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Marco Rubio’s debate blockage: repetitive rhetoric and bullshit

February 10, 2016

You may have been watching the Republican debate on February 6th and felt a moment of déjà vu while listening to Marco Rubio rail on Barack Obama. If you didn’t watch the debate, you likely have heard of Rubio’s “glitch” as it’s been dubbed (and mocked by a Twitter account, Marco Rubio Glitch). This suggests Rubio has been revealed to be robotic, programmed or that he is otherwise non-human. Rubio’s repetition of almost exactly the same line four times (and twice in a matter of minutes under pressure from Chris Christie), pulled back the curtain on the difference between rhetoric and pure bullshit.

Repetition is a powerful rhetorical strategy that, explained by any rhetorician’s best buds, Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, increases the feeling of presence in an audience. Done well, repetition sticks in our heads like the chorus of “Who Let the Dogs Out” has been stuck in mine for the past fifteen years. Political oratory would lose one of its most powerful rhetorical devices without repetition. Think to our most famous American speeches: MLK, Jr’s “I Have a Dream,” and FDR’s “I Hate War,” for example. In Obama’s 2011 jobs bill speech, he repeated the line, “Pass this jobs bill” eight times (found, surprisingly, in a rhetorical analysis of the speech on Forbes.com). Of course, advertisers also know well the power of repetition, doing whatever they can to make a jingle stick, and this lesson can be deployed in many other situations where we seek to gain the adherence of minds (as George Costanza knows well).

So why did Rubio’s repetition fail so miserably?

I’d like to draw attention to a few of the reasons:

Chris Christie explicitly draws attention to Rubio’s canned response. He makes it clear to the audience that they have not misheard or that there wasn’t some glitch in their television. Christie provides an on-the-fly mini-analysis of Rubio’s response. He explains that this is what Washington does to people, they essentially become bullshit factories.

This is when rhetoric can rightly be called bullshit; however, as rhetoricians know well, people are always creating rhetoric; it’s just that most of the time we don’t pay attention to the rhetoric. Good rhetoric, like good service, is best when we don’t notice it’s there. When we stop and indignantly say, “Hey! That bartender doesn’t seem genuinely interested in the story of my latest couponing victory!” the curtain is pulled back. So it is with political speech. Of course speeches are planned, politicians craft soundbites, and they have their talking points for use in debates. Rubio is no different in that regard from any other, but Rubio’s flaw was in the timing and inflexibility of his canned 30-seconds. It became clear that what Rubio is peddling is a steaming pile of words.

By repeating the line even after Christie had drawn attention to it, Rubio seemed to glitch out, to have some kind of mental block. As Jenny Rice explains in a recent RSQ forum on bullshit that adds a rhetorical perspective to ongoing philosophical discussions of the topic so abundant in today’s society, bullshit can be understood as a blockage. Rhetoric is all about a “porous mutuality of discourse.”

In other words, when we argue, our opinions (even deeply held) are open to response, challenge and change. When it’s just bullshit, we’re blocked against change so much that we “can no longer hear the words of others.” If bullshit is a blockage, rhetoric can’t fight against it. The bullshitter is closed down to our efforts to persuade. So, what is a fitting response? Rice, citing Kristeva, says it’s disgust. If you watch the clip of Rubio’s glitch again, by the third repetition you’ll hear the crowd’s vocal disgust as Rubio’s rhetoric turns to bullshit before our very eyes.

If you want to know more:

  • About repetition, Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca give a good rundown on types of repetition. For a discourse analytic perspective, Barbara Johnstone’s early work on Arabic discourse is focused on the topic, Repetition in Arabic Discourse: Paradigms, Syntagms, and the Ecology of Language.
  • If bullshit is more your style, check out Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit and James Fredal’s “Rhetoric and Bullshit.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly’s Forum “On Rhetoric and Bullshit” is also a good read (Volume 45, number 5).
  • If you’re more into ear worms, Here you go.
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