Gish Galloping with the GOP

When I watched the Biden/Trump debate, I was instantly reminded of the first Romney/Obama debate in 2012. Romney unleashed a stream of unsupported statements, accusations, and general BS, all delivered at machine-gun speed and with total disregard for anything Obama said in response. That was the first time I heard the term “Gish Gallop”. Now, it has its own Wikipedia page with a succinct definition:

The Gish gallop is a rhetorical technique in which a person in a debate attempts to overwhelm an opponent by abandoning formal debating principles, providing an excessive number of arguments with no regard for the accuracy or strength of those arguments and that are impossible to address adequately in the time alloted to the opponent. Gish galloping prioritizes the quantity of the galloper’s arguments at the expense of their quality.

More importantly, IMO, the Gish Gallop is constructed on a fundamental principle of knowledge and communication: Brandolini’s Law (also with its own Wikipedia page):

The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it.

Romney blindsided Obama in that debate and it took a few months for Obama to claw back his intellectual reputation. The situation with Biden Is much worse. Biden was unable to respond to Trump’s Gish Gallop of outright lies in a controlled style. He looked stunned, confused and stammered through his responses. Still, if Barack Obama in his prime was victimized,  Joe Biden could never have been expected to cope using a conventional debating response.

However, I think the debate is only the tip of the iceberg for the coming election. I believe the concept of a Gish Gallop has profound implications for American politics that involves a few hypotheses.

Hypothesis #1 — Donald Trump can ONLY Gish Gallop

For the past few years, Donald Trump’s rhetoric has become increasingly fragmented and incoherent … it increasingly emerges as a stream of consciousness. I cannot think of a single recent instance where he focused on one topic long enough to make a cogent, considered argument. In other words, DJT has only done Gish Gallops for several years now. I doubt he can communicate any other way. 

It follows that we can expect a manic spew of random junk from now to the election … and, God help us, afterwards if he wins. He will not offer any sort of organized, coherent GOP platform or message … he is mentally incapable of remembering or delivering it.

If that’s true, it will drive a much broader GOP phenomenon.

Hypothesis #2 — The entire GOP MUST Gallop with the top of the ticket.

If the GOP nominee is only capable of galloping with his hair on fire, the rest of the party, at all levels, must gallop beside him. Whether the GOP as a whole could/should/would frame a campaign message differently is totally beside the point. The party can’t afford to embarrass him by appearing more organized and thoughtful than he is. They must adopt as much of his shambolic behavior as they can manage. They must mimic his style and try to make a virtue of it. 

That, I suggest, is the reason that many of the GOP’s wilder horses (MTG, Boebert, Gaetz, Noemi, Lake, Hannity, Carlson, etc. etc.) are so popular. They’re all gallopers born and bred. Whenever they encounter an opponent or the media, they spout a stream of gibberish just like Trump. The beauty of this approach is there is no one need to be competent or careful. There is no need to study Trump’s words. They don’t need to understand his ideas or remember policies and talking points. Just spout random accusations, conspiracy theories and complaints and they will sound totally in sync. 

This has a very disturbing implication for the election campaign. Think if you are a mid-level GOP congressional candidate, obscure senator, or state and local candidate. You might sneak one or two local issues into your campaign, but your main task is to parrot Trump’s galloping gibberish. If Trump can do it, probably you can learn to do it. Even better, your Democrat opponents and the media may fall into the trap. Your opponents will try to respond intelligently in your debates. The media will either a) try to fact-check you, or b) give up and just repeat what you said.

Hypothesis #3 — A Galloping Herd allows plenty of room for the cray-cray

Another implication is that the GOP messaging chaos is creating a vacuum that is being filled by some truly awful policies and ideas. Fringe groups can author vile policy proposals and they are sort of lost in the noise and bedlam. How else can one explain the fact that Project 2025 has risen to the level of prominence that it is actually taken seriously by GOP leadership?

AI Generated fantasy image of Donald Trump leading a horde of crazy zombies

If book banning, absolute abortion bans or threats to mass deport legal immigrants had surfaced in previous elections, even as late as 2016, they would have been shot down and ridiculed immediately. Now, there are so many conspiracy theories, crackpot ideas and outright lies floating around that even the most egregious proposals don’t sound so out of whack.

