There’s something fishy going on in Washington. And any high school or college debater knows what it is. Of all the dozens of debating techniques used in hopes of confounding and confusing debate opponents, the “red herring” is one of the best known and most commonly used.
The red herring technique involves introducing an irrelevant topic to divert opponents from the original or real issue. How the small and ubiquitous herring came to be associated with this particular form of debate trickery is an interesting story worthy of a brief sidebar for readers who like to collect trivia.
The term is said to have been popularized in 1807 by English journalist William Cobbett, who claimed to have used a kipper — a strong-smelling smoked herring — to divert hounds from chasing a hare. For the record, herring are not red — until they are smoked.
Incidentally, the use of herring to distract pursuing scent hounds was tested on the television series “Mythbusters.” The hound used in the test couldn’t resist stopping to eat the fish and, as a result, temporarily lost the scent. But it eventually backtracked and located the target. The show, therefore, classified the myth as “busted.”
The use by politicians of diversionary tactics to distract the public from real problems or issues is as old as politics itself. But rarely has the public been so assaulted with distractions and irrelevancies as during the reign of Donald Trump. He has raised the use of the red herring to an art form.
Subtlety has never been a Trump strong suit. His use of this technique has become so pervasive in efforts to blow smoke to hide the moral, ethical and policy failures of his administration that the public — minus the sliver of those still in his thrall — increasingly refuses to be distracted.
This column isn’t sufficiently long to provide more than a few of the more recent and egregious examples of Trump’s attempts at red herring-ism.
One is his long-running assault on journalism — at least that which is practiced by those news media seeking to provide fair and balanced news coverage. He calls them "an enemy of the people.” But the “fake news” he decries is that which accurately reports on the ineptitude and corruptness that are hallmarks of his administration. The real “fake news” (Is that an oxymoron?) is that which Trump creates in an attempt to distract from his administration’s failures, his multiple legal issues, his lack of scruples and to keep his “base” hanging on.
Tired of Trump’s continued abuse and its potential for damaging the news media’s ability to function effectively as the Fourth Estate — the government watchdog — about 350 newspapers penned editorials last Thursday decrying his description of the media as the peoples’ enemy.
Recently the “smoke” also included an attack on basketball superstar Lebron James because he accused Trump of being a “divisive” force in the country. James uttered this relatively mild and accurate charge during an interview with Trump CNN nemesis Don Lemon, who has accused the president of racism in the past. Lemon was interviewing James about a school for underprivileged kids he funded. In a tweet, Trump insulted the intelligence of both men, ignoring James’ philanthropy.
Suddenly, the media-wide conversation was all about the James-Lemon “dis,” a meaningless sideshow designed to distract from manifestly more important issues such as Paul Manafort’s conspiracy and fraud trial and Trump’s abject failure to improve the lives of “forgotten Americans,” as promised in his campaign.
(That the news media allow themselves to be taken in by Trump’s smelly distractions may be the topic for another column.)
In response to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, Trump has long maintained there was "no collusion" between the Kremlin and his campaign for the presidency in 2016. But, in an attempt to throw the public off the scent, lead attorney Rudy Giuliani has gone one step further, contending that “collusion” wouldn't be illegal in any case, claiming that “collusion” is not explicitly cited in U.S. legal code.
"It's a red herring by Giuliani," Bradley P. Moss, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer specializing in national security, told Business Insider.
He noted that, while the term "collusion" doesn't appear in the memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointing the special counsel and providing parameters for the investigation, certain interactions between a presidential campaign and a foreign government could be illegal under other existing statutes.
"Mueller isn't investigating 'collusion.' He’s investigating possible coordination between the campaign and the Russians, particularly any actual crimes committed in the context of that coordination," Moss said.
So, beware the seemingly harmless — albeit smelly — red herring. When deployed by Trump, view it as a pitiful and irrelevant distraction. Like the hound on “Mythbusters,” do not let it take you off the scent.
Lorin R. Robinson, Ph.D., is a writer and former chair of the journalism department at UW-River Falls. His current book is "The 13: Ashi-niswi."
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