Allow me to voice a minority opinion here about the fiasco that was Donald Trump’s CNN town hall.
Even though CNN went, as Tom Nichols wrote in The Atlantic, full Jerry Springer in its 70-minute presentation, and even though management’s motives — ratings, money, expanded audience, whatever — are more than questionable, and even though Trump relishes the opportunity he was given to steamroll a helpless moderator before a worshipful audience, I think the network did a good thing with this town hall, even if accidentally.
By airing Donald Trump in his full Trumpiness, which is to say in all his inglorious lack of simple humanity, they allowed us an unfiltered look at Trump and Trumpism in its present form and to show the former president has lost nothing in his proclivity for lying, for demagoguing and for committing, in full view, random acts of cruelty.
There is no good way to cover Donald Trump. We in the media have tried for years to find the secret sauce. Yes, he manipulates the media. But more than manipulating the media, he manipulates nearly half the country. It’s not only that attention must be paid — especially when there’s the real possibility that he could be president again — but that there’s no reasonable way to avoid it.
I watched, of course, and not just because it’s my job. I watched — and hoped others watched — because we apparently are in need of a reminder of who and what Trump is. I would have thought that no one could have forgotten. Not after two impeachments. Not after January 6th. Not after all that has been revealed about Trump’s scheme to upend democracy in his attempt to steal the 2020 election.
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I watched because there’s no wishing Trump away or hoping that he’ll collapse under the weight of a wave of indictments. I watched because there’s no denying Trump is far and away the leading GOP contender for the 2024 presidential nomination and because of the recent (and, yes, very early) Washington Post-ABC News poll showing Trump leading Joe Biden by six points.
And I watched, most of all, because I desperately want to believe there must be some advantage in people seeing Trump display, in the clearest way possible, that he is both unfit to be president and, worse, a clear and present danger to the American democratic project, not to mention the Ukrainian dream of building a project of their own.
If I’m wrong about that — and I concede I have been wrong about Trump and his hold on Republican voters too many times to count — I’m not sure what more there is to say, although I’ll keep trying.
Look, If those who watch Trump display the kind of behavior you’d expect from a jury-determined sexual abuser, are a majority of the country — or close enough to a majority for Trump to get another Electoral College win — then we are truly screwed.
I’m not talking simply about the Trump cultists who crowd Trump’s rallies and cheer on his Putin-like affair with authoritarianism and his dismissal of a free press and, for that matter, free elections. These same cultists — meaning, Trump’s base of support that has helped him capture the Republican Party — are so fierce that Ron DeSantis, who is bold (deluded?) enough to take on Mickey Mouse, is afraid to even mention that it might be, um, unseemly for Republicans to nominate a sexual predator for president.
No, I’m talking about the 70-odd million people who voted for Trump in 2020 even after his four disastrous years in the White House. Yes, 70 million. How do you explain that number?
I’m talking about the New Hampshire crowd of Republicans who attended the town hall and cheered him on as if the place were packed with Lauren Boebert clones. (Let that visual sit with you for a while.)
There’s a real argument that Trump benefited from the MAGA-friendly crowd, that, in his mind, gave him license to say whatever he wanted. But does Trump really need any encouragement to be Trump? Did anyone who tuned in think Trump, whatever the setting, would be anything but Trump?
Still, here’s another minority view. Trump was not the most dangerous person in the room. And this is something else that everyone needs to see and understand.
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More dangerous than Trump were those in the audience who laughed at Trump’s ugly jokes — on E. Jean Carroll, whom he called a “whack job” days after a jury found Trump liable for sexually abusing and defaming her; on Trump’s puerile nicknames for Nancy Pelosi and Ron DeSantis; on CNN moderator Kaitlan Collins, whom Trump called “nasty” for her attempt to do the thankless and ultimately futile job of real-time fact checking a serial liar; on the supposed inevitably of the United States defaulting on its debts because, Trump said, “our country is dying. Our country is being destroyed by stupid people, by very stupid people.”
Let’s agree — if we can agree on anything — that it’s not very smart to call people “stupid.” It’s better, though, than what Trump usually implies and sometimes says outright about his opponents — that anyone who disagrees with him is traitorous, unlike, say, the convicted January 6th insurrectionists whom Trump has not only praised, but promises, in many cases, to pardon if he’s elected again. Do not doubt his assault on democratic norms.
But those in the room, seemingly normal people in the main, laughed at Trump’s jokes. They nodded in apparent agreement when Trump — who, you’ll remember, once called Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine “genius — refused to say he wanted Ukraine to win the war against Russia. They didn’t seem to blanch when Trump repeated his absurd claim that he would end the conflict in Ukraine in “24 hours.” There was no blanching either when Trump couldn’t bring himself to say his old buddy Vladimir Putin had committed war crimes. And I didn’t hear any boos when Trump tried to defend his indefensible policy of separating immigrant families at the border, taking children from their parents.
Those in the room were clearly content to see Trump spend so much time on the Big Lie of a rigged 2020 election, which is not surprising when polls show that as many as 70% of Republicans tell pollsters they still believe in the lie. When you try to explain Trump and how he came to hold so much power, you have to be able to explain that very fact — that the Big Lie, which both the free press and the former House of Representatives clearly showed to be a Gigantic Lie, is still believed by so many people. If you’re not puzzled by this, please help me understand why.
It doesn’t puzzle me, though, why many are offended by CNN’s decision to give Trump this platform, particularly given CNN’s unforgivable history of televising so many of Trump’s 2016 campaign rallies — not for journalistic reasons, but for the ratings. As Trump will tell you, Trump sells, except, you know, when he manages to go bankrupt — and stiff his creditors — in the process.
If you were as pained as I was watching Trump bully Collins or as pained as I am to think so many people believe Biden’s stumbles with names and dates and places are more of a danger to the country than Trump’s anti-democratic ramblings, I don’t blame you for wishing you could just ignore Trump. I mean, there’s every reason to believe that a new term for an untethered Trump could be a far greater disaster than the first.
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And I’m certainly not here to defend cable TV news. I don’t depend on TV talking heads or multi-headed panels for interpretation of the news. But I am ready to listen to someone like MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, a bright guy who slammed CNN’s town hall, saying that a seditious candidate can’t be debated, only defeated.
But I’d argue that if you truly can’t beat a seditious candidate with debate — putting the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers aside, it’s not as if Trump has an actual army these days — what kind of democracy do you have left?
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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