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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Ad hominem politics

In nearly all of the presidential debates this year, character attacks have predominated over real arguments. It is evident that “ad hominem” attacks — translated as “toward the man” in Latin — are driving our political discourse: People target personalities to mask the fact that they lack policies.

A form of character assassination to divert from discussing the actual topic at hand, ad hominem assertions serve to disparage or discredit one’s opponent rather than their argument. Comments targeting someone’s integrity appeal to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect.

Unfortunately, they are quite effective. When considering the 2016 presidential field, it is clear Donald Trump is a champion of the ad hominem method. In fact, he has devoted a significant amount of his on-air time to attacking just about everyone’s character rather than talking about more pressing national and international concerns.

After finding himself second to Dr. Ben Carson in the most recent Iowa polls, Trump resorted to attacking his opponent’s religion rather than debating the merits of his proposed policies.

Trump has insulted Carly Fiorina’s face, of all things, saying “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” Not limiting his statements to the other GOP candidates, Trump described Fox News anchor, journalist and lawyer Megyn Kelly as a “bimbo” and called syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer “a totally overrated clown who speaks without knowing facts.”

These statements serve no purpose but have somehow catapulted the real-estate mogul into the lead of numerous presidential polls.

It is not shocking that Trump’s comments make the news, and his statements have dominated air time since he declared his candidacy over the summer. It is far more interesting to report on the spectacle of politics rather than its substance. Yet, what is the virtue of turning our politics into reality television? More importantly, does this coverage of ad hominem character attacks leave us with an informed electorate come election day?

Yet, Trump’s statements present a clear example of how the prevalence of ad hominem attacks has distanced our debates and interviews from meaningful messages. Trump’s effort at a substantive closing statement in the CNN debate amounted to the following:

“If I become President, we will do something really special. We will make this country greater than ever before. We’ll have more jobs. We’ll have more of everything.”

Hmm. Statements such as these leave listeners with many unanswered questions. What will we do that is “special,” and how is it to be practically accomplished? How will the country become greater, and what will be the chosen mechanism for stimulating job growth? In a society characterized by consumerism and waste, is having more of everything even something for which we should strive? Even if we do not want to hear the answers to substantive questions such as these, we need to hear them.

Regrettably, Trump is not the only candidate or political figure resorting to this form of fallacious logic. The CNBC moderators also stooped to this level of discourse in the most recent GOP debate. Opening up the debate by asking Trump if he is “running a comic book campaign,” moderator John Harwood targeted the businessman’s credibility from the first moments of the debate.

Though it may be entertaining to watch candidates and moderators shoot pithy insults at each other and draw cheers and jeers from a crowded room, doesn’t this resemble a strange sporting match rather than an educated discussion between the people who could potentially govern our country? Debates featuring reasoned discourse about tax policy, pensions, immigration reform, education funding, passing a timely budget, foreign policy and reducing the national debt may not attract as many viewers, but these issues are integral to our lives.

Ad hominem statements allow candidates to “win” a debate, as they depart with one-liners sure to appear on next morning’s front pages. Yet, resorting to character attacks belies a great weakness: It is far easier to disparage the personality of your competitor rather than their politics. Ad hominem attacks breed ad hominem retorts, as it is natural to defend one’s pride, while more difficult to redirect the argument back to any basis in reason.

Ultimately, ad hominem attacks contradict the pursuit of truth approachable through a discourse that is driven by facts. Helping to crown the candidates with the weakest arguments victors, ad hominem tactics distract from a dearth of facts, logic and reason. In the end, ad hominems make the attacker look bad, not their target, and it is the voting public that suffers. Endemic in our political discourse, ad hominem tactics greatly impede the progress that could be made if we focus on critiquing policies rather than people.

Kate is a junior majoring in the program of liberal studies and minoring in philosophy, political science and economics. She hails from Pittsburgh and is a proud member of Breen-Phillips Hall. Contact her at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.