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Equivocating on "The Peaceful Transition of Power"

Equivocation can be used as a distraction, a red herring, to deflect criticism.

Equivocation, the fallacy one commits when one switches the meanings of terms mid-argument, is one of the few fallacies (I can think of) that is sometimes humorous. When people commit it, it can be funny. Take my favorite example:

  1. Bologna is better than nothing.
  2. Nothing is better than prime rib.
  3. Therefore, bologna is better than prime rib.

When symbolized, this argument seems valid. If B is better than N and N is better than P, then B is better than P. (If B>N, N>P then B>P.)

But obviously, this argument is fallacious. Why? Because the argument equivocates on the meaning of the word “nothing.” “Nothing” means something different in premise 1 than it does in premise 2. (Bologna is better than having no food at all. But no specific food is better than prime rib.) And since unexpected or switched meanings are sometimes humorous—the bartender asked the horse “why the long face?”—equivocation can sometimes be humorous.

But equivocation can also be very serious, as when an argument the president gave in the first presidential debate equivocated on the term “peaceful transition of power.”

What the term traditionally refers to is the process by which one president’s administration turns over power to the next. If the process is peaceful, the existing administration openly acknowledges who won the election and cooperates with the incoming administration in the necessary ways—for example, by sharing intelligence briefings and vacating The White House. When Chris Wallace asked Trump and Biden, “Are you prepared to reassure the American people that the next President will be the legitimate winner of this election?” in the first presidential debate, this is what he was referring to.

Since Trump has cast unjustified aspersions on mail-in voting—claiming without evidence there has been and will be widespread fraud—and The White House has repeatedly emphasized that he will only accept the result of a “free and fair” election, many have been worrying about whether Trump will concede if he loses, or if he will refuse to leave The White House or facilitate a peaceful transition of power.

But in the debate, in response to this question, Trump claimed that he was not granted a peaceful transition when he took office, thus implying that he is not obligated to grant one himself.

“So when I listened to Joe talking about a transition, there's been no transition from when I won. I won that election. And if you look at crooked Hillary Clinton, if you look at all of the different people, there was no transition. Because they came after me trying to do a coup. They came after me spying on my campaign. They started on the day I won and even before I won.”

Now, his claims about there being a coup, and campaign spying are demonstrably false. But the main thing this argument does is try to redefine what the term “peaceful transition” means. According to Trump's statement, a peaceful transition would have only occurred if his political opponents hadn't impeached him and (supposedly) spied on his administration—or, more generally, perhaps, if they didn’t have it out for him, criticize his administration, or object to his actions and policies.

But of course, that is not what anyone has ever meant by the term. Indeed, the Obama administration openly acknowledged that Trump won the election and cooperated with his incoming administration.

Now, usually, equivocation is done to make a weak argument look strong—like in the “nothing” example above. But it can also be used as a red herring—a distraction to draw attention away from the issue at hand. And this, it seems, is what Trump's argument does: It distracts from the fact that many are worried about whether he will concede if he loses. It encourages people to spend time debunking the claim that Obama spied on Trump's campaign, and to talk about whether there was a coup—not about the fact that, if Trump loses, he may claim that the election was not “free and fair,” that the reports of his loss are “fake news,” and/or that he actually won the election when he did not.

Copyright David Kyle Johnson, 2020