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The 5 Dumbest Aspects of CNN's Trump Town Hall
There were like 500 dumb moments, but I'll keep it to 5
Last night, CNN hosted a Donald Trump “town hall” in New Hampshire. I put town hall in quotes because that term usually denotes a spirited questioning of an elected official by constituents who want to voice concerns or complaints. Instead, in a transparently thirsty bid for ratings, CNN rolled out a red carpet for Trump’s evasive buffoonery to take center stage.
When it comes to the cable networks, CNN has always come across as the most gleeful practitioner of infotainment. But last night was a new level of shamelessness. This isn’t 2015, when a news organization could be forgiven for naively expecting an interview forum to result in Trump answering hard questions. This is post-Big Lie, post-January 6 era Trump, whose swaggering disregard for the norms that undergird our electoral democracy are telegraphable a mile away.
CNN struck a bargain with the former president: you give us ratings, and we’ll let you trample all over our network. It was an unforgivable abdication of their responsibilities to their viewers.
Perhaps most pathetic of all is that the network knew full-well how journalistically discrediting this spectacle was. The fact that they immediately rolled out in-house personalities on air and in op-eds denouncing the network’s own event is indicative that they were aware how disastrous of a decision this was, so they astroturfed an outrage response in order to convey how tragic all of it was.
They wanted it both ways: to get the ratings Trump delivers, but also for people to say, “Wow, look how painful it was for them to subject their viewers to Trump’s grotesque disregard for truth. Look how anguished the network is over this.”
I’m sorry, but if you choose to give Trump a campaign contribution of this sort, you don’t get to save face afterwards by acting as if it pained you to do it; you forfeit the chance to cry about how destructive Trump is.
Don’t get me wrong, the on-air rebukes were all correct. Pieces like this and like this are spot on. The CNN personalities who lambasted the network over the Trump town hall were right to do so, but my point is that the network itself is cynically using them as a way to deflect the consequences of its own choices.
Here are five of the worst aspects from last night.
(1) CNN’s decision to allow an overwhelmingly pro-Trump audience
The decision to fill the seats with an exclusively pro-Trump crowd turned this town hall into a glorified campaign rally.
Trump has a hard time when an uncomfortable silence greets his insane ramblings, but he feels at home—energized, even—by rapturous applause. All of us prefer a sympathetic crowd to a hostile or even indifferent one—that’s not much of an insight. But when you’re platforming a speaker whose main rhetorical strategy is spraying a firehose of unaccountable nuttery, it becomes all the more critical not to enable him.
Trump is to batshit dissembling as Steph Curry is to hitting 3s—and CNN’s decision to grant Trump a favorable audience is like enlarging the hoop for Curry during a shooting contest. He doesn’t need a favorable audience in order to lie; he does it reflexively, indelibly, unrelentingly. But making it easier for him to lie is a programming choice, and one that no serious news network would make. Instead of a town hall environment conducive to questioning and interrogation, we got the equivalent of a sitcom laugh-track—i.e., audience-powered reinforcement of every brainless Trump soundbite. Ridiculous.
Just to give you a taste, we got unabashed glee in response to Trump calling the moderator a “nasty person,” and we got exactly zero tough questions during the Q&A segment. CNN should be utterly ashamed of itself.
(2) Trump’s emphatic reiteration of the Big Lie
Almost immediately, Trump began the night by declaring the 2020 election stolen. He maintained that only very stupid people can possibly believe the election wasn’t rigged. He claimed millions of fraudulent votes were stuffed in ballot boxes by Democratic operatives.
Arguably, Trump’s promotion of the Big Lie, and the GOP’s enforcement of it as a prerequisite for party leadership, is the most destructive consequence of Trump’s presence in our politics. It erodes trust in our electoral democracy, the mechanism by which our society staves off civil war whenever it finds itself in a highly polarizing moment. If people believe the system is structurally fraudulent, you get episodes like January 6.
Which brings us to…
(3) Trump’s Jan 6 apologia
Trump’s commitment to lying is so totalizing that we often get minor, micro-lies sprinkled in among the big-ticket fibbing. Take, for example, Trump’s toss-off comment that Nancy Pelosi was in charge of Capitol security forces on January 6.
One thing people don’t appreciate is how imaginative of a liar Trump is. We’re dealing with a dissembling savant.
Normie Deceiver: There were Democrats among the Capitol security forces on January 6.
Trump: Nancy Pelosi herself was in charge of Capitol security on January 6.
But let’s get to the main event, which is Trump’s ongoing campaign to downplay the severity of January 6.
A fixture of January 6 apologia these days is the whatabout fantasy that involves morally juxtaposing January 6 insurrectionists alongside leftist rioters who burned down federal buildings.
Despite Trump claiming only “a couple” of January 6 coup-stirrers were unruly, the reality is that, according to the Department of Justice, nearly 350 individuals have been charged with “assaulting, resisting, or impeding officers or employees” and over 100 have been charged with “using a deadly or dangerous weapon or causing serious bodily injury to an officer.”
Personally, I’ve always used “couple” to mean two, as in, “Trump’s been impeached a couple of times,” but who knew the word was elastic enough to accommodate literally hundreds of instances!
If that wasn’t enough, Trump defamed the officer responsible for killing January 6 tresspasser Ashli Babbitt as a “thug.” Babbitt’s alleged victimhood has become a rallying cry on the MAGA chud right, despite the fact that she and the mob she was with represented an obvious threat to the officers inside the area the mob was illegally breaking into.
(4) Trump’s Ukraine evasions
Probably CNN’s best moment was when moderator Kaitlan Collins mildly pressed Trump on Ukraine. I mean, I would’ve pressed the same question until the orange dirtbag either answered it or left the stage. But the fact that she raised the Ukraine question a few times in a row at least laid bare Trump’s completely idiotic evasiveness.
I had forgotten how stupid Trump sounds when pressured to answer. His deflections don’t even attempt to make sense. They’re no different than grunts and ums—just words to fill the air. It doesn’t matter what he’s saying, so long as he’s not directly answering the question. When asked whether he wants Ukraine to win, Trump filibustered his own town hall by going on about Europe increasing their spending. What?
After absurdly declaring the war would be over within the first 24 hours of his presidency, presumably on account of his incredible capacity to foster cooperative compromise, Trump responded to the question of whether he wants Ukraine to win by refusing to answer, and then by saying that he would like for people to stop dying.
This is the kind of moral clarity we can look forward to if Trump makes it back to the White House.
Imagine voting for someone unwilling to forcefully denounce Vladimir Putin.
(5) Trump’s debt brinksmanship
Should the U.S. default on its debt for the first time in the nation’s history? Obviously not, right? If your name is Donald Trump, though, you’re fine with it, because responsibly following norms and precedents has negative value for you.
Trump believes defaulting on our debt would be preferable to maintaining the status quo, a position that flows from his temperamental inability to reject a populist talking point. Specifically, for Trump, defaulting would be “better than what we’re doing right now because we’re spending money like drunken sailors.”
The Democrats voted to suspend or raise the debt limit on numerous occasions when Trump was the one spending. But now that a Democrat is in the White House, it’s back to debt limit brinksmanship.
Ultimately, if you’re someone who can watch that town hall horrorshow and think, “hell yeah, this is exactly the guy to lead us,” you’re utterly hopeless, and then, unfortunately for the rest of us, so is our country. The fact that a single voter wants this man to be president again is madness—the fact that millions do is nothing less than depression-inducing.