“Moving the Goalposts”: the danger of people changing their defences, not their stances

By Piers Eaton

When first asked, Trump claimed there was no contact with Russians during the election. Then, he claimed there were no meetings between Russians and his campaign team. Donald Trump Jr. later announced that the June 9th Trump Tower meeting with Russians was about adoptions, not the election. Now, he finally admits the meeting was to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, his opponent at the time, but says the meeting was “totally legal and done all the time in politics”, and that they did not get any dirt anyways. And Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, is now rushing to say that collusion is not a crime, clearing him of any charges even if collusion is proven.

To this day, 569 days into Trump’s presidency, the wall hasn’t been started

On the campaign trail, Trump claimed “On day one [of my presidency], we will begin working on a physical southern border wall” and “The Wall will be paid for directly or indirectly, or through longer term reimbursement, by Mexico”. In May 2017, Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney claimed that construction of Trump’s border wall was underway. March 28th 2018, Trump tweets a photo of old fencing being replaced, a standard maintenance routine, with the caption “Great briefing this afternoon on the start of our Southern Border WALL!”. To this day, 569 days into Trump’s presidency, the wall hasn’t been started, because he has not been able to secure funding for the wall- a wall for which Mexico is meant to be paying.

The point of laying all this out is not just to illustrate a series of lies but rather how, with Trump, the story seems to change, and yet there is no serious ramification for the shift on what he has been saying. People who defended the Trump Tower meeting on the grounds that it was about adoption are now blindly shifting their defence along with the changing narrative. His defence is weak: if their arguing that no ‘dirt’ was obtained can be disproved, the president’s rhetoric will all too easily be switched to arguing that getting dirt on a political opponent from a foreign government is fine.

A similar, but less extreme or insidious, change in narratives has taken place with Brexit.

As said, Giuliani is already laying the foundation for the defence, claiming on TV that collusion is not a crime. It is likely that new evidence will not affect Trump’s approval rating, just as Trump’s admitting to trying to get dirt on Clinton did not affect his approval rating.

A similar, but less extreme or insidious, change in narratives has taken place with Brexit. During the 2016 referendum the talk from the Vote Leave campaign often centred around the claim that we send the EU £350 million every week and that our leaving would mean more money for funding the NHS. They claimed that the EU was holding us back and that if we leave there will be economic benefits and better trading deals without the EU. Now, fearing an economic downturn as a result of Brexit, the narrative has changed, and Jacob Rees-Mogg says that it may take 50 years for us to reap the economic benefits of Brexit- a very fundamental change from what was claimed during the campaign. During the campaign, a no-deal exit was often discussed as an extreme, undesirable exit, but now a no-deal exit is being normalized.

Obviously, the entire Brexit debate was not solely about whether we would be better off economically, as it is much more than a solely economic decision, but it is significant that economic benefits were used as an important point in favour of Brexit during the referendum campaign. Now that positive economic outcomes are looking less likely, many pro-leave voices have started to claim that the economics of Brexit are unimportant, or should be thought of as something to be seen in the context of the 50-year picture.

Ultimately, the point of bringing all this up is to draw your attention to an increasingly used practice pervasive in political narratives: people ‘moving the goalposts’. Moving the goalposts is a logical fallacy where evidence in response to a specific claim is dismissed and greater evidence is demanded. In politics, it means making assertions, having those assertions be proved false, and then making new assertions that trivialise the importance of whatever has been proven false.

Moving the goalposts is a logical fallacy where evidence in response to a specific claim is dismissed and greater evidence is demanded.

Trump is the prime example: he originally claimed there was no meeting with Russia, but when a meeting was discovered, the discovery is dismissed as not being sufficient evidence of a crime, even though he originally felt it was worth denying. The same happened with Brexit: when claims that leaving the EU was economically favourable started to seem untrue, the economic arguments suddenly become unimportant compared to other reasons for leaving.

Moving the goalposts in politics is not exclusive to Trump, or pro-leave voices- these were just the most topical and obvious examples available. The reason this is so detrimental to democratic societies is that, by moving the goalposts, people can remain attached to any belief they have no matter what new information is presented to them. If moving the goalposts is allowed to go on without being condemned, then the quality and effectiveness of political discourse is likely to diminish. When politicians and political commentators move the goalposts, it needs to be labelled as such.

Image by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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