What Assumptions Underlie Our Judgements?

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The recent decision by the Opinion Desk of the New York Times to publish anonymously an op-ed essay about the Trump presidency by a senior White House official was an unusual one. Readers were invited to submit questions about the essay or the vetting process. Two days later, 23,000 of them had.


The essay, of course, started a media frenzy. Speculation continues to run rampant as to who the anonymous official is. CNN listed thirteen possible authors; by the next day, at least sixteen had denied they wrote it. The author has been called everything from heroic to gutless—but the reactions don’t divide neatly or predictably along party lines.


As is often the case with today’s headlines, the reactions to the op-ed essay can be used to teach the basics of argumentation. A statement of opinion about the writer would be a claim of value. Clear statements of policy have also grown out of the controversy: The writer should identify himself or herself. The writer should resign. The Department of Justice should investigate the authorship in the name of national security. The 25th Amendment should be invoked.


As is usually the case, it is easier to recognize the claim of an argument than to recognize the assumption underlying it. Given a specific claim, what assumptions does a reader have to accept in order to accept the claim? First, what about those who consider the author of the essay to be heroic? What assumption underlies that judgement? Something like this: It is heroic to work behind the scenes to safeguard our democracy against an incompetent president. That assumption is only valid, of course, if the president is indeed incompetent. It is reassuring for some to know, as the author puts it, that “there are adults in the room.” The author also writes, “We are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.” Assumption: It is a good thing for someone to do what’s right when the President won’t. That assumption is only valid, however, if the writer—and those who agree with him that the president needs someone working behind the scenes in the White House to keep him in check—is a better judge of what is right than the President.


That’s where those on the other side come in. Donald Trump is our duly elected President. Does anyone have the right to take over any of his duties without a mandate from the people? Even former President Obama argued, “That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work.” The 25th Amendment provides the process for removing a president from office, but for anyone to work behind the scenes against the President in the name of defending the Constitution is to circumvent due process. Can it be applauded as a heroic act? Obviously, it can be by some. Even some of Trump’s harshest critics, however, feel that to undermine the president from within is not a valid solution.


Is the author of the op-ed essay guilty of treason? No, not by the official definition of treason, which can be committed only in time of war. Those who feel that the author should make himself or herself known to the public may assume that a public servant should not continue to work for an administration as flawed as the writer judges Trump’s to be, or that the person could do more good if he or she came out from behind the mask of anonymity. Even better would be for all those the writer claims hold similar views to speak out publicly.


There are complex arguments at work here. Our students need to see the issue from all sides and recognize it for its potential to shape the future of our country.


Image Source: “16114_355136441248988_1333868535_n” by A M on Flickr 12/12/12 via Creative Commons 2.0 License

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.