by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
In last month's column, we introduced a name for what we suppose is a familiar phenomenon. Spitballing is a tactic of deflection, where a speaker repeatedly interjects vague, but self-contained, and overtly provocative statements into a discussion. The aim of the spitballer is to overwhelm his interlocutors and critics by providing them with so many outrageous claims that they are unable to adequately reply to any of them. Spitballing is rampant in public political discussion because, in the forums were such discussion commonly occurs, significant benefits accrue to those who appear to the onlooking audience as having gotten the last word.
Spitballing is closely allied with a companion tactic that is also rampant in contemporary public political discussion. Swamping is a tactic for controlling public discourse. Like the spitballer, the swamper introduces into a discussion multiple pointed, self-contained, and overtly provocative statements. Yet the swamper's aim is not to overload his interlocutors, but to dominate the political conversations conducted by others. The swamper's intention is to say something so overtly bizarre or inflammatory as to force others to discuss what he said. In doing so, the swamper seeks not to deflect criticism, but rather to direct political discussion away from the ideas, proposals, policies, and platform of his political competition. As a consequence, the swamper stays at the center of the conversation, forcing every other topic to the periphery. One important motive for swamping is that, in making oneself the topic of conversation by being overtly either vague or controversial, one crowds out time for critical exchange with others. One swamps the competition.
We claimed in last month's column that Donald Trump is an incorrigible spitballer. It should be obvious that he is also an inveterate swamper. The swamping tactic, after all, is largely responsible for his success in securing the Republican nomination. During the GOP debates, the pattern was recurrent and blatant: Trump would say something disgraceful about one of his competitors (or his critics, or a journalist), and then the political discussion in the days following was nearly entirely devoted to discussion of Trump's ridiculous pronouncement. For example, there have been periods when significant time and bandwith has been devoted to discussion of Trump's disparaging remarks about Carly Fiorina's appearance and Trump's assurances that his hands and other appendages are not small. To be sure, the discussion stimulated by even his silliest remarks contained a good deal of cogent criticism of Trump. But it's important to note that any time devoted to criticizing Trump's idiotic statements is time not spent on discussing the ideas of Trump's competition. As a result, Trump has won the GOP nomination by winning a war of attrition; many of the others who had been seeking the Republican nomination simply could not get their message out to the relevant public. Trump's swamping effectively drowned them out.
Notice a further feature of swamping. In order to be effective, the swamper must have a willing accomplice in the media and onlooking audiences. Trump-coverage gets ratings, and so even if a news outlet or commentator aims to critique or express outrage over his comments, Mr. Trump still drives the news cycles and directs the voices of the commentators. One of the other Republican candidates may have had views on foreign policy or on the economy, but Trump's inane tweets regularly attracted all the media attention. As a consequence, the others who shared the debate stages regularly found themselves with the unfortunate choice of either talking about Trump (thereby contributing to the swamping) or talking about something else (thereby placing themselves out of the conversation).
It is unclear whether the swamping tactic will be effective in a broader political environment, especially given that Trump's national competitor is already well-known to the public at large. Accordingly, we expect (and have already begun to see) the deployment of a tactic that combines spitballing and swamping. This hybrid strategy involves the introduction into political discussion of many self-contained provocations that are intentionally vague, followed by multiple attempts to provide clarification, where each purported clarification is inconsistent with its predecessor. The strategy, then, is to swamp political discourse not with analysis of what Trump has said, but with discussion of what Trump's pronouncements mean. Consider once again Trump's so-called proposal for a ban on Muslims. The past few weeks have seen Trump and his spokespersons offering various clarifications. The trouble is that the clarifications are not consistent with each other. For example, Chris Christie has claimed it's not a Muslim ban (and “never has been”), and Trump recently has said it's a ban on “certain people” coming from “horrible” places, adding later that it's a ban on Muslims coming from “terrorist countries.” The result, again, is that a major political candidate has announced as a central policy initiative something prima facie absurd and offensive, and his statements about the precise contours of the policy fail to clarify things; so news outlets are bound to devote considerable ink and breath to attempts to decipher the intended meaning. Meanwhile, other topics are crowded out.
What is to be done in the face of a campaign of swamping and spitballing? At least as an audience, we should try to avoid contributing to the phenomenon. Responding to controversial claims is always appropriate, but our attention must be directed also to detailed and serious policy proposals, ideas about how to stimulate lagging economies, explanations for why domestic and international conflicts persist. Again, we, the onlooking public, contribute to swamping by devoting our attention and time to the swamper and his spitballs. Rewarding those who argue seriously and who try to communicate clearly with our attention is a significant step forward, but it also requires those who direct news stories and political discussions to focus on substantive issues, too.
There is, of course, an irony to our recommendation. We, in pointing out how swamping strategies draw disproportionate attention away from other issues, have been paying close attention to the swamping. This, of course, is testament to the power swamping has over us, but it is an unavoidable inconsistency that is endemic to any attempt to identify what one should spend less time thinking about. After all, the sensible advice, “don't dwell on the past” invites its own violation. In the same way that one can have well-wrought reasons for not liking impressionist painting or sushi only if one has had a good bit of experience with them and has attended to their details, so it is with swamping. We must think about the swamping phenomenon in order to identify that and why it unduly attracts and maintains our attention. There are no perfect ways to break these spells, but seeing them as spells is a good start.