William Cobbett was an English member of Parliament, active mainly in the first half of the 19th century. Though a career politician, Cobbett was famous for his sharp literary tongue and his fervent work reforming the inequality-plagued English cod. Most important in this day in age, Cobbett is commonly credited with popularizing the red herring metaphor. For those who are not familiar, a red herring is an argumentative fallacy in which an individual (or group) leaves purposefully false clues or employs deceptive tactics to mislead others and distract them from the real issues at hand. We can all thank Cobbett for giving us a red herring to describe, well, a red herring situation. In an 1807 edition of his widely-distributed and deeply anti-establishment Weekly Political Register newspaper, Cobbett wrote of a boy who lay red herrings to distract a pack of hounds who were hot in his pursuit. (I should note that Cobbett’s tale is presumed to be false, so rest assured no herrings were harmed in the making of this phrase.)
We live in a time when truth is more malleable than ever, and we have entered the golden age of the red herring, and a dark age for the earnest public debate of issues. When truths are mangled to mislead, or to fit a political agenda, they become red herrings. President Trump has made red herrings a serious political issue, through both vast strategic misinformation campaign, bringing Corbett’s phrase into new-found relevance. So this is why, going back to Cobbett, it’s quite foreboding that he first used the red herring parable to prove a political point.
Anyway, at this point in the article you might be asking yourself, why did Sam make me read half of a page of historical context that, at best is mildly interesting and at worst supremely boring? To that quite valid question, I have no good answer. However, there is good reason for me including some background on the root of the red herring, especially when talking about the current president. Although to most, a pack of hounds has a distinctly negative connotation, I, for the purpose of this article, would like to see a pack of hounds in an entirely positive light. Maybe imagine a pack of Golden Retrievers if that helps with the transition.
In this long-winded analogy, President Trump will be the herring-throwing boy. The President has a profound need to distract, deceive, and gaslight. This assertion is by no means radical, as I am sure we are all well aware of the seemingly infinite occasions in which the President has willfully sought to mislead the public. Trump lied about campaign payments to Stormy Daniels, lied about the size of his inauguration crowd, has repeatedly lied about economic figures, continues to push a plethora of conspiracy theories related to Hillary Clinton, and falsely claimed he helped pull 9/11 survivors out from the rubble at Ground Zero, all while supporting the harmful narrative that his administration effectively handled hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico well, quite literally ignoring the death of 3,000 Puerto Ricans for political gain.
As I alluded to above, the President’s substantial need to deceive the public is clearly tied to the dangerous shortcomings of his administration, as any politician with his record of utter failure and negligence would have an extremely short shelf life. For Trump, to mislead is to survive.
Again, this revelation is nothing new. But this is where we, the American people, the hounds, come into play. Trump’s ability to deceive the public is floundering. The hounds are getting better at moving past his misleading bait. A September 11 CNN poll found that only 32% of adults find the President trustworthy, the lowest that figure has been for CNN since they started polling this statistic. Potentially more damning, a SurveyMonkey poll with a sample of nearly 1 million people this past May found that only 13% of the American public finds the President trustworthy.
I should acknowledge that Trump’s red herring machine does not succeed based on his words alone. He is propped up by a media ecosystem that serves to substantiate his red herrings and increase their power. To that end, although the public at-large is trusting Trump less and seeing through his red-herrings, he will most likely maintain his credibility to people that exist in a right-wing media ecosystem.
This is the real danger of Trump’s deceptions. When his deceptions are reinforced enough and not critiqued they solidify and become fact. This allows Trump and his friends at Fox to construct a self-benefiting alternate reality that perverts truth, all without holding the President and his administration accountable for their actions, often times with devastating consequences.
Sure, I wrote this article with some levity, but Trump’s red-herrings are deeply dangerous, It is my hope that his instruments of deception will continue to crumble, as they have amongst the general public, and begin to falter within the Fox and co. media sphere he increasingly relies on to toss his red-herrings. Cobbett introduced the red herring as a means to make a political point, to advocated for fairer laws, and it is my hope that red herrings will be cast into the political ash-heap, and give way to an environment that is conducive to the same type of positive political change that Cobbett sought.