York College rhetoric professor unravels debate

Christopher Dornblaser

Erec Smith has been teaching rhetoric for 15 years, four of which have been at York College. In Smith's courses, he teaches his students the study of effective communication.

Dr. Erec Smith, assistant professor of rhetoric and composition, teaches a class at York College of Pennsylvania, Thursday, October 6, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

With this year's presidential election, Smith has been able to tap into the election for examples of what he is teaching, calling the presidential debates a "one-stop lesson in fallacy."

“You can get a lot out of this election,” he said.

The second presidential debate between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton took place Sunday night at Washington University in St. Louis.

Since Friday, the campaigns have been dealing with revelations of Trump on tape from 2005 speaking about women in lewd terms and talking about kissing and groping women, including married women, without their permission.

Earlier Sunday evening, Trump held a news conference with women who have accused former President Bill Clinton of rape and unwanted sexual advances.

Smith: In Smith's class, he teaches his students to detect fallacies, which he said denote "verbal trickery." On Saturday, he described three types of fallacies: psychological, which plays on hopes and fears; material, which is making statements without proper information; and logical, which he said is just a flaw in logic.

"The point of a fallacy is that it sounds right," he said.

Most politicians use fallacies, but in this election it has been Trump who has been using them most, Smith said.

“Trump is basically using all of it,” he said.

On Sunday night, roughly an hour into the debate, Smith mentioned that Trump was using two different fallacies in bringing in alleged victims of Bill Clinton. He said he was using the fallacy of ad hominem — attacking the person instead of the position — and another fallacy, ad hominem tu quoque, which is based in hypocrisy.

"The whole two wrongs make a right argument," Smith said. He said it's basically Trump admitting to the tapes from 2005, but Bill Clinton did something too, so it's OK that Trump said what he said.

"When he does that, he's not attacking Hillary so much as Bill Clinton," Smith said.

FACT CHECK: Clinton And Trump Debate For The Second Time

He also referenced Trump using "red herring."

“When he was asked about his character and his recent tape that came out Friday, he just started talking about ISIS,” Smith said.

He said Hillary Clinton's fallacies were harder to detect, which he said might be because she's had more experience in politics.

Debate: For Sunday night's debate, Smith said the candidates needed to be able to "succinctly explain themselves" to get more support.

"They have to come off as if they have a plan and policy," he said, adding that the candidates must say what the policy is and how it works.

"I think they have to start really as clear as possible, teach us what they want to do, why they want to do it and how it's going to affect things," he said.

Smith said in the first debate, the candidates spent a lot of time defending their characters, which he said was understandable because their characters are in question, but Sunday's debate had to be different.

On Sunday night, Smith admitted the second debate had a rocky start, with both candidates attacking the other's character instead of their policies. About 40 minutes in, he said, they started to talk about their plans.

“Trump is doing a better job than he did with the first,” he said, adding that it looked as if Trump had done more research and planned more for this debate.

Smith said if he were to grade the two, he would give Hillary Clinton a B and Trump a C+.

“I’m going to say so far that Hillary is winning, because she seems to do less speculating,” Smith said.

Smith said he teaches students to identify fallacies during the debate, such as when one candidate attacks the person rather than their argument. The professor said he hasn't changed or modified his curriculum because of the election but has noted that the election has proven useful when providing examples of what he is teaching.

Election: For the first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton on Sept. 26, Smith said he thought Hillary Clinton came out on top.

Dr. Erec Smith, assistant professor of rhetoric and composition, teaches a class at York College of Pennsylvania, Thursday, October 6, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

“She was being presidential,” he said.

He said Trump was being too defensive during the debate.

“He got defensive rather easily, he didn’t seem to maintain a calm demeanor for too long,” he said.

When asked how, going forward, the candidates could sway potential undecided voters, Smith said that's not an easy question to answer.

"What they're trying to do is gauge the values of undecided people," he said, adding that those values vary widely.

Smith said Hillary Clinton tries to speak to the fears and hopes of potential voters, but he said he doesn't think Trump believes he has to do anything differently to reach the undecided vote.

"He hasn't really changed anything up regarding his tactics," he said.

Smith said Trump says he is not changing anything in his campaign.

Dr. Erec Smith, assistant professor of rhetoric and composition, teaches a class at York College of Pennsylvania, Thursday, October 6, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

"He is quite convinced he has his backing," Smith said.

— Reach Christopher Dornblaser at cdornblaser@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @YDDornblaser.