by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
In the real world of political talk, getting the last word is often what counts most. This is especially the case where political talk is conducted in the limited space between commercial breaks. In such a forum, “getting the last word” does not mean what it means in a purely academic setting. In academic argument, one gets the last word when one articulates a decisive point, a point to which not even one's smartest and best informed opponents could object. In popular political talk, by contrast, “getting the last word” means being the last speaker to utter a coherent and self-contained thought. Statements of this self-contained variety tend to be received by one's audience as the “take away” from the exchange, and hence they are most likely to be remembered. The arena of national politics is high-stakes and highly-public; and the need to get the last word creates a strong incentive for a distinctive kind of conversational distortion, namely, that of derailing discussion. One derails a discussion when one speaks for the sake of creating a conversational disruption that substitutes the topic previously under consideration with some ambiguous and unwieldy alternative. Once derailed in this sense, conversation loses focus, and the disorientation leaves subsequent speakers unable to get the last word.
Derailing of course takes many forms. But one derailing strategy has become so prevalent in current political discourse that it is worthy of focused analysis.
The derailing strategy we have in mind may be called spitballing. At its core, spitballing works as follows: One makes multiple contributions to a discussion, often as fast as one can think them up (and certainly faster than one can think them through). Some contributions may be insightful, others less so, but all are overtly provocative. What is most important, though, is that each installment express a single, self-contained thought. Accordingly, slogans are the spitballer's dialectical currency. As the metaphor of the spitball goes, one keeps tossing until something sticks; hence it helps if one's slogans are tinged with something disagreeable or slightly beyond the pale. As the spitballer's interlocutors attempt to reply to what he has said, the spitballer resolutely continues spitballing.
That is, instead of defending his claims against the interlocutor's pushback, he simply introduces an entirely new topic, usually by voicing another slogan that is even more outrageous than its predecessor. As a result, the interlocutors cannot keep up, and in the process of reacting to so many provocations, they never have the chance to fully respond to any of them. By the time the next commercial break arrives, the spitballer will have voiced multiple memorable slogans, and none of them will appear to have been adequately challenged. To many in the viewing audience, the spitballer will appear uniquely reasonable, informed, collected, and decisive, while the interlocutors will seem scattered, irrational, and desperate. In the high-stakes world of national politics, that's a huge win for the spitballer.
As we have said, spitballing is understandably effective in formats where discussion is shoehorned into 12-minute segments in between commercial advertisements. But as spitballing trades in slogans, it brings correlate advantages in other forums as well. Slogans are intrinsically vague and suggestive, and they thereby admit of multiple interpretations. Accordingly, when a spitballer's pronouncement is subjected to critical analysis in, say, print media, the spitballer's response is simply to return to the confines of the television studio to denounce the interpretation of the slogan that was scrutinized. The denouncement begins with an indignant “what I actually said was . . .” and is followed with the introduction of a new slogan –hence a new provocation – which is no more precise or transparent than the original. Thus the process begins anew. All the while, the spitballer derails the discussion by ensuring that no one else actually gets to speak about anything other than what the spitballer has said. Yet, as the spitballer trades only in vague but provocative slogans, there can be no real discussion about his claims.
We are sure that you already recognize that Donald Trump is an incorrigible spitballer. It is thus no surprise that his favored communications outlet is Twitter, a platform that permits only slogans. And his performance in longer-form interviews confirms our diagnosis. He is infrequently well-informed or temperate, but what he lacks in quality, he makes up for in sheer quantity; he is never at a loss for words, and he is a wellspring of slogans, many of which suggest underlying commitments that seem outrageous. In only a short while, he has accrued a substantial and public record of claims which do not form a coherent set. And for the most part his critics are overwhelmed; they do not know where to start with substantive evaluation. Whenever a critic voices an objection to one of Trump's slogans, Trump indignantly protests that he has been willfully misrepresented and treated unfairly. Indeed, that's the central value of political slogans — they're moving targets. So, to cite only one familiar example, we are all acquainted with Trump's pronouncements about national security and Muslims, but what exactly is his view? Unsurprisingly, it shifts opportunistically. Sometimes the view seems to be that no Muslims at all should be allowed into the United States; on other occasions, the proposal is that the US suspend legal immigration for Muslims; and at other moments, the claim is weakened to the view that Syrian asylum seekers should be thoroughly investigated. Moreover, although the policy is always presented as a “temporary” measure, the conditions under which the ban would be lifted are never articulated. Trump only says the policy (whatever it actually is) should stay in place “until we know what's going on” (whatever that means).
This deliberate imprecision makes Trump's proposal impossible to evaluate according to its feasibility, costs, and probably effectiveness. And those who have tried to assess the proposal along these metrics have been rebuffed by Trump representatives; any assessment must fix on some particular interpretation of the Trump slogan, but the entire Trump strategy depends upon escaping precision so that every criticism can be instantly dismissed as a willful and unfair misrepresentation, thereby creating opportunities for introducing new slogans, which then draw critical responses that are again swiftly dismissed. Consequently, the spitballer controls the discussion by derailing any attempt to scrutinize what he has said; thus, in a very real sense, he always speaks unopposed. Meanwhile, public conversation is dominated by counterfeit ideas; popular political discourse is crowded out by a mode of exchange that merely mimics dialogue; and the pressing political issues that face the nation remain undiscussed.