The following quotation has become the general reaction to Donald Trump’s charge that the judge presiding over his civil fraud lawsuit has an ethnic conflict of interest. It comes from the UK’s Guardian:
Trump’s broadsides against Judge Curiel certainly crossed a line. The presumptive GOP nominee suggested that the judge’s “bad decisions” against him were not the result of Curiel’s interpretation of the law, but rather because, as Trump put it, he’s a “Mexican” (Curiel was born in Indiana). Since Trump has a harsh view of illegal immigration from Mexico, Trump alleged that Curiel’s ethnic heritage made it impossible for him to offer unbiased judgments on Trump’s case. This is, as even Republicans have pointed out, the textbook definition of racism.
With all due respect to Cohen, the charge in question isn’t a textbook definition of racism. Rather, Trump’s charge is a textbook example of the poisoning the well fallacy. Without getting too fancy and formal, the poisoning of the well fallacy is a failure of relevance whereby, in the words of Douglas Walton, “the critic questions the sincerity or objectivity of an arguer by suggesting that the arguer has something to gain by supporting the argument he has advocated” (Informal Logic, Walton, pg. 170). To supplement Walton’s definition, the poisoning the well fallacy is the commission of the ad hominem fallacy where the objectivity of the arguer is called into question by implicitly or explicitly suggesting s/he has a vested in the topic. The dialectical water well, so to speak, is thus poisoned since anything the arguer says is subject to suspicion on the basis of a presumed conflict of interest. The fallacy, superficially persuasive in argument when successfully utilized, is a cardinal error even if the motivation is a noble one. Anyone exposed to the basics of critical thinking ought to be able to spot the fallacy a mile away.
No doubt Trump’s comments about judge Curiel are ethnically insensitive and politically destructive. However, the charge of racial insensitivity (or racism) misses the point. The point isn’t that it is argumentatively wrong to bring up race as a basis to call into question someone’s neutrality. The relevant point is that it is always wrong to impugn another’s objectivity by suggesting that they have a vested interest, whether the “vested interest” is racial, ethnic, religious or political. That much is true even if the biographical facts in question are true. Thus even if judge Curiel loathes Trump’s accession from a famous business mogul to presumptive Republican nominee or is an active member of a Latino lawyers’ association, it simply does not follow that those facts undermine Curiel’s judicial objectivity in Trump’s civil case. Curiously, some have called for judge Curiel to recuse himself from the case to avoid signalling a hint of bias. For Curiel to do so would give legitimacy to Trump’s charge. Fallacies, by definition, are illegitimate.
What’s amazing about this fiasco is that it’s raged on for nearly two weeks and no one (to my admittedly limited knowledge) has called Trump’s flagrant error by its proper name. There has to be a reason, but for the life of me I can’t think of one. Not that any of this matters in the grand scheme of things. Trump’s comments will be memory-holed only to be replaced by a more degenerate and blatant set of comments as the national conversation has already ceded territory to terrorism, radical Islam, the prospect of banning Muslims US entry, and “crooked” Hillary Clinton.
For a dated (though relevant) essay on the poisoning of the well fallacy, I leave you with this fine essay.