowd. His whole career, his whole life, and especially his whole political existence has been one long repetition of "but surely someone will stop him before things get out of hand/surely if no one has stopped him things must not be out of hand."

This is why the long spells of inaction from Democratic leadership has been dangerous and why the number one thing they could do to help re-elect him isn't impeachment, but nothing. No matter what crimes Trump has committed and no matter what atrocities come to pass between now and November 2020, a lack of impeachment would appear as a strong piece of evidence in favor of Trump's arguments that it's all fake news, no big deal, a witch hunt over normal stuff anybody would do.

Because surely if Trump were a traitor, surely if Trump were a criminal, surely if he were a party to genocide of our allies... well, someone would do something about that, wouldn't they?

This more than any one specific thing being put in the public eye is why the tide of public opinion on impeachment has been turning the longer the process has been ongoing: the act of impeachment, the factual existence of the inquiry itself, signals that impeachment is warranted to anyone who's on the fence.

It's not tautological that if impeachment is happening, it must be warranted... but if it's not happening, there's a strong implication that it's not, and that carries further implications for anyone trying to say that it is.

This kind of puts a new light on the Trumpland line that the lack of a floor vote means impeachment isn't actually happening, doesn't it?


Thank You For Reading This!

You can receive future newsletters like this straight to your inbox as they go out for free. If you especially enjoy them and you wish to help me continue writing them, you can choose to purchase a paid subscription for $5 a month or $50 per year. Now through October 21st, when you purchase a paid subscription you will receive 20% off the cost of the subscription for as long as you keep it. That’s $4 a month or $40 per year!