Hypothesis #4 — Russia can only help the GOP BECAUSE it Gallops

If you’re a Russian social media troll, you leave an offering every single day at the Shrine to Gish. Think how hard it would be to mount a trolling chaos-generation campaign if both parties were faced off in a principled debate over substantive issues. What could a Russian (or Chinese, or Iranian) troll write that would create confusion and discord? Almost anything they think of would come across as flat, nonsense or silly. Most of it would be quickly dismissed.

Now consider what a troll can do in the current Trump-driven GOP stampede. The opportunities are endless. A troll can concoct any story, lie, image or argument and toss it into the galloping herd. It will be instantly snatched up and brandished as a club against Biden and the Democrats. Not only will the fringe thinkers latch onto it, it will almost certainly be parroted by senior GOP figures. Congresspersons. Talk show hosts. Possibly even the Donald himself.

AI Generated fantasy image of Donald Trump riding with a huge Russian bear Internet troll

A Gish Galloping GOP is the perfect playground for strategic (i.e., Russian) trolls. Perhaps the two groups are actually symbiotic … that might be a bit farfetched … or not. See what I just did there.

Hypothesis #5 — Most Media Will Run with the Herd

Think about the business model for most media personalities and virtually all media companies. They need viewers, subscribers, clicks and links in order to earn money. In other words, they have to continuously generate content that can grab and hold attention. In a few cases, the attraction comes from real news or thoughtful commentary. More often it is just clickbait.

How can an ordinary journalist hope to succeed if they get in the way of the charging herd? Everything they write will be instantly lost in the chaos and troll-written garbage. If they persist, they will just be ignored and eventually go broke. 

AI Generated image of a fictitious journalist fleeing from the GOP herd.

If they join in the Gallop, they can instantly make their lives much easier. They can pump out articles with little or no research … i.e., far less time and effort. They repeat a juicy GOP lie or piece of nonsense (giving careful credit) and write a hand-wringing commentary that questions the claim … without having to prove it one way or the other. Rinse and repeat. It’s easy pickings. 

A journalist could write sane articles to try to build an audience on the Democrat, Progressive or anti-Trump side, but that’s a niche market that’s already crowded with superb writers who perform serious journalistic research. People like Krugman. Maddow. Emptywheel. That’s tough competition and it’s distressingly hard work to be thorough, honest, accurate and balanced.

The end result is that, except for the few brave souls, most ordinary journalists and media outlets will not confront the stampede. They will stand at the side and report on how fast the herd is going.

Organizing a Democrat Response

The Wikipedia article cited above contains a suggested response plan to the Gish Gallop. British journalist Mehdi Hasan suggests three steps to beat the Gish gallop in a typical debate setting:[5]

  1. Because there are too many falsehoods to address, it is wise to choose one as an example. Choose the weakest, dumbest, most ludicrous argument that the galloper has presented and tear that argument to shreds (“the weak point rebuttal”).
  2. Do not budge from the issue or move on until having decisively destroyed the nonsense and clearly made the counter point.
  3. Call out the strategy by name, saying: “This is a strategy called the ‘Gish Gallop’ — do not be fooled by the flood of nonsense you have just heard.”

Those suggestions fit the limited context of a debate, so to counter the full scale of the national GOP Gallop, we will need to build the concept up to scale. FWIW, here are my suggestions. I’m not a political veteran or insider, so take them with a truckload of salt. Nonetheless, I offer them in the hopes that they might seed a quicker, better Democratic response.

Starting Point — Democrats can’t block a Galloping Herd and it’s Suicidal to Try.

It’s time for the Democratic Party to acknowledge and internalize the fact that they aren’t dealing with a normal political opponent. They are facing an irrational mob. There are no “responses”, “arguments”, or “positions” that will turn back that horde. It can’t be reasoned with because it is not driven by reason. Instead of trying to react to this nonsense, Democrats need to craft a counterattack that can be delivered on Democrat terms.

AI Generated imaginary image of a Democrat trying to face down the GOP horde of lies.

Biden must lead this. The Democrat party must follow. Movement activists must support it, or at least hold their nose and take a break until after the election. Democratic candidates at all levels must do their best to play along. Fortunately, I believe there are some ways to achieve it.

Step 1 — Systematically Ridicule the Herd Behavior

In their 1980 debate. Ronald Reagan responded to Jimmy Carter with the dismissive phrase: “There you go again”. In one phrase, Reagan devalued all of the arguments that Carter had made to that point and was likely to make in the remainder of the debate. That was arguably unfair in 1980, but it applies perfectly to the GOP in 2024.

