Trump's Jan. 6 defense strategy: "Flood the zone with sh*t"

Trump and his defenders resort to his Big Lie tactics: Spew so much nonsense that debunkers can't keep up

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 4, 2023 5:30AM (EDT)

Former US President Donald Trump speaks at the Turning Point Action conference as he continues his 2024 presidential campaign on July 15, 2023 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Former US President Donald Trump speaks at the Turning Point Action conference as he continues his 2024 presidential campaign on July 15, 2023 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Within the first 48 hours of Donald Trump's latest indictment, on federal charges related to his attempted coup after the 2020 election, the number of Republican excuses for his crimes rivaled the number of votes he demanded Georgia election officials fabricate to steal the election. (Which was 11,780, for those whose memory needs refreshing.) In the true spirit of competitive GOP hackery, each "defense" was dumber than the last. 

There were claims that "free speech" provides Trump blanket immunity for conspiring to overturn an election, on the grounds that most conspiring is done with vocal cords. As a Georgia State University law professor, Anthony Michael Kreis, told Salon, "A person cannot walk into a bank and say, 'stick 'em up,' and then cling to the First Amendment's protections." Similarly, it's not "free speech" when Trump told people to commit crimes for him, simply because he used his mouth to do so. Even Trump's former attorney general, Bill Barr, dismissed this gambit by saying, "free speech doesn't give you the right to engage in a fraudulent conspiracy." As Barr pointed out, no conspiracy charge could stick if the "conspiring" part was excluded from evidence. 

Then there's the '"What about Hunter Biden" defense, in which Republicans try to change the subject to the non-political crimes of a private citizen, who happens to be the president's son. The implicit argument here is that because there's a person who has never held elected office and who failed to pay his taxes, Trump now has a blank check to commit far more serious crimes, such as stealing classified documents or attempting to overthrow democracy. It's very much as if you argued you get to murder people because your neighbor got a speeding ticket. It certainly demonstrates how much contempt Republicans have for the intelligence of their voters. 

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Then there are the various flavors of psychological projection, as Republicans scream accusations at President Joe Biden about "weaponization of government" and "election interference." Of course, this is actually what Trump is guilty of since he tried to use presidential powers to overturn an election, a plot that involved trying to gut the Justice Department and threatening to use military violence to finish off his coup. 

Trump's team knows he can't win a fair trial so instead they are angling for jury nullification by spewing so much toxic crap that it thoroughly poisons the well.

Trump's lawyers are making some arguments so stupid that the likeliest explanation is they're trolling. Trump lawyer Alina Habba told Fox News that Trump "is the most ethical American I know," a claim so laughable that the only purpose of it must be to get "gawk at this weirdo" headlines. Trump lawyer John Lauro told CBS News that he's going to ask for a venue change to West Virginia, claiming it's "more diverse" than Washington D.C. The unsubtle race-baiting echoes the rhetoric of the Big Lie, which relied heavily on claims that votes in cities with large Black populations are "fraudulent." 

There are so many more, which get increasingly baroque. For instance, Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA is trying to pass off the fake electors scheme as a "publicity stunt," which is as nonsensical as it is dishonest. Crucially, each is stupider than the last. Partially, this is because trying to mount an honest defense of Trump is impossible. Also, there's no point in expending effort at polishing these argumentative turds, since the GOP base will regurgitate any talking point handed them, no matter how idiotic. Why feed people lobster, when they are just as willing to eat garbage? 

But mostly, the strategy is what Trump ally and far-right podcaster Steve Bannon famously called the "flood the zone with shit" technique. Opening up a firehose of disinformation and bad faith arguments is about overwhelming the discourse so that ordinary people can't figure out what the hell is going on, and give up even trying. It also exhausts good faith interlocutors, who wear themselves out trying to debunk all the lies. Liars have a huge advantage in the "debate" format that structures so much political dialogue, because it's easier and faster to make stuff up than it is to carefully correct it. 

This technique is also called the "Gish gallop," named after a creationist named Duane Gish, who would employ the tactic in supposed "debates" against biologists. As journalist Mehdi Hasan explains, "Its aim is simple: to defeat one's opponent by burying them in a torrent of incorrect, irrelevant, or idiotic arguments." It's a major reason why scientists and doctors have started to refuse to "debate" purveyors of disinformation, such as anti-vaxxers. The Gish gallop makes a mockery of discourse, and frankly, it's not a legitimate debate when one side is lying freely and the other is hamstrung by a commitment to facts. 

Notably, the Gish gallop is the strategy Trump used during his coup. He and his allies unleashed a blizzard of lies, accusing thousands of people of being in on a massive conspiracy on Biden's behalf. It was impossible to keep up with all the false accusations against voting machine companies, election officials, election volunteers, ordinary voters, and politicians from both political parties. Debunking all the lies was even harder.

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If you can stomach it, rereading Trump's inciting speech on January 6, 2021 illustrates this point. It's a classic Gish gallop, a litany of lies:  "Over 36,000 ballots were illegally cast by non-citizens," "15,000 ballots were cast by individuals who moved out of the state," "18,000 illegal ballots were cast by individuals who registered to vote using an address listed as vacant," "4,500 illegal ballots were cast by individuals," "more than 42,000 double votes," etc., etc. All lies, but fired off in such rapid succession that it numbs the brain, turning off any lingering skepticism in his followers and wearing down his opponents so that fighting back feels unimaginable. 

The good news is the Gish gallop is ineffective in the courtroom, at least when a good and honest judge is in control, which appears to be the case with Judge Tanya Chutkan, the Barack Obama appointee who drew the Trump coup case. A judge can stop lawyers from making false claims to juries and put guardrails on the kinds of arguments they use. Unlike in the typical "debate" format, lawyers rely heavily on facts and evidence, which generally has to be real and not stuff they make up on the spot. In addition, lawyers have ample time and space to rebut arguments from the opposing side. Trump's lawyers will likely be seriously limited in their efforts to overwhelm the jury with bullshit. We saw how the clarity a court provides worked in the civil trial where E. Jean Carroll sued Trump for rape and defamation. The truth had a fighting chance in a courtroom, and therefore Carroll prevailed. 

The bad news is that Trump, his lawyers, and the larger GOP hope to win this case outside of court. The firehose of lies is about making people give up entirely on trying to figure out the facts, and instead just retreating to their partisan preferences. The hope is that by the time a jury is empaneled, Republican voters will have become so entrenched in the "how dare they come for our precious, precious Trump" position, that any of them who happen to be sitting on the jury will be unable to offer fair hearing of the prosecution's arguments. 

In other words, Trump's team knows he can't win a fair trial so instead they are angling for jury nullification by spewing so much toxic crap that it thoroughly poisons the well. Hopefully, special prosecutor Jack Smith gets his wish for a speedy trial. It's the best chance of getting a jury that hasn't been ground down already by Trump's lies and is ready to hear the case with an open mind. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Donald Trump Gish Gallop January 6 Steve Bannon