There is an informal fallacy in logic that is committed with great frequency. It is called a “straw man argument.” It occurs when person A misrepresents the argument put forward by person B and attacks the misrepresentation — which is always a weaker form of person B’s original argument. Thus, I might argue that you should stop smoking because there is a very high correlation between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, and despite the fact that a strict cause between cigarette smoking and cancer has not been shown — due to the fact that some people smoke and do not get lung cancer and some who do not smoke get lung cancer anyway. You might then say, “oh, I see what you’re saying. You’re saying that there really is no risk in smoking because no one has been able to show a causal relationship between the smoking and lung cancer.” In this replay we see the “straw man,” a weaker (distorted?) form of my argument that is easier to attack because it is vulnerable.
A similar sort of thing is taking place in today’s political contest for the office of president of the United States. The opponents of Hillary Clinton have created a “straw woman,” a fictional person who closely resembles the female form of the devil (Trump has actually called her that, among other things!) and who is in no way like the original. This fiction is easy to attack because she embodies evil, is ambitious, dishonest, weak, and determined to bring the country down about her ears.
Now, I don’t know the “real” Hillary Clinton but from what I have read, despite her flaws, she is nothing like the creation of the Tea Party and Donald Trump. But since the real Hillary will be hard to beat, the creation has taken her place in the minds of a great many voters who now hate the woman and would not vote for her even if she could walk on water.
We tend to believe what we want to believe, of course. So it is easy to “sell” this fictional person to the voters of this country who almost certainly fear strong women in their lives in order to sell them their own fiction, a man who “tells it like it is” and offers us his proven expertise as a successful businessman and a refreshing alternative to politics as usual. Clearly, this is a fiction and nothing like what we know about the man himself. But it is a fiction that “sells” and in the minds of a great many people is preferable to the straw woman they have grown to hate and fear.
To be sure, attacks on politicians whose image has been created for us by marketing experts are always terribly weak, though commonplace. Such attacks tend to miss the mark because we have no way to know precisely who those people are and what they will do when elected to public office. Such is the case with Hillary Clinton — and Donald Trump, to be honest — because the straw woman has become the main figure in the target practice that has become politics. Create the image you want to hate and start slinging mud. That’s now the name of the game.
As responsible voters, we must do whatever we can to put aside those caricatures and try to see who the people running for office really are: listen carefully to what they have to say, “vet” them to know as far as possible how much experience they have had and what sort of track record they have thus far. We must rely on the media, which is a problem, but there are sources that are known to be unreliable (e.g., Fox News) and there are sources that are known to be reliable (e.g., the New York Times, CNN, and PBS — or even the BBC). The latter sources are more likely to present us with a true picture of the candidate than are the former. But, in the end, we must be as sure as we can be that the person we vote for is the person himself or herself and not a straw image that will hurst into flames as soon as elected.