Democrats should be competing to see who can invent the best dismissive putdowns for Trump, MAGA and the GOP lie bonanza. Some possible themes:

  • The BS stampede is on
  • They are having a merry gallop
  • Oh, [her/his/their] hair is really on fire.
  • There [he/she/they] go again  — vintage, but proven
  • Did you think of all those lies yourself?
  • etc.

OK, these suck and political pros can do better. Regardless, every Democrat, at every level, should slap similar labels on GOP antics. The goal is to make their galloping, lying herd behavior … in lockstep with a convicted, idiot, felon … a key issue in the election.

Step 2 — Sell Governance as a team sport

One consistent feature of the GOP Gallopers is the fact that they cannot work together as a team – except when they are asked to pile on some poor scapegoat. They cannot work together to build or construct or solve problems. That sort of teamwork requires self-sacrifice and sharing and cooperation … which they don’t do. Of course, that comes from Donald Trump at the top.

AI Generated imaginary image of the Biden cabinet as a soccer team

The contrast in teamwork between the Democrats and GOP should be made as striking as possible. Many (most?) Americans understand sports metaphors. That offers a common basis for describing the Galloping GOP vs the Based Democrats. For example:

  • “Trump has absolutely no concept of team play. If he played basketball, he would demand the ball for every shot … and launch an airball every time. He would despise running designed plays with other players and he would never, ever, ever, ever “move without the ball” to get open.” He is a loser when he steps on the court.
  • “Biden has a great team with solid stars like Blinken, Austin, Buttigieg, Kamala, etc. He doesn’t have to make all the plays. He’s the player coach who inspires and leads, often quietly in the locker room”.

OK, a bit cheesy, but you get the idea. That meme highlights the competency difference between Trump Gallopers and Biden Democrats and reinforces the idea that the President doesn’t have to be the best athlete in the game, as long as he can organize and inspire the team to success.

Step 3 — Offer Organization and Purpose as a Contrast

Democrats have never been synonymous with tightly organized, disciplined messaging. However, as much as there have been accusations of a Democrat “circular firing squad”, there has never been anything like the national chaos displayed by the current GOP. Democrats need to reclaim the election timeline and not by reacting to the GOP bedlam.  

As one idea, consider if the Democrat leadership (aka Biden campaign) could publish a schedule of weekly topics that the campaign would address … then stick to it. It might look something like the following table. 

Week Starting
JUL 8Kickoff
JUL 15Aging & Social SecurityGOP War on Elderly and Social Security
Jul 22ClimateInvesting in Protection from Future Disasters
JUL29Reproductive RightsHealthcare, Abortion and Contraception
Aug 5GunsSane Plan for Public Safety
Aug 12DemocracyFair and Efficient Voting
Aug 19EducationBetter, Cheaper Public Education
Aug 26InflationBidenomics – Investing in the Middle Class
Sep 2Tax FairnessBillionaires Pay their Fair Share
sep 9War in Ukraine/NATOWhat if Europe Falls?
Sep 16ChinaProtect Taiwan and Maintain Trade
Sep 23Middle EastWeaken Iran and Stop the Carnage
Sep 30ImmigrationControl Entry, but Maximize Fairness
oct 7JobsReshore Technology and Train the Workforce
oct 14HealthcareLimit Big Company Gouging
Oct 21Trump’s CrimesTBD – he’ll probably commit more by then
oct 28Wrapup
LOTTERY TOPICSTopics are chosen by a lottery held at the start of the schedule.

Democrats at all levels would commit to talking about these issues during the designated week. There would be exceptions and variations, but the default answer should be: “Do you have a question about defense this week? We are geared to explain our position.” If the media and GOP want to gallop somewhere else, don’t make it easy for them.

The topics could be selected (as well as the order) at a preliminary “lottery”. sort of like the NBA or NHL draft. Unfortunately, something like that might be necessary because, otherwise, Democrats will spend the next two years arguing about the topic selection and order for the next 10 weeks.

Step 4 — Pick off the Stragglers from the Herd

Some of the greatest moments in presidential debates involved a candidate moving like a matador to isolate a weak argument and strike a killing blow:

  • Lloyd Bentsen demolished Dan Quayle with his takedown in the 1988 vice-presidential debate:

Quayle: “I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.”

Bentsen: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”

  • In the second debate between Romney and Obama, Romney stated that Obama had never labeled the Benghazi attack as a “terrorist” act until weeks after the fact. As Romney was speaking, Obama stepped back and said “please proceed, Governor”. Then Obama  described how he had called it a terrorist attack the morning after the attack and a journalist who was at the White House  at the time corroborated Obama. Romney looked like an idiot and a liar.

