What We Learned from the CNN-Trump Debacle
Nothing. The program shouldn’t have happened. But it did–and here are some bitter truths it reinforced about dealing with Trump.
From the Hillary Clinton debate to the E. Jean Carroll case, Donald Trump has dealt with female counterparts and challengers in a predictable way. CNN knew that a display of narcissism, falsehood, put-downs, and cheap machismo was in store with its ‘Town Hall’ event last night. And it went ahead anyway. (Rick Wilking photo from the Trump-Clinton ‘Town Hall’ debate on October 9, 2016, via Getty Images.)
In a CNN segment after its Donald Trump show last night, Gary Tuchman of CNN interviewed eight New Hampshire residents who had been in the crowd. (You can see that segment here.)
All were Trump supporters. Six had voted for him in his previous runs. One of the others had been too young to vote—but planned to vote for Trump next time. The other hadn’t voted at all. The group was “diverse” mainly in that some were registered as Republicans, while the rest voted Republican but were registered as Undeclared.
They were the base.
Tuchman began by asking:
Show of hands. Anybody who thinks Donald Trump looks better after this Town Hall?
Not a single hand went up.
His next question was, Anybody thinks he looks worse?
—Remember that this came after Trump had led the crowd in mocking laughter at E. Jean Carroll; after he’d called CNN moderator Kaitlan Collins “a nasty person”; after he’d said he’d would pardon most of the January 6 insurrectionists; after he’d harped on his fantasies of rigged elections and bogus ballots; after he’d refused to say whether he’d accept the result of an election if it went against him; after he’d refused to say whether he favored Russia or Ukraine in their war; after he’d said the US government “was going to default anyway” on its sovereign debt; after he had taken credit for overturning Roe but refused to say whether he’d support a nationwide abortion ban… After he’d done a hundred other things related to what we’ve heard from him for years. (CNN transcript here.)
CNN’s Collins did her best to “correct” or “fact-check” this fire-hydrant spew in real time. This didn’t slow down Trump at all, or register with the cheering, jeering crowd. As the headline on a column from the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple put it, “Trump Steamrolls CNN’s Town Hall.”
That and more is what the panel had heard over the preceding hour. Then Tuchman asked, Does he look worse?
Again no hands.
Finally Tuchman asked, Anybody who thinks the same about him as when you walked in? All eight hands immediately went up.
Now that was an astute panel.
We already know who Donald Trump is.
What was true of the panel is true of the rest of us. Everything we need to know about Donald Trump, we know already.
Remember the old line about behavior that is “shocking but not surprising”? That still applies. There is not a thing Donald Trump could do or say that would “surprise” anyone exposed to political news.1 The even better-known line from Trump himself may stand as the most prescient guide to his era. That came seven years ago, at a rally in Iowa, when he ad libbed, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.”
Trump’s supporters know this. They’ve stayed with him through scandals that would have torpedoed any normal political career.
Trump’s critics know this. And so do the many Republicans who are hoping that some time, somehow, Trump will just go away.
We all know this. CNN knows as well.
Yet still they created this spectacle, affording Trump an hour of live boasting, bullying, and lying, to a crowd as carefully selected as at his rallies, but with the broader legitimacy that comes from being broadcast by a mainstream network.
What was the positive side of CNN’s doing so? For the public, zero. Not a single person knows anything more about Trump’s past record or his future plans than if this event had not occurred. The main difference is, they’ve been subject to another burst of divisive “us and them” rhetoric and nonstop lies, on mainstream TV. The effect is the same as when CNN aired wall-to-wall Trump rallies starting in 2015, because they thought it would be a ratings boost.
What is presented through “normal” channels becomes normalized. That is what CNN and other media did eight years ago,2 and what CNN started all over again last night
That’s the upside of CNN’s decision: nothing. What about the potential harm? How about these three quick categories:
1) ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death.’
That was the title of Neil Postman’s renowned book from the 1980s. Its idea was that we should take care to distinguish between what holds attention—what is merely amusing and entertaining, whether a TikTok feed or a playoff game—and what matters in long-term personal, family, and civic life. Whatever offers the quickest mental or physical sugar-rush will naturally be the most popular, he pointed out. From the ‘Bread and Circuses’ era onward, that is what entertainment has always been for.
But in many crucial aspects of life, Postman wrote (as countless others have observed), something more than immediate gratification matters. This is true of child-rearing, and character-formation, and the development of practically any skill, and for long-term healthy civic and political life. Too much sugary fast-food leads to diabetes. Too much pure distraction leads to diabetes of the mind and soul.
The challenge for news operations has always been to balance these impulses—mixing the purely “interesting,” with what seems lastingly “important.” If news is not interesting, no one will read or listen to it. If it’s not important, it’s usually not news.
—The least cynical explanation for why CNN offered Trump this opportunity is that they are trying to ingratiate themselves with Trump and his GOP. Perhaps a “re-centered” CNN could occupy the space opened by chaos at Fox?
—The more cynical explanation is that for CNN’s leadership the difference between spectacle and news was meaningless. A live Trump show would draw an audience and make headlines. Which is part of the defense its new CEO, Chris Licht, reportedly offered on a staff call today.3
That is fine if you’re running Instagram or TikTok. Not from an allegedly serious news organization—its work protected by the First Amendment because it is more than just another business.
2) ‘Well, actually’ vs. a stream of bullshit.
Think of the Logan Roy character in Succession, as played by Brian Cox. He’s clearly modeled on Rupert Murdoch, but his rhetorical style is like a better-informed Donald Trump.
Imagine a scene with the room-commanding Logan Roy matched up against a young lawyer, accountant, or reporter. The latter would offer factual corrections to some outlandish claim. And Logan Roy would turn and glare at this pipsqueak, perhaps walk over to loom above him or her, and would say, “LISTEN HERE, I will tell you how things really work.” The “discussion” would be over.
That has been Donald Trump’s aspirational mode on the public stage. It’s been honed over the decades, through his days as a WWE promoter and playing the role of all-knowing boss on The Apprentice, and now to rallies before adoring crowds.
He knows that dissertation-defenses and appeals-court briefs might turn on fact and logic. But face-to-face encounters are usually 10% logic and 90% reading-the-room, and reading-the-opponent. Trump has been very good at these latter skills. He can read a crowd for what it wants. He can read opponents for what they fear.
Fact-checkers might cause him problems, if he were writing a legal brief. But before a live audience, he’ll eat them up. The fact-checker will say “Well, actually…” And Trump will lead the crowd in jeers and laughter. As he did last night.
Donald Trump in 2007 during a trademark moment of his public life: Shaving the head of Vince McMahon, his adversary in one of pro-wrestling’s phony rivalries, in front of 80,000 screaming fans. A video of the episode is on Sports Illustrated’s site. (Photo via Getty Images.)
There’s a darker and undeniable misogynist side to this dynamic.