The Biden campaign has to stop the gloating over that CNN “Town Hall” with Donald Trump. The fusillade of lies, the alpha male domination, and the grunting ignorance—all cheered a Democratic president who is down in the polls and enduring questions about his longevity. Other than the ex-president and Melania, who says she looks forward to her husband once more “leading America with love and strength,” no one wants the 45th president of the United States to win the Republican nomination to be the 47th president more than Joe Biden. Come to think of it, Melania may be faking it.
Democrats, who have engaged in an orgy of hatred for CNN’s ridiculous town hall and for “deplorables” gleeful over Trump’s pugilistic performance, gloat at their peril. It’s not that Trump, on Wednesday night, proved he could go around the bend for an hour on live TV and not lose one MAGA voter anymore than he would if he started shooting on Fifth Avenue. No, the evening showed that since 2016, the media, or at least CNN, has not learned a thing about how to deal with Trump while the former president, more protean than he gets credit for, has shape-shifted to adapt to varied political landscapes.
It’s shamefully apparent that CNN gave him the store, including an audience of MAGA die-hards and a moderator who had no way to keep pace with his lies. Would they give Bernie Sanders a tie-dye audience in Vermont or Mitt Romney a room of square-jawed Mormons in Utah? Doubtful.
By creating a gladiator arena, CNN gave Trump a stage to preen on and Kaitlin Collins the impossible task of taming him in a setting he owns. Collins, who once worked for Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller, was a flatliner, earnest in her fact-checking with the composure of a Cronkite. But unless you are Roberta Kaplan with a year to prepare E. Jean Carroll’s civil suit against a pathological liar, you might as well just sit down and let Trump run you over.
He reprised his theory of women wanting it, first articulated in the “Access Hollywood” recording (and brushed off as “locker-room talk,” back when Mike Pence and “Mother” were reportedly upset by the remarks.) Trump said: I didn’t do anything in the Bergdorf Goodman dressing room. I wasn’t there. If I were, it would be okay because, unfortunately, or fortunately, for a million years, women let you do what you want when you’re a star. Collins got the full dose of his misogyny one day after a Manhattan judge ordered the former president of the United States to pay $5 million in damages to Carroll for sexual abuse and defamation when the candidate called her “a nasty person” when she was anything but.
Collins was doomed from the start. Imagine William L. Shirer or Edward R. Murrow, brave wartime reporters, interviewing the fūhrer at the Nuremberg rallies. It’s not what you would call a fair fight.
Nor was this a shining hour for the very smart CNN boss Chris Licht, who did brilliant things for Stephen Colbert and Joe Scarborough in previous jobs but indulged in a pointless exercise here. The stacked “town hall” did nothing to inform the public despite his saying, “I believe America was served very well by what we did.”
This is Neo-Trump, not the Trump who went full Putin fanboy as president, trashing Ukraine as part of a Biden crime syndicate and getting himself impeached (the first time) over his bullying Kyiv. Slyly, CNN town hall Trump shrouded a Munich-level abandonment of an ally in a blustery boast that he could end the carnage in 24 hours. That stance may grow in appeal as the war drags on. It’s not a morally sound position, but it could prove to be a politically savvy one.
Trump’s lasting victory comes from his big win in the ongoing Prevagen competition. Biden works out, watches his BMI, and has made peace with the white, thinning hair God’s left him with. Trump is a fleshy, overweight, combed-over wreck of a man who devours greasy burgers like a pimply teen.
But in the New Hampshire coliseum, Trump punched below his ample weight and above his age cohort. He’s only four years younger than Biden but powered by his id, consumed by his grievances, so coiled he couldn’t sit still, the man from Mar-a-Lago came across as adroit and at least a decade younger. When Trump claimed the documents he took from the White House were magically declassified and challenged Collins’s knowledge of the controlling legal authority on the point, the energy he put behind the lie was such that he may have convinced the few disbelievers in the hall to swallow the whopper. How dare the deep state invade Mar-a-Lago to recover his mash note to Kim Jong Un? It’s his keepsake. He straddled the abortion question to placate the right to lifers who had long said it was a state issue but now want to make it a federal offense.
When Biden ran against Trump in 2020, he was just the man for a country too exhausted for any hopey, changey business, much less the excitement of any New Deals. There was enough longing to return to normalcy that Biden prevailed over Trump’s anti-normalcy platform with its promise of four more years of bedlam.
Trump gave a preview of the heaping dose of turmoil he’ll serve up if given a chance, convinced that a country hooked on “Succession,” a family saga of a profoundly flawed patriarch with damaged offspring, won’t settle for Grandpa Joe when it can have a Logan Roy. Whether or not Mexico is sending their rapists, the father of five promises that any parents coming from south of the border will have their children taken away. He’ll stop the U.S. from spending money like a drunken sailor trusting no one remembers he left an $8 trillion deficit. Defaulting on the debt, everyone’s worried about? No big deal. Have some fun. Roll the dice. It’s gonna happen someday, so why not now? When Collins asked how he could be so cavalier when as president, he said it would be catastrophically wrong to default, cynicism on his sleeve, he shot back, “Because I’m no longer president.” It got the biggest laugh of the night.
The age thing is so fraught that Trump didn’t bring it up head-on, only joking about not needing a script or a teleprompter, as You-Know-Who does. Ageism is as anathema to Democrats as sexism, and together the “isms” tie them in knots. It’s why Ruth Bader Ginsberg wasn’t pressured hard enough to resign so a possible Republican successor to Barack Obama couldn’t appoint enough judges to overturn Roe v. Wade. It’s why they don’t want to be seen pressuring the ailing Diane Feinstein to resign from the Senate, although it’s not ageism to expect a public servant to show up for work. Better to resign than arrive stricken and frail after flying 3,000 miles across the continent to try, unsuccessfully, to break the logjam on judicial nominees. It smacks of elder abuse.
Time was Trump was somewhat cryptic in his sympathy for insurrectionists, saying in the first presidential debate of the 2020 general election that the Proud Boys should “stand back and stand by.” Moderator Chris Wallace didn’t checkmate him on the paramilitary language he used to alert the Tiki-torch-carrying goons to await further instructions. There’s no beating around any brown shirts now. On Wednesday, Trump called January 6 a “beautiful day.” He treated the Proud Boys and their brothers and sisters in arms as patriots with “love in their hearts.” He called the Capitol Police officer who shot the insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt, a “thug,” as if she were a martyr like Joan of Arc or Horst Wessel.
We learned three things from the CNN circus. Trump is a charlatan with remarkable morphing skills, whom CNN and other outlets still believe they can treat like a normal candidate. Carrying Trump live, rather than taping interviews for later broadcast with close captioned fact-checking, is an invitation to chaos. Surrounding him with fawning acolytes is malpractice.
It’s a long time since CNN could call itself “The Most Trusted Name in News” and not be met with laughter. I spent 20 years there as a panelist on “Capital Gang,” a weekly news discussion show that felt edgy then but now serves as a model of exquisite Victorian manners. I also hosted two shows with Tucker Carlson, no relation, another relic of a bygone era, and a whole other story.
CNN, now a part of Warner Brothers Discovery Channel, has sunk from the days when Bernard Shaw covered the Gulf War, hour by hour, from under a desk in a Baghdad hotel to a global network holding open mic night, or worse, broadcasting a cheap spinoff of “Shark Week,” its signature megahit. Wednesday’s “Shark Night” was a ratings boost for CNN and a victory for the Great White Con Artist. It was definitely a disaster for the rest of us.