How to Beat Trump in a Debate
Unprepared and weak-willed opponents continue to play right into his hands.
Donald Trump is probably unaware that he’s an avid practitioner of a debating method known among philosophers and rhetoricians as the Gish Gallop. Its aim is simple: to defeat one’s opponent by burying them in a torrent of incorrect, irrelevant, or idiotic arguments. Trump owes much of his political success to this tactic—and to the fact that so few people know how to beat it. Although his 2024 campaign has been fairly quiet so far, we can expect to hear a lot more Gish Galloping in the coming months.
Let’s take as an example the first televised presidential debate of the 2020 election campaign. The Fox News host Chris Wallace invited Trump to deliver a two-minute statement. And he was off:
So when I listen to Joe [Biden] talking about a transition, there has been no transition from when I won. I won that election. And if you look at crooked Hillary Clinton, if you look at all of the different people, there was no transition, because they came after me trying to do a coup. They came after me spying on my campaign … We’ve got it all on tape. We’ve caught ’em all. And by the way, you gave the idea for the Logan Act against General Flynn. You better take a look at that, because we caught you in a sense, and President Obama was sitting in the office. He knew about it, too. So don’t tell me about a free transition. As far as the ballots are concerned, it’s a disaster. A solicited ballot, okay, solicited, is okay. You’re soliciting. You’re asking. They send it back. You send it back. I did that. If you have an unsolicited—they’re sending millions of ballots all over the country. There’s fraud. They found ’em in creeks …
And so on, until the end of the second minute, when Wallace attempted to break in and end the monologue. He tried five times before regaining temporary control.
Trump’s statement was the oratorical equivalent of the media-management approach famously summed up by Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon—“flood the zone with shit.” This is exactly what the Gish Gallop is designed to do: drown you in a deluge of distortions, deflections, and distractions.
As one pithy tweet—now known as “Brandolini’s law”—put it, “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” The Gish Galloper’s entire strategy rests on exploiting this advantage. By the time you’ve begun preparing your rebuttal of the Galloper’s first lie, they’ve rattled off another dozen. They want to trick the audience into believing that the facts and the evidence are on their side. (They have so many examples!) The technique is based on delivery over depth. Some call it “proof by verbosity.”
Trump may be the grand master of the Gish Gallop, but he is not its originator. That honor goes to the person who gave the method its name: Duane Tolbert Gish.
Gish was a biochemist at the Institute for Creation Research, a pseudo-scientific group that maintains all life on Earth was created in six days by the God of the Old Testament at some point in the past 10,000 years, with evolution playing no part. Gish publicized the ICR and its creed—and himself—by winning debates against evolutionists across the country. The writer John Grant explained the key to Gish’s approach in his 2014 book, Debunk It! Fake News Edition:
Gish would insist his opponent go first. After his opponent was finished with his or her argument, Gish would begin talking very quickly for perhaps an hour, reeling off a long string of “facts.” His debating opponent, of course, didn’t have the chance even to note down all those “facts,” let alone work out whether or not they were correct. In his or her rebuttal, the opponent could either ignore Gish’s tirade altogether, which would look like dodging the issue, or try to answer as many of the points as possible, which meant looking as if he or she were floundering.
In 1994, after watching Gish run rings around scholars and scientists, a frustrated Eugenie Scott, then the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, coined the phrase Gish Gallop. In these debates, Scott noted, “the evolutionist has to shut up while the creationist gallops along, spewing out nonsense with every paragraph.”
The “nonsense” is an integral part of the Gish Gallop. Gish’s claims were repeatedly debunked, yet he regurgitated them again and again, at the same speed, in the same order, in debate after debate. As Skeptic magazine pointed out in 1996, “with a new audience and a new scientist to debate, who’s to know that his argument got shot down, with evidence, by that other evolutionist last week?”
Like Gish before him, Trump ceaselessly repeats claims that have been publicly discredited. In theory, rebutting these falsehoods point by point is the best way to stop a Gish Gallop. But in the real world, you rarely have the opportunity to do this.
So what do you do? From my days as a student debater at Oxford University to my decade as a TV interviewer, I’ve come across my fair share of Gish Gallopers. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to handle them.
