Imagine being such a consummate bullshit artist that you have an entire debate tactic named after you. Enter the late Duane Tolbert Gish, neuroscientist and hardcore creationist who, at the time of his death in 2013, held the position of senior vice president emeritus at the Institute for Creation Research. His favorite activity in the world involved squaring off in public debates against advocates of evolution within the scientific community.
Mr. Gish’s chief tactic, known in debate terminology as “spreading,” was to fire off as many points as possible in a short span of time. Nearly every point delivered is either partially or completely false, but the opponent faces a daunting task when confronted with so many issues to refute at once. Like as not, they are overwhelmed, and the spreader emerges victorious while seeming to be a master of voluminous data. Eugenie Scott, anthropologist and director of the National Center for Science Education, was a frequent debate opponent of Gish. Dr. Scott coined the term “Gish Gallop” after being on the receiving end of the tactic numerous times, and it stuck.
Examples of the Gish Gallop can be found all over the political and media landscape today. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney used it to great effect during his first debate against then-President Obama in October of 2012. Deploying a rapid-fire fusillade of half-truths and outright falsehoods, he left his overwhelmed opponent stammering through replies. Most observers said at the time that Mr. Obama lost that debate. He didn’t lose; he got Gish Galloped off the stage. Notably, the tactic did not fare nearly so well in their second meeting. A prepared opponent can handle the barrage, often dismantling many points at once by undermining a single false premise. Woe be, however, to the unready.
Nowhere is the tactic more evidently used than within the confines of the corporate “news” media. Turn on your television right now, and odds are better than good that you’ll be confronted with a screen full of commentators Galloping at each other with all their might. It is a marvelous way to fill precious air time with the nitrous oxide of nonsense that comes from a bunch of people shouting lies simultaneously at the top of their voices. The best Gish Gallopers are the ones who keep getting invited back onto the shows. Good television, you see.
Without doubt or question, the reigning world heavyweight champion of the Gish Gallop also happens to be the president of the United States. Donald Trump modeled his entire presidential campaign on the tactic — outrageous tweets, bizarre proclamations, an ocean of lies deployed on the hour at all hours of day and night — to such mighty effect that his opponents and the “news” media covering him were left sputtering in his wake. The Gallop did not skip a beat after he assumed the White House; indeed, it appears to have found a whole new gear.
Consider Trump’s recent remarks at CIA headquarters:
When I was young — and I think we’re all sort of young. When I was young, we were always winning things in this country. We’d win with trade. We’d win with wars. At a certain age, I remember hearing from one of my instructors, “The United States has never lost a war.” And then, after that, it’s like we haven’t won anything. We don’t win anymore. The old expression, “to the victor belong the spoils” — you remember. I always used to say, keep the oil. I wasn’t a fan of Iraq. I didn’t want to go into Iraq. But I will tell you, when we were in, we got out wrong. And I always said, in addition to that, keep the oil. Now, I said it for economic reasons. But if you think about it, Mike, if we kept the oil you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money in the first place. So we should have kept the oil. But okay. Maybe you’ll have another chance. But the fact is, should have kept the oil.
No, we were not always winning. No, we can’t keep the oil. No, he actually was a fan of the Iraq invasion. No, we don’t have ISIS because of the oil. No, they shouldn’t get another chance. Five dollops of galactic nonsense delivered in an avalanche of jumbled verbiage, all of which is abandoned without correction or refutation as the next avalanche comes sliding down the hill. That was how he campaigned, and that is how he is governing: One long Gish Gallop that leaves the logic centers of the average brain stunned and grasping for purchase.
Not everyone is bothered by Trump’s use of the Gish Gallop. For instance, the far-right bunch over at The American Spectator sure seem pleased with the practice. “The hacks covering Trump are as lazy as they are partisan,” wrote Scot McKay regarding the phenomenon, “so feeding them clickbait such as manufactured controversies over inaugural crowds is a guaranteed way of keeping them occupied while things of real substance are done. At this rate, he’ll have the country well on its way to recovery from the Obama malaise, and the enemies in the newsrooms will have hardly noticed his actual work.”
There is more to this than right-wing wishful thinking — “Look how the president plays pan-dimensional chess! He’s a genius!” — when you pile up the aftermath of this first week of Trump’s administration. Torture is back on the table. “The Wall” is one step closer to realization. The Environmental Protection Agency has essentially ceased to exist as a governmental entity. The strongest version of the global gag rule ever deployed is in place. The Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines have been advanced. Trump’s horrible cabinet nominees are sailing through the confirmation process largely untouched. All of this is happening without the GOP-controlled House and Senate getting fully into the game yet; when they do, it is going to be a hard day’s night for a very long time to come.
Consider the events of this past weekend. Amid a blizzard of hastily-prepared paperwork came an executive missive on immigration that turned the nation on its collective ear. According to The New York Times, “The order bars entry to refugees from anywhere in the world for 120 days and from Syria indefinitely. It blocks any visitors for 90 days from seven designated countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.” The order also affected people with green cards, but the administration had crabbed its way back from that stance by Sunday. All of this initially took place on Holocaust Remembrance Day, which the administration took note of in a formal proclamation that omitted any mention of Jews.
Here was the Muslim ban come to life. The order galvanized a national protest the likes of which have never been seen. When word got out that people were being detained at Kennedy Airport in New York and faced forced deportation due to Trump’s order, hundreds and then thousands of protesters rushed to Kennedy. Airports all across the nation saw similar actions erupt, and the streets of cities from Washington DC to Los Angeles came alive as thousands more shouted down the administration for its cruelty and its cowardice.
The ACLU and other rights groups flew into action, and a temporary restraining order was obtained that blocked the administration from executing its order. A court will decide the constitutionality of the Trump order, but given the black-letter wording of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, it seems ultimately doomed. By Sunday night, some refugees and green-card travelers who had been detained were being released, and the administration found itself in a full crouch trying to defend its actions.
True to form, however, another game was afoot. On the same night that all Hell was breaking loose over immigration, Trump quietly released another executive order that gave White House strategist and white nationalist leader Steve Bannon a regular seat on the National Security Council (NSC). Simultaneously, the order barred both the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from joining Council meetings unless they are specifically invited. The unprecedented move was met with horror by virtually the entire intelligence community, and for good reason. Even George W. Bush had enough sense to bar Karl Rove from attending NSC meetings, keeping to the long-standing “No political hacks” rule pertaining to the Council. Amidst the din of the uproar over the immigration order, the astonishing Bannon-to-NSC order went largely unnoticed.
Immigration over here, but wait! Steve Bannon over there. The Gish Gallop government strikes again.
That’s one week. If your metric for success is measured by what has been accomplished to date, Donald Trump is Abraham Lincoln in a Superman cape… after fooling everyone into thinking he’s just a bumbling Clark Kent. For sure and certain, much of the “news” media bypassed any serious analysis of Trump’s first week in favor of an ongoing and utterly meaningless rhubarb over the nose count at the inauguration. Why? Because if given the choice, the corporate media will always pursue the easiest story to cover. After all, it beats working.
Trump and his team are playing the media like so many fiddles. All I know for certain is that a million lies have led to one truth: Donald Trump is Gish Galloping at speed, he and his people are almost completely running the table — the pushback on immigration being a profoundly noteworthy exception — and much of the media are eating it up.
“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled,” said Keyser Soze, “was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Who is Trump, really? We’re all going to find out soon enough.