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All the Wrong Lessons from Trump’s Rise
The justifications for CNN’s Trump town hall reveal the deeper pathologies and fallacies that have characterized the Trump discourse since 2016
It’s been almost two weeks since the CNN Trump town hall. It seems to me that there isn’t much more to say about the deranged spectacle itself. But the discussion around it has continued, centering around whether or not CNN was right to provide Trump with such a platform – a question that apparently has caused quite a bit of friction within the network.
As the dust has half-settled, it’s worth reflecting on the justifications that have been offered for this circus – by CNN officials themselves, but also by other mainstream media representatives. They reveal a lot about the lessons learned or not learned from Trump’s emergence in 2015/16, and provide a window into some rather pervasive ideas about what Trump is, who he represents, why Trumpism has been able to take over the Republican Party, and how media and political institutions should respond to this challenge. Spoiler alert: If you favor democracy over authoritarian minority rule, what’s been on display here has been maximally discouraging.
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Normalizing Trump, naturalizing power
The morning after the town hall, Chris Licht, who took over as CNN chairman and CEO in May 2022, offered this justification in response to internal criticism in an editorial call: “You do not have to like the former president's answers, but you can't say that we didn't get them … Kaitlan (Collins, who hosted the town hall) pressed him again and again and made news. Made a LOT of news." According to Licht, “that is our job.”
There’s a lot to digest here. In an ideal world, “what we do is making news” would be an acknowledgment that there is no such thing as “just reporting the facts” or “just asking question,” that journalists are not just passive observers simply mirroring the world, that we should think of the journalistic task less as observing / mirroring / reproducing reality and more as selecting / amplifying / constructing / producing it. Such an honest reflection is overdue, and it would lead to a host of interesting questions and necessitate a wholesale re-thinking of how political journalists should operate. But Licht, of course, was not at all in the mood for critical introspection. On the contrary, his idea of “making news” merely translates to “getting attention and fabricating drama”: a wholesale embrace of CNN as an entertainment product, devoid of any larger journalistic obligations.
It's easy to criticize the news-as-entertainment business model. But unfortunately, the “Trump is news” defense has been fairly widespread well beyond the executive suites at CNN. The argument goes something like this: Trump is loved by millions of people on the conservative base, he is the most likely Republican presidential candidate in 2024, even people who hate him want to hear what he has to say, especially immediately after a jury found him liable for sexual abuse – and so putting him on the air was not only an obvious choice, it was also the right move; besides, just ignoring him wouldn’t work anyway.
This general sentiment was captured in an opinion piece in the New York Times, published the morning of the town hall, written by Michelle Cottle, a member of the paper’s editorial board. Cottle started off by asking the right question: “After everything this antidemocratic, violence-encouraging carnival barker has put America through, are we really going to treat him like a normal candidate this time?” But then, remarkably, she answered that question with a resounding: Yes! “He is a serious contender for the White House – even, heaven help us, a formidable one. To treat him otherwise would be a breach of duty by the news media, democratic institutions and voters.”
This pre-emptive justification pushes back against a complete straw man: “It’s not as though Mr. Trump can be stuffed in a storage closet like a bunch of classified documents,” the opinion piece reminds us in a stern tone. I know there are people on the internet demanding we simply ignore Trump entirely. But I don’t think anyone in any position of power and influence is making such a simplistic “Don’t cover” case. The argument is not that the established media should ignore Trump, that he and the forces that have fueled his rise would vanish if we only pretended they didn’t exist. I’ve made the case before that ignoring the most outrageous, most extreme figures within the Republican Party is not the answer, focusing on the example of Marjorie Taylor Greene: If she was just a fringe figure, it would indeed be best to simply not talk about her or react to anything she does. Her extremism, however, is increasingly that of the Republican Party itself. Marjorie Taylor Greene and the many provocateurs like her are not just rightwing trolls, but Republican elected officials in good standing with the rest of their party. Ignoring them won’t work, and it’s no use making fun of them either: These people are in positions of influence, fully intent on using their power. The same case certainly holds for Donald Trump – the former president, current leader of the extremist Right, and favorite to become the GOP presidential candidate for a third consecutive time in 2024.
The real question to which critics of the CNN town hall demand a better answer is not: Cover them or don’t cover them? The actual issue that requires a lot more critical thinking than the mainstream media has been willing to entertain is: Cover them how? The answer we have gotten so far is: By normalizing them like we always do – because power needs to be naturalized! Remember CBS presenting Marjorie Taylor Greene on “60 Minutes” as someone who “isn’t afraid to share her opinions, no matter how intense and in-your-face they are”? If mainstream media advocates want to play dumb, fine. But let’s not join them. There are more options than just “Pretend they don’t exist” vs the MTG/Trump normalization-and-adoration hour.
