Trump's deposition vs. CNN town hall: He's a coward without a bloodthirsty MAGA crowd

Donald Trump won't even show up in court without a mob of braying fascists to hide behind

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 12, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Donald Trump's "town hall" on CNN Wednesday night was exactly what all the critics warned it would be: A fascist rally, with host Kaitlan Collins cast in the role of the scapegoat for the Trump-led crowd to vent their bilious rage toward. Trump fed on the bloodthirsty crowd's energy. He was a hate vampire, swelling with pride as they cheered on the "I am your retribution" act, which is equal parts unfunny insult comedy and bragging about how many crimes he's committed. Their cheering was especially enthusiastic when he mocked one of his sexual assault victims:

They were also really into Trump unsubtly suggesting that his former vice president, Mike Pence, should have been murdered for not stealing the 2020 election for him. 

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Trump's sociopathy is nothing new, of course. Nor is it novel to say that this sadism is exactly what draws his supporters to him. He's an aspirational figure for their worst impulses, a conduit for the MAGA power fantasy of being able to attack, often with literal violence, anyone they deem as outsiders to their tribe of conservative white Christians. As the Atlantic's Adam Serwer famously wrote, "The cruelty is the point." 

Watching clips of this entirely predictable farce, however, I kept thinking back to video clips that had been making the rounds earlier that week, ones that Trump did not want people to see: Those from his deposition in the E. Jean Carroll rape trial, which ended this week as the jury found him liable for sexually assaulting the journalist in the 90s. 

Locked in a room with lawyers and a video camera, without the wannabe lynch mob at his back, Trump was revealed during the deposition as the man he actually is: A buffoon whose dual pathologies of narcissism and insecurity lead him to punch down in a fruitless bid to convince himself he's a tough guy. But, of course, he is actually a coward. Like all gutless bullies, he assiduously avoids any conflict where he's not protected. Sometimes he hides behind his loyal followers. Or, as when he assaults women, he waits until he's cornered someone half his size, and who he believes can be silenced by his money and power. Either way, Trump always pairs his viciousness with an unfailing pusillanimity.

Trump's followers love to talk him up as a "fighter," but he is the opposite: A coddled little chickenshit. The kind of man who kicks a puppy and thinks that makes look "tough." The sort of person who sends a mob after his vice president, while he hides in a reinforced room, watching the melee safely on a screen. 

Two moments in particular stick out that illustrate the contrast. During the CNN town hall, Trump was double-wrapped in a protective blanket, first by his army of redhats and by the knowledge that Collins was disempowered to do anything substantive to resist him. Cocooned by that safety, the coward felt free to call her a "nasty person," while his jackass audience brayed like that's the funniest joke they ever heard. 

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During the deposition, however, Trump tried lamely to insult lawyer Roberta Kaplan with, "You wouldn't be a choice of mine, either." 

Kaplan was not cowed by this weak effort, or any of Trump's pouty baby act. Kaplan benefited from the fact that Trump's dumb insults don't land without the chorus of MAGA monkeys schreeching their approval in an unnerving way. Being told you won't be graced with the Trump penis is a moment of relief for any woman. Kaplan, of course, also got the last word. This deposition was devastating proof of the story she was telling about Trump: He's a misogynist bully who sexually abuses women. It resulted in a $5 million judgement for her client.

Collins did not come out on top in the CNN town hall, however. Her efforts to counter Trump's lies started off weakly and collapsed into meaninglessness swiftly, as he drowned her in a firehose of bullshit. As many observers pointed out, however, the format created an impossible situation. No matter how tough-minded you are, being in the midst of a jeering crowd that hates truth more than anything is not amendable to any kind of fact-checking. 

Crucially, it was the format, not Trump, that did Collins in. It takes no special skills or strengths to lie your head off, knowing you have a mob of hate-blind people to back you up with their screaming. Despite all his bluster, however, Trump knows full well that his success at lying and bullying depends entirely on having these people at his beck and call. Without them, he just comes across as the sweaty joke.

That's why he not only refused to testify during Carroll's trial, but refused to show up in court at all. He fell apart during his deposition without the MAGA masses to protect him. Imagine what a disaster he would be on the witness stand! 

His quiet knowledge of his own weakness is also why Trump got increasingly frantic in the weeks before his indictment, in a separate case involving campaign finance fraud, in New York City in March. Trump, ever cossetted by privilege, had the easiest possible time getting arrested. He was able to turn himself in flanked by a legion of lawyers, having arrived by private jet and limo service. He didn't even have to submit to a mug shot. And yet, pants-wetter that he is, he spent weeks on Truth Social, begging the MAGA mob to save him. Which, as he knew full well, would have required them to risk arrest or even death by storming the courthouse. Not that anyone should pity them. They choose to follow a snake who wants them to die so he can avoid unflattering photos in the newspaper. Luckily, most of Trump's followers are as cowardly as he is, so they found their way to ignore his pleadings. 

Neither Trump nor his supporters, of course, know what true courage is: What we saw in E. Jean Carroll. She stood up to the MAGA swarm and did not back down. She's the model of bravery, insisting on the truth, even though it cost her job and put her in very real danger. 

Perhaps Trump and his supporters do know how much fortitude that takes. That's why they hate her and other people who show real strength against adversity. They are, in a word, jealous. It does go a long way towards explaining why the MAGA crowd is so full of resentment, ready to hide in the safety of numbers to vomit all their bile out however they can — so long as they never have to risk anything to do it. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Cnn Town Hall Commentary Donald Trump E Jean Carroll Kaitlan Collins