Adventures in Rhetoric: Gish Gallop and the Trump Torrent

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Although most rhetorical terms are based on Greek words (eg, aphaeresis, anabasis, catachresis, and dieresis), a few are eponymous — like the Gish gallop. The Gish gallop is a rhetorical device utilized in a debate when the speaker uses a rapid-fire approach, presenting a torrent of arguments (regardless of their strength or accuracy) and changing topics quickly to overwhelm an opponent, thus preventing an effective rebuttal of the arguments. The term was coined in 1994 by Eugenie Carol Scott (born 1945), a physical anthropologist and executive director of the National Center for Science Education. Scott named the term after Duane Gish (born 1921), a biochemist and leading member of the creationist movement that rejects scientific explanations (eg, Big Bang Theory, evolution) for the origination and development of the universe, the planet, and all life forms. Creationists believe that the universe and all life forms were created by God, consistent with a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis, the first book in the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament). Although an entire library can filled with books about the history of the Bible, most Biblical scholars believe that the Book of Genesis was an interweaving of fragmentary texts from three separate authors (Yahwist: 950 BC; Elohist: 900-750 BC; and Priestly: 5 BC) drawing on creation myths passed on through generations by oral tradition that began as early as 1,500 BC. These legends are hardly scientific or historical fact — they are age-old myths that were created by people from ancient civilizations (eg, the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Persians) to explain some of the world’s mysteries. But we digress…

Journalists keenly noted that Gish relished the confrontations of formal debates with well-known evolutionary biologists at college campuses because he would eschew formal debate principles and consistently overwhelm his opponents with the Gish gallop. Moreover, creationists recruited as many sympathetic students to create a friendly, rally-type audience for Gish to frustrate and demoralize his opponents. In an essay titled, “Debates and Globetrotters” (July 7, 1994), Scott wrote: “Now, there are ways to have a formal debate that actually teaches the audience something about science, or evolution, and that has the potential to expose creation science for the junk it is. This is to have a narrowly-focused exchange in which the debaters deal with a limited number of topics. Instead of the ‘Gish Gallop’ format of most debates where the creationist is allowed to run on for 45 minutes or an hour, spewing forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn’t a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate, the debaters have limited topics and limited time. For example, the creationist has 10 minutes to discuss a topic on which creationists and evolutionists disagree (intermediate forms, the nature of science [with or without the supernatural], the 2nd law of thermodynamics disproves evolution, the inadequacy of mutation and selection to produce new “kinds”, etc.) The evolutionist then has a 5 minute rebuttal, followed by a 2 minute reprise from the creationist. Next, the evolutionist takes 10 minutes to discuss an agreed-upon issue, with the creationist taking the next five minutes, and this time the evolutionist gets the final 2 minute follow-up.”

If you watched CNN’s Town Hall (New Hampshure) with former President Trump on May 11, 2023, you had a first-row seat into the master of the Gish gallup. During the 70-minute broadcast, Trump unleashed a torrent of lies, half-truths, disinformation, insults, and boasts — egged on by an adoring and cheering audience on stage and encouraging advisors backstage. Axios reported, “Backstage during the first commercial break, Trump adviser Jason Miller — as if psyching up a boxer in his corner or egging on a bully — showed Trump moments-old tweets from Democrats blasting CNN and saying Trump was winning… Adviser’s advice to Trump in break: Keep doing what you’re doing.” CNN’s host, Kaitlan Collins, who tried to factcheck him in real time in front of a hostile audience, was overwhelmed, and judging by the expression on her face, clearly frustrated.

Critics of the broadcast were not kind, viewing the Town Hall as a disaster for the network and the country. CNN’s media reporter, Oliver Darcy, wrote: [It was] hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN… Trump frequently ignored or spoke over Collins throughout the evening as he unleashed a firehose of disinformation upon the country, which a sizable swath of the GOP continues to believe. A professional lie machine, Trump fired off falsehoods at a rapid clip [textbook example of Gish gallop!] while using his bluster to overwhelm Collins, stealing command of the stage at some points of the town hall.” Linda Qiu, a journalist for The New York Times, wrote: “Former President Donald J. Trump almost immediately began citing a litany of falsehoods Wednesday night during a town hall-style meeting in New Hampshire broadcast on CNN.”

In addition to a wide range of criticism about the disastrous Town Hall from American journalists and media pundits — British journalists were also alarmed. The Guardian’s Martin Pengelly wrote: “CNN bosses have defended their decision to host a primetime town hall with Donald Trump, after triggering widespread outrage by allowing the former president to spout lies and disinformation on subjects from sexual assault to his attempt to overturn the 2020 election.”

Given this extraordinary performance, the term Gish gallop should be updated with a synonym that is truly fitting: the Trump torrent. Although Scott was clearly going for alliteration, the metaphor — the galloping of lies — is not as powerful or evocative as a torrent of lies. Perhaps this term gets some traction during the 2024 Presidential election.

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