Going into the town hall, the New York Times opinion piece actually had some demands for what should happen on CNN: “Mr. Trump cannot be allowed to grandstand or slither away from awkward topics: He needs to face tough and skeptical questioning from the get-go.” Well, that didn’t work – it has never worked. CNN was certainly eager to present the facade of tough journalistic inquiry: Oh, once he sits down with us, he has nowhere to go! (As if Trump hadn’t proved a million time that he simply refuses to play by “can’t just lie, have to respect the boundaries of factual reality” rules) Oh, we’ll fact check him in real time (as if “facts” were an antidote to the propagandistic performance). This was not critical coverage – it was a spectacle staged in accordance with the demagogue’s preferences.
The New York Times opinion piece is helpful because it makes explicit what has been one of the key underlying problems in the way the mainstream media and the political discourse more broadly have approached Trump and Trumpian figures: It specifically calls for Trump to be treated like a normal politician because he is powerful and he is popular. What is sorely lacking, however, is a reflection on how this kind of “normal” approach inevitably leads to a normalization of extremism.
A policy that regards anything and anyone emerging as the GOP position or candidate as deserving of business-as-usual treatment effectively gives the Republican base, an extremist faction that is openly hostile to democracy, a veto over what has to be accepted as “normal.” It reveals a perspective that is not based in any kind of substantive commitment to how we should define “normal”; such a hollow approach makes it easy for conservatives to constantly drag the discourse and the boundaries of what is accepted as within the confines of the “respectable” rightward. In this way, what was widely regarded as “extreme” just a little while ago becomes “moderate” as soon as rightwingers move to an even more radical position. It’s a mechanism that constantly normalizes and legitimizes extremist figures, views, and policies at a remarkable speed.
What’s on display here is an apologist sleight of hand that is often deployed to provide cover not just for Trump, but for Republicans in general: If extremism is not defined by its ideological and political substance, but merely in a positional sense as “something fringe,” then the minute it becomes GOP mainstream, it ceases to be regarded as extremism. Just like that, not only do extremist ideas and policies get automatically legitimized – by definition, the Republican Party, regardless of how substantively extreme, also gets treated as “normal” simply because it has, in numerical terms, support from well beyond the fringe. And just like that, we get “60 Minutes” with Marjorie Taylor Greene and a friendly town hall for Trump.
A similar dynamic of normalizing ever more extreme positions as within the “respectable” mainstream has characterized the debate over whether or not the term fascism can be applied to parts of the rightwing coalition: Can it be fascist if it’s widely accepted on the Right? Think back to the indignant responses from professional centrists when Biden called MAGA “semi-fascist” last summer. The argument here, basically, was: It can’t be fascism if it’s supported by more than just a few irrelevant fringe figures. That, however, is a historically illiterate position to take.
“Republicans across the country are on board with it, it appeals to the base, and it defines the center of conservative politics” should not translate to “And that’s why it’s not extremism” or “And that’s why it deserves the normal treatment.” It should lead to a general acceptance of the fact that the Right is defined and dominated by extremist groups and ideas. And it should spark a collective search – in the mainstream media, academia, political institutions, among pundits and observers – for answers that are commensurate with the challenge this situation poses, responses that have to go well beyond what has always been regarded as “normal.”
Instead of accepting this task, mainstream media proponents claim to be acting in the interest of the democratic republic by just sticking with what they’ve always done, even though what they’ve always done has clearly contributed to getting us where we are now. The New York Times opinion piece fully rejects the idea of treating Trump as anything but a normal candidate because this “risks further undermining public faith in the democratic process – making the system look too weak to deal with one aspiring autocrat – and even the process itself.” Notice how the system’s “strength” seems to be defined solely as its ability to continue business as usual until the lights go out. And whose faith, exactly, are we talking about here? Unless “let’s not further undermine public faith” basically just means “let’s not further upset Trump’s already enraged base,” this makes little sense. It’s hard to believe anyone in the (small-d) democratic camp would consider “Is Trump getting enough airtime on mainstream media?” a more pressing question than whether or not the institutions tasked with upholding democracy possess the strength and/or will to mount an effective defense against an authoritarian movement that could not be clearer about its ideology and goals. Because if they don’t, that certainly makes the system look weak.
The “echo chamber” myth and the fallacies of the “tribalism” narrative
Speaking of self-righteous claims to be acting in the public interest and scolding everyone for failing to be grateful: Let’s talk about Anderson Cooper. The day after the Trump town hall, one of the country’s most prominent news media personalities addressed the complaints of the liberals who supposedly make up the bulk of his audience. They had the right to “never watch this network again,” Cooper admitted, “But do you think staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to make that person go away?”