Democrats are sort of doing this now. Trump and his surrogates often say things that are so egregious that they write their own billboard ads. But the process could be more clinical and ruthless. No one can refute all of the nonsense that the GOP gallop generates. Pick a limited number of the most egregious points and kill them … dead.

Repair Damage from the Biden Debate

When Joe Biden debated Donald Trump, he did poorly. I’m intensely supportive of Joe, but it’s a fact. The challenge is to disect the causes for the failure and see how to recover. I really don’t know enough to voice a firm opinion, but I figure his troubles are some combination of four factors:

  • Joe is getting older physically. — That’s a fact. So am I, and the aging process inevitably takes away physical capabilities. However, it steals capabilities in different ways and at different rates for different people. Arthritis can make movements halting and labored. Inner ear problems can compromise the sense of balance and make movements look uncoordinated. Aging physically should have no impact on Joe’s ability to be President … as long as everyone knows what is happening.
  • Joe is getting older mentally. — Everyone slows down mentally as they get older. I know that I have. At the same time, age brings experience and insights that are unavailable at a younger age. The result is a complex mix of positive and negative changes. Some may seem debilitating, but may only require some common-sense adjustments to compensate. Plus, the decisions of a President seldom require quick recognition and analysis. That’s what the Nation’s experts are for. The President must weigh tough choices and balance competing factors and interests. A lifetime of experience is far more valuable for this.
  • Temporary illnesses and health conditions can hamper performance, independent of age. Biden claimed the effects of a cold and jet lag. At his age, those might explain a lot … or not. The good thing is that if Joe suffered from temporary ailments, they will pass and he will resume normal behavior. If he doesn’t, then the limitations lie elsewhere and may be more permanent.
  • The Gish Gallop can blindside anyone, at any age if they are unprepared. This is the factor that flummoxes me. How on earth was Joe not coached to deal with Trump’s Gallop? It’s not that Trump might adopt the tactic. Trump’s Gallop was inevitable. Yet, the techniques to thwart it were barely attempted. Joe only used his favorite term, “malarkey”, once in the debate, even though it applied to everything Trump said. Either a) he wasn’t properly coached, or b) he got flustered and couldn’t follow the plan. If it’s bad preparation, his staff committed gross malpractice. If he couldn’t maintain his composure to follow a simple plan, then we may have a problem.

Several of these factors don’t worry me because Joe can correct or compensate for them fairly easily. If Biden’s limitations are physical, temporary, or tactical, he just needs to find settings to showcase his core capabilities thoroughly and often prior to the election.

My personal idea is that Joe should schedule regular (weekly?) video sessions where he discusses key issues in depth with distinguished, mostly non-partisan, and respected experts. Maybe call them “Straight Talk” or “No Malarkey” sessions.

AI Generated images of imaginary video sessions

They might follow the Democrat topic schedule listed in the table above. Imagine if Joe recorded a 60 to 90 minute session every Friday to be shared before the Democrats concentrated on a given topic in the following week. The full videos and transcripts would be available online … possibly on Youtube and other sites.  With those, every Democrat would have a template for their handling of the topic going forward. 

IMO, the first such discussion should focus on aging (and also Social Security). He should invite distinguished elderly participants (3 or 4 max) and trade stories about what skills each has lost or gained. The discussion should be honest and in-depth. Joe should act like he does as President when he gets a briefing and probes the issues, complexities and his options. The sessions should also be physically comfortable and well supported by staff … just like a normal day in the Oval Office. Each is a public version of what a President does on a routine basis.

Rinse and repeat every week for a different major topic. 

These sessions don’t need to be promoted as live events. Just make them publicly available online as they come out. If news organizations want to use them, that’s fine. The main goal is that, by mid October, Democrats should be able to point  to the “Straight Talk” Youtube channel and it’s ever-growing list of Joe’s videos and tell people to “watch them and judge for themselves”. 

Mic Drop.

After Joe is elected, he might consider continuing the process at a slower pace. Say once a month. Just to reassure the American people that he still has game.

The Final Test

If Joe can’t handle these sessions, then we have a problem and Democrats need to consider a Plan B. Fortunately, he can quickly record 3 or 4 private rehearsals to find out … and there’s no need to do them in public. Once the results are known, the campaign will know what it has to do.