On False Equivalence

image via Creative Commons


by Emma Marsano

“False equivalence” became a popular term in the months leading up to the election. An article in the Huffington Post warned of the danger of equating Trump’s flaws with Clinton’s scandals, and John Oliver echoed that sentiment on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight.

Unfortunately, the logical fallacies didn’t end on election night. This week, there’s a new false equivalence making its rounds. Spokespeople on both sides of the aisle, including Hillary Clinton and President Obama, have been stressing the importance of the “peaceful transition of power,” urging Americans to give Trump a chance to govern before condemning his presidency.

This rhetoric conceals a false equivalence between petty, partisan squabbling and justified concerns about the civil rights of millions of Americans. In stressing the importance of the peaceful transition of power, our nation’s leaders and journalists are conflating the legitimate fear that Trump will follow through on the bigoted rhetoric he used throughout his campaign with frustration at having lost the election.

Those protesting Donald Trump’s election are not denying the legitimacy of the democratic process, nor are they prioritizing allegiance to the Democratic Party over respect for the peaceful transition of power. At its core, the 2016 election was not about parties. It was about respect for the humanity of all Americans. People are protesting because Donald Trump won the presidency after eighteen months of saying racist, misogynistic, hateful things, delegitimizing, in the process, the identities of black Americans, Mexican-Americans, Muslim-Americans, women, members of the LGBT+ community, immigrants, refugees, disabled people, and more.

When we conflate these legitimate concerns with run-of-the-mill political frustration—using terms like “partisan” that characterize the discourse in any political environment—we risk normalizing President-elect Trump’s comfortable use of racist and misogynistic rhetoric. In referring to concerns about bigotry as “partisan,” we imply that it’s acceptable for one party to capitalize on bigoted rhetoric to get elected.

It should not be considered “partisan” to believe that a president needs to fight for the humanity of all Americans. Trump has not given us reason to believe he will do so, particularly in light of the selection of Steve Bannon as his chief strategist. It should not be considered partisan to be suspicious of a man like Bannon, who has been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, and whose tenure as executive chairman at Breitbart News oversaw such headlines as “There’s no hiring bias against women in tech, they just suck at interviews.” If such concerns are “partisan,” are we to believe that the Republican party counts bigotry among its party’s goals?

In fairness, it’s likely that Obama and Clinton—both of whom called Trump unfit to be president on the campaign trail—recognize the true motivation of the protests we’re witnessing. So, there must be some subtext to their appeals to the sanctity of the democratic process. When Obama and Clinton implore us to give Trump a chance, they’re really asking that we respect the democratic process even though it means letting a bigot run the country, thereby threatening the civil rights of millions of Americans.

To hear these two leaders assert, even obliquely, that we must put the rights of minorities on hold, that we must tell the most oppressed members of our society to wait, just a bit longer, to have their humanity recognized, is a sad comment on the state of our democracy. What’s more, the decision to order our priorities in that way is predicated on a promise that the sacrifices we make to safeguard our democracy now will eventually extend the protections of that democracy to all Americans. That is not a guarantee that Obama and Clinton can safely make.

It seems that, in this country, the so-called “peaceful transition of power” still necessitates the endangerment of minorities and women nationwide. The moral imperative for each of us, over the next four years and beyond, is to push toward an equality that our democracy can’t yet accommodate. As we and our representatives in Congress start to focus more closely on pieces of legislation and policy details, we need to remember this false equivalence between concerns about human rights and partisan maneuvering. They are not one and the same, and the day we forget that is the day we accept bigotry as the new “normal” in Trump’s America.