I don’t generally care about (nor am I usually aware of) what Anderson Cooper says – simply because I hardly ever watch television news, unless I have to for work. But turning the purely ratings-driven platforming of a spectacle that only helps the far-right demagogue who once before tried to abolish democracy and constitutional government as a necessary civic service to get Libs and Lefties to leave their echo chambers is utterly insulting.
The cynical “You need to get out if your silo” spin is also indicative of how pervasive narratives of liberal “echo chambers” and “tribalism” on #BothSides are. These are highly misleading dogmas that do not hold up empirically: Self-proclaimed liberals and Democratic voters consume and trust a much wider range of media sources compared to their Republican counterparts. There is absolutely no equivalent on the “Left” to what’s been happening on the Right, where no one on the conservative base trusts anything left of Fox News – and even Fox News is trusted only if and as long as it doesn’t go against the core tenets of MAGA orthodoxy. Additionally, there is vastly more interest on the “Left” in actually understanding and analyzing “the Right” – while even conservative flagship media like the National Review seem entirely stuck / invested in perpetuating a bizarre idea of a radically “woke” leftist threat that never ventures beyond the realm of caricature.
Nonetheless, blaming the “echo chambers” is a readily available fallback option if you have nothing else to say about politics – or, more specifically: if you don’t want to acknowledge the substance of the political conflict and would rather not engage with the specifics of a struggle over power, status, and fundamentally incompatible visions of what the country should be. Instead, the echo chamber narrative presents the problem mostly as a misunderstanding and prescribes an easy fix: If only people could communicate across the boundaries of their self-imposed information silos!
Liberals are often all too eager to adopt such a diagnosis. It plays on a certain liberal / lefty penchant for self-flagellation that also comes with a dose of self-aggrandizement: To adopt the idea that “the problem has to be us” is also to say: We have agency. We are the key actors in this story. We can simply decide to step out of the “echo chamber” and that will immediately make a difference. Most importantly, perhaps, what makes this narrative so attractive is the fact that criticizing the “echo chamber” is an easy way to demonstrate how supposedly above the fray one is: You people might get carried away by “tribal” passions and partisan blinders, but look at me, look at how reasonable, rational, and objective I am. This is particularly appealing to journalists: a kind of performative centrism, a type of neutrality theater that is still immensely valuable as a currency in political journalism.
For all these reasons, the “echo chamber” tale plays a prominent role in the broader political imaginary. Anderson Cooper’s remarks are an example of how it’s being weaponized in order to justify pseudo-journalism. Let’s remember this every time we come across an “expert” or pundit who belongs to the sprawling industry that thrives on obscuring rather than clarifying the conflict with such “tribalism” nonsense and prescribes nothing but vacuous “reaching out” gospel. It’s actively harmful.
The “silent majority” chimera and the reactionary ideology of “real Americanism”
There is a third aspect that stands out about the justifications that have been provided for CNN’s Trump town hall: They are often predicated on the idea that MAGA represents “real America” – to which Trump has a special connection. In this view, the mainstream media has a duty to provide a prominent platform to Trump and his base because Trump embodies and gives voice to a populist uprising of “regular folks.” This was apparent in the way Chris Licht defended the decision to provide Trump with a live audience that was actively and aggressively on his side: These people needed to be heard, Licht argued, because they supposedly represented “a large swath of America” that had been unfairly ignored by the media in 2016. There it is: The “large swath of America” – a sizable portion, maybe even a majority, that is otherwise ignored, forgotten, due to the ignorance and arrogance of educated, mostly liberal elites in coastal urban centers. Once again, there is little empirical evidence to back either of these claims up, neither the “large swath” nor the “previously ignored” part. These aren’t empirical statements, however, but ideological claims. They are based on a widespread ideology of “real Americanism” that is centered around an essentialist view of who gets to represent the nation. If you speak for them, as Trump supposedly does, it is your prerogative to have your message amplified.
Such ideas are very much in line with the fascistic assumption that Trump personifies the real Volk (I am using the German term deliberately here): He speaks for it, it speaks through him. My argument is not that the media is fascist – only that mainstream media narratives are laundering and perpetuating certain ideas and ideologies that form the bedrock of the extremist ethno-religious movement that has galvanized behind Trump and is loyal to him. This is the exactly the wrong “lesson” from Trumpism’s rise, and the way it shapes the political discourse and the broader imaginary is a disaster. All of this deserves a proper dissection. Since we are almost 3,000 words in, we’ll do that in a Part II that is coming later this week.
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