Donald J. Trump
versus the Progressive Left
What accounts for the political division in
the United States today? Are the reasons ideological, religious,
racial, economic... or something else?
Aristotle's work seems to suggest the true
reason lies with logic. The Progressive Left and Conservative
Right might be using different logics, or at least have a
different understanding of a single logic. This difference
manifests itself at the level of language.
This is readily seen in the opposing ways
the Left and Right hear the 45th President of the
United States, Donald J. Trump. Apparently, he says
different things to each of them when he speaks. The response to
his very first political speech – the one where he formally
announced his candidacy – makes this abundantly clear.
One part of that speech has since become famous:
Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re
not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people
that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems
with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re* rapists. And some, I assume, are good
J. Trump, June 16, 2015
This is what Trump literally said on that
fateful day. But at the level of meaning, the Left and Right
heard him say two very different things about Mexicans. What
exactly did they hear, and how did they reach their opposing
Whether you watch CNN, MSNBC, Fox News or
follow political discussions in print, you already know the
answer to the first part of the question. Debates over what
Trump 'really' said are usually initiated from the Left, where a
progressive commentator will claim that Trump made a sweeping
generalization about Mexicans being criminals and rapists. The
conservative side must then play defense. And quite naturally,
since most people on the Right hear something more modest in
Trump's speech about the criminality of Mexicans. To concisely
summarize the viewpoint of the two sides:
Progressives hear: "All Mexicans are criminals and rapists."
Conservatives hear: "Some Mexicans are criminals and rapists."
But how these conclusions are reached is
much more difficult to understand. Let's arrange the two
statements into an Aristotelian square
It does not appear that Trump universally
declares anything about the criminality of Mexicans in his
speech. That is, there are no obvious 'All' statements. But he
does unambiguously make the particular affirmative statement
that "Some [Mexicans]... are good people."
The level of the particular is where conservatives clearly focus
their attention. If we agree that Trump's statement "Some
[Mexicans]... are good people" is effectively equivalent to
"Some Mexicans are not criminals and rapists," this means that
"Some Mexicans are criminals and rapists" is also true. Why?
Because the two particular statements at the bottom of the
Aristotelian square are related as subcontraries. Moreover,
since the particular negative statement stands in contradiction
to the universal affirmative statement, the truth of the latter
is excluded. In the end, conservatives deny that Trump speaks
about all Mexicans when he talks about criminality.
Trump does not say "All Mexicans are criminals and rapists"
either literally or implicitly.
Progressives would not necessarily disagree that Trump
effectively makes a direct statement regarding just a particular
subgroup of Mexicans. Why? Because they would hold that the
truthfulness of such a statement stems from the fact that Trump
believes "All Mexicans are criminals and rapists." For if all
Mexicans are criminals, then it is also true, a
fortiori, that some Mexicans are criminals.
The problem with the progressive reading is that subalternation
only proceeds in one direction, from the universal to the
particular statement level, and Trump only appears to make
particular statement(s) in his speech. Strictly speaking, if you
hold "Some Mexicans are criminals and rapists" to be true, you
cannot source the truth of this statement to "All Mexicans are
criminals and rapists." In order for progressives to indict
Trump at the level they do, they must either set aside the
logical relation of subalternation for an alternative logic, or
find textual evidence that Trump is, in fact, directly making
universal declarations regarding Mexican criminality.
So how would Aristotle rule the debate? It is unclear. While
Aristotle did not explicitly discuss subalternation and
subcontrariety, most traditional logicians find them implicit in
his texts. Yet it appears he did not consistently apply the
logic of subalternation, and in the end chose to read 'some' as
not eliminating the possibility of 'all.' This would somewhat
place Aristotle in the progressive camp, in contrast to the
conservatives' more natural ear which hears formal declarations
of 'some' as no more than just that, 'some (but not all).'
* There is a slight ambiguity in
the transcript of these spoken words: "They're rapists" might be
"Their rapists" in reference to the type of people Mexico is
sending which Trump speaks of in the first sentence; it thus
reads as "Mexico is sending their rapists." Trump often utters
statements (or fragments thereof) which do not perfectly align
with those that are uttered immediately before and after, but do
make sense within the wider context of much earlier and/or later