Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
August 10, 2020

Changing the conversation is a dangerous debate tactic

By WILLIAM STANTON | November 2, 2017


GAGE SKIDMORE/CC BY-SA 2.0 Stanton argues that Trump’s supporters follow in his footsteps by changing the conversation.

The 2016 Republican candidate, voters, and platform for President of the United States was incredibly serpentine (and successful) in defending their candidate, Donald Trump, against controversy and scandal. I argue that one of the most powerful tools he and his supporters use for both debates and defense against scandal is the tactic of controlling the conversation.

I’m sure a majority of readers are familiar with the audio tapes of the current POTUS that The Washington Post released, of him having “an incredibly lewd conversation” regarding his conduct with women. The tapes were released on October 7 — usually a pivotal moment for voters leading up to Election Day on November 8. Normally, a scandal containing such improper conduct would bury a presidential candidate (and even a residing POTUS) in a landslide of mud and

dirt and negative coverage, but this simply did not occur.

Trump supporters who, on some subconscious level, did not care that their candidate was a serial sexual assaulter and misogynist. It’s worth examining how they did, and still do, argue for the now-President.

His supporters employ the same tactic that their candidate employed in his apology video to the masses: changing the topic of the conversation. In the same-day follow-up apology video, Trump cites the age of the audio tapes and asserts that he has changed his rhetoric. However, given his recent comments such as: “blood coming out of her wherever” with regards to Megyn Kelly post-interview; considering abortion “punishable”; and his commentary towards Hillary and her family — “I was going to hit her with her husband’s women, and I decided I shouldn’t do it because her daughter was in the room” — indicate otherwise.

He adds another layer to changing the topic in the same apology video: “Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims.” There are two more problems with this additional statement. Besides the fact that these claims are far less substantiated by evidence, he has now completely left the topic of controversy surrounding himself and brings up even older, less substantiated claims of a man who is only the husband of the opposing candidate and not the candidate herself. However, it is important to realize that neither he nor his opposing arguments should be thinking about what Bill Clinton did or did not do during his term as POTUS. The purpose of the apology video was to address the allegations pertaining to himself, not another man.

When two people are discussing this incident, the Trump supporter will change the topic of conversation to lead the other person away from Trump’s negative qualities. Trump is accused of admitting to be a serial sexual assaulter in the tapes, and his supporter replies with the statement: “He is no longer that same person.” The non-supporter in the conversation says yes, he is the same person, look at examples X, Y and Z from the past year. Trump’s fan points to Bill Clinton’s negative past.

Now the two individuals participating in the debate are no longer talking about the original subject. In the first step of the argument, what someone else did does not change the fact that Trump still did what he did. In the second stage of the argument, it does not matter what someone else had done, firstly Trump has not changed and secondly he still did conduct himself that way and is currently conducting himself in the same way. At the time the of the scandal, an observant reader could find versions of this exact same conversation in the comment sections of Facebook, Youtube, news websites — wherever there was discussion on the topic with large amounts of people.

Leading the conversation is a frighteningly powerful tool for wasting the time and energy of your opponent. It also makes the party leading the conversation seem like the victor when they lead their opponent to a topic they both happen to agree on. The argument will not go back to Trump and his issues. This is not to say that the right wing is the only party guilty of this tactic, but it certainly is widely popularized and is a strong force in today’s political climate, especially in Republican dialogue. This tactic is used when discussing scandal and many other issues usually tackled in debate. It’s a tactic that can be used to win a debate through a show of strength, but the core issue(s) brought up in the debate will never be reached or addressed.

The strongest defense against this tactic is simple: Refuse to allow the other party to shift the conversation, and simply end the conversation when they insist on shifting blame.

I do not think that this tactic was consciously employed by some big, right-wing secret cabal, but it’s a natural way for a person to defend an issue or person when facing indisputable facts. If the person that you’re debating is not acknowledging the facts, simply do not give them a platform, or acknowledge the one that they are standing on. I am not discouraging debate from both sides of the aisle at Hopkins, but instead with this opinion piece I hope to discourage unproductive discussion that steers away from facts and the topic of the debate.

William Stanton is a senior Writing Seminars major from Beaverton, Oregon.

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