Opposition in the Age of Gish Gallops

The Gish Gallop, named after creationist Duane Gish, is a rhetorical strategy of “drowning your opponent in a flood of individually weak arguments in order to prevent rebuttal of the whole argument collection without great effort.” Donald Trump’s variant of the Gish Gallop substitutes weak arguments with scandals and outrage, any one of which would normally be a political career-ender. But because Trump generates as many outrages in a day as most politicians do in a year, his political career stays alive. How? Because he presents too many targets for his opponents to get any purchase against a single one, and they exhaust themselvesIt’s the political equivalent of a bed of nails, where the sheer number spreads the pressure out so that no single outrage can stab you and give you tetanus.

In Trump’s hands, this strategy — wearing out and outlasting any opposition by giving it too many targets — has been extremely effective. He’s been deploying it throughout the campaign and now the transition, and there’s no doubt his presidency will be the same.

So what can be done? I’m a historian, not an activist, but it seems to me that opposition to the Trump administration will need to be more focused and targeted if it is to have any chance of success. As Andrew MacDougall remarked, in a slightly different context: “One thing is certain: To howl indiscriminately is to play Trump’s game.” But I see too many people too invested in the howl.

Since his surprise election, the American Left has been going for desperate, Hail-Mary, silver bullet tactics: recounting and auditing the vote, petitioning the Electoral College. Each has been a species of denial, a prayer that we will all wake up from this imminent and oncoming nightmare. None have worked. And to be honest, none could have.

It’s not time for some game theory, it’s time for some Gene Sharp. He has literally written the book on nonviolent resistance to authoritarian regimes. Several books and pamphlets, actually: they’re available for download from his organization, the Albert Einstein Institution. You should read them. Not only are they full of methods for opposing an authoritarian regime, but they collectively hammer away at a single point. You have to have a strategy.

In opposing Trump, what are you trying to accomplish. Because “opposing Trump” is not an end in itself. Oppose Trump how; oppose Trump with what goal?

If, for example, your goal is to get Trump out of the presidency, you will have to come to terms with two facts:

  1. That because of the line of succession, everyone eligible to replace him is a Republican; and
  2. That the only people who can help you accomplish your goal are Republicans in Congress.

Disabuse yourself of any thoughts to the contrary. Don’t, for example, expect Democrats to sweep into power in the 2018 midterms under current conditions. Even in the event they retake the House, they will need 67 senators to remove a president from office, and there aren’t enough incumbent Republicans defending seats in 2018 to defeat in order to make up the difference. You need Republicans to stop Trump. (And don’t for a moment think he doesn’t know that. More on that in a moment.)

“But,” you might say, “Mike Pence is just as bad! Impeaching Trump and replacing him with Pence doesn’t solve anything — and in many ways Pence is worse than Trump!”

My response would be to gently and politely advise you to pull your head out of your ass. Pence is a socially conservative Republican who on several fronts could do far more damage than Trump because he’s more closely aligned with congressional Republicans — plus, he shows signs of having an attention span — but please get a grip. He’s not that good a politician, and would be far easier to defeat in 2020. Also, and here I’m speaking for the rest of the planet, he’s not as likely to get us all killed.

You will have to get comfortable with the idea of Pence (or another Republican) taking Trump’s place, or you’re really not that invested in getting rid of Trump. What you really are is upset that the Republicans are in power. I’m sorry to say that there’s nothing you can do about that right now. And your partisan revulsion for the other side is getting in the way of achieving your goal. So please, for the love of humanity, focus.

Besides, if the idea of relying on congressional Republicans to defeat Trump doesn’t sound like much fun, I assure you, being a congressional Republican will be even less fun over the next few years.

Jeet Heer observes that Democrats’ main political task will be to exploit the uncomfortable tensions between various GOP factions. Not only will this enable such few victories as will come, largely in the form of Republican swing votes in the Senate, but it’ll cause Trump to lose his shit in the general direction of congressional Republicans, which will be fun to watch and exacerbate those tensions and divisions even more. (Remember, disloyalty infuriates him: he’s always been nastier toward Republicans than Democrats.) There’s a force-multiplier effect to be had, here.

But those victories will be fewer than we’d like, because for the most part it will be difficult to pry congressional Republicans away from Trump because they’re terrified of the consequences of opposing him. They’ve been scared of their own base for years, having seen their colleagues primaried by the Tea Party for being insufficiently nuts; now they’re scared that Trump will use Twitter to unleash the flying monkeys.

At some point, I suspect he’ll have unleashed the flying monkeys often enough that his targets will have grown numb to it or are resigned to it, and they won’t be afraid of it any more. That too will be fun to watch.

Meanwhile, if congressional Republicans have reason to be afraid, so too does Trump, who will be guilty of impeachable offenses as soon as he’s sworn in. Congressional Republicans could remove him at any time they choose, stopped only by the political blowback they would face from their and Trump’s supporters. Which means that impeachment won’t even be on the table unless the cost of supporting him is greater than the cost of opposing him. (Slate’s Jim Newell argues that congressional Republicans will not care about Trump’s ethical breaches until Trump is already unpopular.)

Heer believes that Trump and the congressional Republicans will try to work out a modus vivendi to give each other’s worst tendencies political cover. But that modus vivendi will not long survive if Trump’s worst tendencies manifest themselves in congressional Republicans’ direction, as I fully expect them to (see flying monkeys, above).

So any opposition should have as its goal making that modus vivendi absolutely impossible. Make supporting the congressional Republican agenda politically unsustainable for Trump, and vice versa. Find every opportunity to divide the two sides. Make sure Trump never misses an opportunity to blast perfidious congressional Republicans.

This does not necessarily mean giving up the fight when congressional Republicans and Trump are in alignment. But don’t expect to win them. Recognize that some fights are strategic and long-term — you will lose them now, and those losses will hurt, but it’s vitally important that you (and the Republic) live to fight another day. In the meantime, be tactical: focus on dividing those Republicans and making their unholy alliance with Trump as difficult as possible.

At some point, the people who supported Trump are going to get thoroughly sick and tired of him. When that finally happens among the Republican base, when the deplorables and the economically anxious turn on him, when people start craving a normal presidency again, Republicans will have the political cover to turf him.

And then you can get back to the normal political work of defeating a Pence administration that, while no doubt far too conservative for those opposed to Trump, will be far less likely to get us all killed.