If non-conservative media outlets made a pact to starve Donald Trump of airtime, what would it do to his chances of winning the Republican nomination?
Would blacking him out for the good of the country actually end up being good for the country?
Trump’s dominance of political coverage in 2016 amounted to billions of dollars’ worth of free advertising, overwhelming his opponents. If he were suddenly suffocated by the press and airtime lavished on Ron DeSantis instead, that might tip the balance among undecided primary voters toward the governor. Which would indeed be good for the country—relatively.
But I can see it breaking the other way.
The greatest asset a right-wing politician can have is the fear and loathing of America’s mainstream media. In his zeal to highlight the degree of hostility between himself and the press, DeSantis has even tried to out-Trump Trump by boycotting most major news outlets. Overt media collusion to try to influence the outcome of the Republican primary by depriving one candidate of coverage would be taken as a supreme endorsement of that candidate among the nihilistic populists who’ll decide the primary. They’re showing you who they fear, those populists would say.
The right-wing media complex is also now large and influential enough to offset most of the damage that might be done to Trump by a mainstream media blackout. Fox News would continue to promote him eagerly to placate its disgruntled viewers, as of course would its smaller and more radical rivals. Populist blogs would cover him warmly whether out of heartfelt devotion or to avoid offending the Trump diehards among their readers. He would retain a direct pipeline to conservatives via Truth Social and, soon, Twitter and Facebook. And a huge television audience would await him in the Republican primary debates should he change his mind and choose to participate.
Being roundly deplatformed by the mainstream press is what Trump deserves morally, as he’s unfit for public life. But as a tactic designed to minimize his chances of becoming president, it might do more harm than good.
Which brings us to the outcry over Wednesday night’s CNN town hall.
No faction in American life despises CNN this afternoon as much, it seems, as CNN employees do.
Among the terms CNN insiders used in venting to Rolling Stone about the event with Trump: “Appalling,” “brutal,” “1000 percent a mistake,” “a f—ing disgrace.” One source at the network called it a “total debacle” in an interview with the Washington Post while another observed, “I can’t believe anyone thought this was a good idea.” A stunned Jake Tapper said of Trump after the program ended, “He declared war on the truth and I’m not sure that he didn’t win.”
CNN’s media reporter, Oliver Darcy, was as scathing as any outsider. “It felt like 2016 all over again. It was Trump’s unhinged social media feed brought to life on stage,” he wrote in his nightly newsletter of the town hall, adding, “It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening.” That remark stung so much that CEO Chris Licht felt obliged to respond to it obliquely in an editorial call with staff on Thursday morning.
One reporter at another outlet speculated that the network had even pulled the plug on the town hall early to spare itself further embarrassment. It was, assuredly, the last time a non-conservative American news outlet will ever provide the Republican frontrunner with a live forum outside of a debate format.
Trump was Trump. He lied remorselessly about the election, bulldozed moderator Kaitlan Collins whenever she challenged him, and played to the cheap seats. For more than an hour CNN became a showcase for America’s most deplorable “deplorable” in all his glory. I don’t know what they were expecting.
I’ll tell you what I was expecting, though. I was expecting the network not to pack the audience with a crowd roughly as Trump-friendly as the Mar-a-Lago dining room.
They laughed when he insulted Collins and E. Jean Carroll, who is two days removed from winning a civil judgment against him for sexual abuse, and applauded when he said Mike Pence should have overturned the 2020 election on January 6. My fantasy that he might face uncomfortable questions from average Americans whom he couldn’t easily steamroll looks in hindsight like one of the silliest things I’ve ever written.
For reasons I’ll never understand, CNN recruited attendees by asking the New Hampshire Republican Party to put out the word on its mailing list. Network executives would presumably defend their decision by noting that this was a Republican primary event and therefore deserved a Republican-leaning audience, which is fine logic—for a normal politician who belongs to a normal party.
But with a party that functions as a personality cult, what sort of audience did they expect to draw by advertising a one-night-only live event with the cult leader through party channels? It’s like promoting a hard-hitting discussion about Scientology on a Dianetics message board.
CNN should have recruited the attendees itself. The friendly crowd made Trump comfortable, fed him energy, and seemed to confirm suspicions that the network is quietly hoping for its own selfish reasons to see him renominated. At times the audience sounded like a laugh track, and the point of a laugh track is to condition viewers to judge what they’re watching more positively than they otherwise might. Anyone tuning in and hoping to see Trumpmania reduced to a shadow of its 2016 self as Ron DeSantis prepares to enter the race ended up disappointed, if not horrified. Trump’s own team was reportedly ecstatic with the results.
I was also expecting shrewder questions from Kaitlan Collins.
Practically everyone credited her afterward with having shown guts in an impossible situation. You can’t pin down a pathological liar and conspiracy theorist; to win a debate first requires both parties to agree on what basic reality is, and Trump won’t do that. So Collins focused instead on proving that she wasn’t afraid to press him on his biggest liabilities—January 6, his mishandling of classified documents, his plot to overturn the election in January, the recent sexual abuse judgment in the Carroll trial.
That’s important stuff in a general election. But it’s not, alas, the kind of thing that’ll change any minds in a Republican primary. And this was, I thought, supposed to be a Republican primary event.
Erick Erickson thinks Collins erred by engaging Trump “on the truth of the election, instead of the logic of the election.”
Instead of rebutting, why not ask, “Mr. Trump, if the election was stolen, as you have claimed, is that not partly your responsibility because you were the President and in command of the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and Department of Justice?”
“Mr. Trump, did you not put Christopher Wray in at the FBI and William Barr in as Attorney General?” “Sir, your endorsed candidates lost in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, and Arizona. Many of those states were Republican and are now Democrat. If you couldn’t stop the steal in 2020 with Republicans in charge and you as President, how do you expect to stop it in 2024, particularly as you continue to reject early voting?”
