The Trump Town Hall: Thanks, CNN

There has been quite an outcry on the left over last week’s CNN town hall with Donald Trump. With a friendly Republican audience applauding and laughing at his most outrageous comments, and a game but overmatched moderator, Caitlin Collins, trying to call out his lies in real time, the former President scored a pretty convincing TKO. Twitter exploded with complaints that CNN had given Trump a free forum; anchors at rival MSNBC called it a disgrace for journalism; Trump celebrated with a victory dance to “Macho Man” at Mar-a-Lago.  

Yet nearly a week after the event, I am more convinced than ever that CNN did the right thing in airing the town hall. Indeed, the network may have done us all a service.

To be sure, it was hard to watch. Trump’s embrace of an alternate reality (the 2020 election was rigged, January 6 was a “beautiful day,” the border wall is finished) is by now so brazen and baked into his act that it’s almost impossible to counter with mere facts. I actually think CNN made a mistake by putting Collins so squarely at the center of the action — leading off each segment with her own combative questions, before tossing it to preselected members of the audience. I would rather have seen a more free-flowing encounter between Trump and the audience — with Collins weighing in at key points to fact-check. It would have forced him to interact with real people, which might have thrown him off balance and maybe even prompted a gaffe or two. But with Collins as his main adversary, Trump slid easily into his favorite mode: me against the fake news. 

Still, I don’t see how CNN would have been doing its job by denying a forum to the man who may well be the next Republican nominee for President. For weeks political pundits have been wondering how Trump is going to position himself in the 2024 campaign: will he tack to the middle, to court independent voters? Or double-down on his most extreme positions, to rally his base?  

Well, the CNN town hall answered that question pretty definitively. He’s doubling down — promising pardons for the 1/6 attackers, welcoming a debt default, signaling that he will abandon Ukraine in its war against Russia. Those are unpopular views even among most Republican voters; yet the sheer demonic force of his rhetoric can’t be ignored. I think Andrew Sullivan, the conservative (but fiercely anti-Trump) commentator, had it right in his post-mortem: 

“The reason so many are freaking out about CNN’s astonishing ad for the Trump re-election campaign this week is that he was in tip-top form,” he wrote in his newsletter, The Weekly Dish. “From the second the show began, he was in command: withering, funny, sharp, powerful. He may be one of the most effective and pathological demagogues I’ve ever seen.”

That may not be pleasant to hear, but what is the argument for a journalistic outlet making the decision to shield viewers from Trump? Yes, his performance gave his lies fresh exposure, rallied his base, and allowed him a couple of news cycles of gloating. But its full impact remains to be seen. At least a few Republicans, like Indiana Senator Todd Young, were disturbed enough by his performance to jump off the Trump bandwagon. And Biden’s team was, according to reports, “positively giddy” at the fodder the town hall provided for attack ads down the road. 

That could be a bit of Democratic spin. But at the very least, the event was a wakeup call for a party that may have become too complacent about the looming rematch between a President who is showing his age, and an opponent who still has the vigor of a deranged despot. For making that crystal clear, CNN deserves our thanks. 

2 thoughts on “The Trump Town Hall: Thanks, CNN

  1. i was whipping through my emails, and read this before I noticed it was yours. I loved the perspective, and scrolled back up to see where it was published. Nicely done. H.

    Harvey L. Myman 818.472.6140



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