1. Pick your battle.
Perhaps the first time I encountered a Gish Galloper in person was in 2013, during a debate on Islam and peace at the Oxford Union. One of my opponents, the far-right activist Anne Marie Waters, began her remarks with this word salad of an attack on my faith and my co-religionists:
Let me tell you what actually whips up fears of Islam. Let me take it from the top: 9/11; the London Underground bombings; Madrid; Mumbai; Mali; Bali; northern Nigeria; Sudan; Afghanistan; Saudi Arabia; Iran; Yemen; Pakistan; death for apostasy; death for blasphemy; death for adultery; death for homosexuality; gender segregation; gender discrimination; unequal testimony between men and women in legal proceedings; child marriage; amputations; beheadings; imprisonment for being raped; anti-Semitism; burqas; execution for this, that, and the other … This is what causes fear of Islam. It is not me; it is not my colleagues on this side … It is the actions of Muslims that are causing fear of Islam. That is the real world. That is where we actually live. Then we’ll be told this is just the extreme fringe of Islam. Well, let me have a look at Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam …
She Galloped on in this vein for several more minutes, piling one “example” of evil Muslims upon the next, and not stopping to expand or elaborate.
There was no way I could address all of the supposed examples she cited to justify “fear of Islam”; she listed 33 items in less than two minutes—about one every four seconds.
This was no nuanced discussion about the problems of Islamist extremism. No, this was a screed that sought to taint all of Islam, and all Muslims—presumably myself included—as aiders and abetters of terrorism. Any effort I might make to draw distinctions and unpick some complex realities from this fabric of bigotry would be doomed. It would have taken several minutes, if not my entire allotted time. It also would have put me on the defensive, when the key to winning any argument is to put your opponent on the back foot. So, instead, I chose to zero in on the most ludicrous assertion: that Saudi Arabia was the “birthplace of Islam.”
“Just on a factual point,” I responded, “you said that Islam was born in Saudi Arabia. Islam was born in 610 A.D. Saudi Arabia was born in 1932 A.D. So you were only 1,322 years off! Not bad.”
By mocking and debunking that particular claim, I poured doubt on the rest of them—and made my opponent look foolish in the process.
When facing a Gish Galloper, going line by line is impractical, if not impossible. Instead, single out their weakest claim or argument. Highlight and mock it.
This sort of rebuttal isn’t always going to work, and I don’t recommend it when your opponent has put together a cohesive argument. But it works well against a common tactic for Gallopers: surrounding their central, wrongheaded argument with an array of irrelevant facts. Pick on the core claim and ignore the others.
2. Call them out.
Don’t let your audience be fooled into assuming that your opponent has special command of the subject because of all the “facts” they’ve just spouted. Explain to them what your opponent is doing, and that the Gallop is really just a sleight of hand.
Another devotee of the Gish Gallop is Russian President Vladimir Putin. In recent years, the former KGB agent and his acolytes in state-run media have perfected what a RAND Corporation study dubbed “the firehose of falsehood.” Whether justifying the illegal invasion of Ukraine or interfering in U.S. elections, the Russian government—to quote from the study—uses “high numbers of channels and messages and a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions.”
But the RAND study also offers—albeit at risk of overextending its metaphor—this piece of handy advice for fighting disinformation: “Don’t expect to counter Russia’s firehose of falsehood with the squirt gun of truth. Instead, put raincoats on those at whom the firehose is aimed.”
Putting “raincoats” on your audience means making them aware of what a Gish Galloper is subjecting them to. Point out, for example, that the speed at which they’re speaking is a sign of deceit, not intelligence. Or even that they’re relying on a favorite tactic of the Kremlin’s.
3. Don’t budge.
Above all, make sure you stop Gish Gallopers midstream. And then don’t let them move on to the next falsehood. Keep pounding at them with a well-prepared rebuttal. They may not concede the point, but they’ve been derailed and are now forced to argue on your terms, not theirs.
For years, Trump Gish Galloped unchecked, disorienting opponents and audiences alike. Unprepared, time-limited, or weak-willed interviewers and moderators would fail to interject, correct, or take a pause to respond to his nonsense. That is, until August 2020, when my friend Jonathan Swan, then a national political correspondent for Axios, sat down with the then-president for a televised interview.
Trump tried to recite a bunch of dodgy stats on COVID-19, to pretend he had the pandemic under control. But Swan wouldn’t let him. When Trump started waving a bunch of printouts of graphs and tables, Swan inspected them and debunked the president’s claims in real time. Throughout, Swan gave Trump plenty of openings to speak, but he never let him get up to Galloping speed.
As soon as it aired, Swan’s interview went viral. This was the rare moment that revealed Trump’s Gish Gallop for exactly what it was: a deliberate strategy to deflect and distract.
So when you’re faced with someone like Trump, who’s spouting lie after lie, pick your battle, call them out, and don’t budge. Beyond their bumbling and bullshitting, they actually do have a strategy—so you should, too.
This article has been adapted from Mehdi Hasan’s forthcoming book, Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking.
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