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The debate over CNN platforming Trump is missing the point

CNN messed up. But that’s not the real story.

Reporters watch Trump on a screen.
Reporters watch a CNN town hall with former president and 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, on May 10, 2023.
Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Trump’s CNN town hall on Wednesday night was an endless parade of lies and moral obscenities.

He repeatedly insisted that he won the 2020 election (false), viciously mocked a woman who he had just been found liable for sexually assaulting (obscene), claimed he completed building the US-Mexico border wall (false), and committed to pardoning “many” of the January 6 rioters convicted on federal offenses (obscene).

He steamrolled over moderator Kaitlan Collins’s attempts to fact-check and challenge him; an overwhelmingly friendly audience laughing at all of his worst moments ensured that he got away with it.

The majority of American center-left punditariat — myself included — almost immediately concluded that CNN made a predictably disastrous mistake putting Trump on the air live in front of a friendly audience. A few others said that Trump actually did himself no favors — that rolling out the greatest Trump hits mostly reminded moderate voters why they’ve repeatedly rejected the man.

These takes are not mutually exclusive: It can be harmful to create a platform for the dissemination of lies even if said lies don’t resonate with the most electorally important audience.

But more fundamentally, I’ve come to think that we in the media have mostly been having the wrong conversation. We’re so (understandably) preoccupied with the wisdom of CNN’s decision that we are missing what the town hall actually showed us about America and what’s coming for the country in 2024.

And what it showed us is this: Donald Trump retains all of the dark charisma and authoritarian preoccupations that have fueled him for nearly a decade at the forefront of American public life. The studio audience ate it up — much as millions of Republicans continue to do around the country. There is a reason why Trump’s primary poll numbers are high and getting higher: This is what a large portion of the country wants out of their politics.

I understand being angry with CNN: I myself think that handing Trump a live special in front of adoring fans, less an interview than a campaign rally with a CNN punching bag on stage, is not the most responsible coverage model. (In a statement, a CNN spokesperson said Collins “followed up and fact-checked President Trump in real time to arm voters with crucial information about his positions,” embodying “CNN’s role and responsibility: to get answers and hold the powerful to account.”)

But focusing on the network or the man on the stage misses out on the real thing we should be worried about: the people in that audience cheering every lie and obscenity.

“It’s good to know what we’re facing,” writes Sarah Longwell, a Never Trump Republican pollster. “Trump is probably going to be the nominee and we need to be clear-eyed about what we’re dealing with.”

The Trump show is back on, whether we like it or not

Debates over whether to “platform” Trump are seductive. For us in the media, it gives us a sense of control over the world around us — like what we do really matters in the grand scheme of things,

That’s true to an extent. In 2016, wall-to-wall media coverage of his every move amounted to about $5 billion in free media. The decision by Twitter and Facebook to ban him after January 6 significantly reduced Trump’s mainstream reach for a time (which may have paradoxically helped the GOP’s poll numbers by hiding its leader’s extremism from persuadable voters).

But I think we may have over-learned the lessons from both of those episodes. Donald Trump is not Tinker Bell: He will not go away if the media ceases to believe in him. His message resonates with a large audience, and it’s made him the dominant figure in one of our two major political parties. He will not be defeated by a mainstream media blackout.

Just look at the Republican primary poll numbers. In RealClearPolitics’s poll average, Trump has been leading by double digits for the entire race. Even in the months following the 2022 midterms, when many leading Republicans declared that Trump was dead and Ron DeSantis was the future, Trump still led by about 15 points at the valley.

Today, Trump is beating DeSantis by over 30 points. This is true despite a criminal indictment, a civil judgment that he sexually assaulted writer E. Jean Carroll, and — crucially — a general lack of 2016-style obsessive coverage of his every pronouncement and every move.

Simply put, the Trump phenomenon is not a mainstream media construction. Despite more restrained coverage, despite being off the major social media platforms, Trump is still the prohibitive favorite for the GOP nomination — and is by definition very competitive to win the 2024 general election. Coverage decisions can only affect this at the margins.

CNN probably should not have aired a Trump town hall of this style — live, unedited, in front of a friendly audience. Not every format is the same; a pre-recorded interview that cut out his attempts to bulldoze over the interviewer and interspersed authoritative fact-checks would have been better suited to withstand Trump’s lack of shame and scruples. (Whether Trump would submit to that is another matter.)

But in the wake of CNN’s town hall, the media conversation is obsessing over these questions far more than the more fundamental issue of why Trump is newsworthy in the first place. He speaks a language and promotes a perspective that appeals to millions of people — to the point where he got 11 million more votes in 2020 than in 2016. Those people tuned in to the President Trump show every day and decided they wanted more.

And paying attention to what he said last night, and what the audience applauded, affirmed what we’ve learned about Trump and the far-right around the world in the last decade or so. The former president has weaponized a sense of grievance against mainstream American society, convincing a critical sector of voters who feel culturally alienated that he’s their champion against a mainstream that despises them.

In such an environment, the grievance-mongering about the 2020 election that consumed much of the CNN town hall makes a lot more sense. In the Trump worldview, 2020 is not merely an election their side lost; it is the grand conspiracy against Trump and his supporters, the political system and the media and the Never Trumpers and the courts all aligning to keep the Real Americans and their leader out of power.

When Trump said on Wednesday that “unless you are a very stupid person, you see what happened ... that was a rigged election,” he’s not merely defending his own reputation: He’s letting his audience in on the secret that they’re the smart ones, and his opponents are either dumb or corrupt.

What we saw last night is what millions of our fellow citizens want out of politics. It’s profoundly dangerous — an existential threat to the survival of American democracy. The CNN town hall was depressing less because it was a bad decision by CNN, but because the spectacle underscored that Trump is not merely a media phenomenon but also an expression of a tectonic transformation in American and even global politics.

Whether or not CNN aired this town hall, Trump would still be the prohibitive favorite in the Republican primary. The important question is why — and what can be done about it.

Update, May 11, 11:50 am: This story has been updated to include a statement from CNN.