Ramesh Ponnuru also composed a list of questions afterward that might have done Trump more damage with Republican viewers than the sort of Democratic-attack-ad fodder Collins focused on. I’m skeptical that Trump would have had real difficulty BS-ing his way through the answers—this is a guy, remember, who’s leading by 30 points despite insisting he has a secret plan that’ll end the war in Ukraine in 24 hours—but at least CNN would have been over the electoral target.
As others have noted, the mismatch of hostile questioning and friendly audience amounted to a strange atmosphere, as if the network had stacked the deck in favor of Trump and against its own moderator. CNN seemed unable to decide whether it wanted to “normalize” him or not: The format and the adoring attendees were normal but quizzing the candidate on his recent attempt to overthrow the government was emphatically not. Had Collins somehow succeeded at embarrassing a man incapable of shame, that might have redeemed the event in the eyes of Trump’s critics. But as it is, they’re uniformly furious today.
Well, almost uniformly. The president of the United States and his team are pretty cheery.
A simple way to assess whether last night was productive or not is this: Is Trump closer to the presidency today than he was yesterday or is he further away?
The CNN event might have brought him a step closer to the Republican nomination, I’ll concede, but there’s reason to be skeptical of that.
Trump was Trump. If you’ve stuck with him this long, his town hall gave you no reason to abandon him. But if you’d already abandoned him, lord knows it gave you no reason to come back.
That’s why the only political outfit in America more excited about it than Team Trump is Team Biden. “Biden aides were positively giddy about the fodder Trump provided for Biden’s re-elect,” Politico reported last night. “A source familiar with the campaign’s thinking said they were already pinpointing segments to use in campaign ads.” One adviser called the town hall “quite efficient” insofar as it provided “weeks worth of damning content in one hour.”
He wasn’t speaking hypothetically. The Biden campaign was running attack ads highlighting Trump’s answers at the event before the night was through.
Presidential contests are almost always referendums on the incumbent. Last night’s spectacle made even clearer that 2024 will be different, a choice between two brain-addled retreads in which the incumbent is plainly the less crazy of the two. I can’t do justice to how many times in the span of little more than an hour Trump said something that’s destined to haunt him in the next general election. Scroll through Aaron Rupar’s compendium of soundbites to grasp the magnitude.
He said he’d pardon a “large portion” of the January 6 insurrectionists. He called the cop who shot Ashli Babbitt a “thug.” He hinted that he’d reinstate his policy of family separation at the border. He sounded reluctant to send more military aid to Ukraine. He endorsed defaulting on the national debt. He wouldn’t rule out signing a federal abortion ban. And of course he insisted that the 2020 election had been rigged.
He might have created more legal trouble for himself, too. Having just been found liable for defaming E. Jean Carroll, he arguably defamed her again. He insisted that he had every right to take classified material with him when he left the White House, which may complicate his defense in the ongoing Justice Department probe. He claimed that after the 2020 election Georgia’s secretary of state “owed me votes because the election was rigged,” an interesting thing to say with charges in Fulton County possibly pending.
The CNN town hall was to the next general election what his deposition was to the E. Jean Carroll trial, a disaster that doesn’t guarantee defeat but certainly makes it more likely.
And perhaps not just for Trump.
Early this morning, Politico predicted that Republicans in Congress will spend weeks fielding questions from reporters about the nuttiest things said last night. Already that prediction has proved correct. Trump loyalist Josh Hawley, who famously fist-pumped at protesters on the morning of January 6, said today, “If you’re asking me do I think you should pardon the people who engaged in rioting in here, no.” Todd Young of Indiana was pressed on whether he’ll support Trump next year and answered that he wouldn’t; when asked why, he responded “Where do I begin?” before mentioning Trump’s reluctance to call Vladimir Putin a war criminal.
Even the heretofore timid Ron DeSantis operation felt emboldened by the town hall. After it ended, the governor’s super PAC tweeted out a list of lowlights from Trump’s comments before pointedly asking, “How does this make America great again?”
Is Trump closer to the presidency today than he was yesterday or is he further away? If you believe he’s further away then I gently submit that CNN’s event wasn’t quite the disaster it’s been cracked up to be, despite the network’s best efforts to make it one.
Even the ratings suggest that this wasn’t the world-beating victory Trump’s campaign is desperate to portray it as.
That’s solid, especially for CNN, but well short of Major Event status. To put it in perspective, the first Republican primary debate featuring Trump in 2015 drew 24 million viewers. Fox News’s 5 p.m. show, The Five, averaged more viewers at times last year than CNN drew last night. It’s not inconceivable that, were Tucker Carlson still on the air, Fox would have won the 8 p.m. slot on Wednesday head-to-head.
The Trump show is stale. The DeSantis show is not, which makes me curious to see how his’ first town hall with CNN fares in the ratings by comparison—assuming there is one. Stay tuned.
I opened this piece with a question about a hypothetical scenario in which the mainstream media refuses to cover Trump for the rest of the campaign. Let me close with another in the same vein: If they did that, and he ended up winning the presidency anyway, how would Trump’s critics react?
Would they credit the press for having done their best to deprive the demagogue of an audience?
Or would they blame the press for not having done more to alarm swing voters by showing them the depths of his demagoguery in his own words?
I know which way I’d bet.
Many of us have closely followed Trump’s journey deeper into deranged-hobo-dom since leaving office, but many more haven’t, I suspect, and will need bracing demonstrations of it as they consider which unfit geriatric to choose in 2024. Last night supplied one: He’s still crazy after all these years. There’s value in that.