What the media missed from Trump by falling for his CNN distraction

What Trump said on CNN was a G-rated version of what he recently told a meeting of neofascists in Hungary

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 16, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Donald Trump gestures during the Republican Presidential Debate, hosted by CNN, at The Venetian Las Vegas on December 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
Donald Trump gestures during the Republican Presidential Debate, hosted by CNN, at The Venetian Las Vegas on December 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

Which version of Donald Trump showed up for his special fake town hall meeting on CNN?

Did the world get Donald Trump the fighter, wannabe warlord, and demagogue professional wrestling heel? Or did the world get a tired and humbled version of Trump, cowed and made weaker by how just a day earlier a civil court found him liable for sexually assaulting and defaming E. Jean Carrol – and awarded her 5 million dollars in damages?

Much to the frustration of Trump's critics, it was not the latter.

To borrow from one of my favorite movies, Donald Trump went on CNN to chew bubblegum and kick ass….and he was all out of bubblegum. For more than an hour, Donald Trump unleashed a torrent of fascist lies, authoritarian broadsides, white supremacist invective, and engaged in an assault on human decency and reality itself. He was in his glory.

Trump showed no fear of further defaming E. Jean Carroll. He celebrated the Jan. 6 terrorists and promised to pardon most of them if he returns to power. He continued his threats against democracy saying that the Jan. 6 coup and attack on the Capitol was a "beautiful day". He basically called the Democrats and others who want women to have control over their own bodies baby killers that are guilty of blood libel. Trump continued with the Big Lie about the 2020 Election being stolen, which by implication means that he is the "real" president and Joe Biden is a usurper who should be removed from office by force if necessary. Trump bragged about the non-existent accomplishments of his presidency.

Trump even went so far as to call Kaitlan Collins, the host of the town hall, a "nasty person" as he postured, mocked, and showed utter contempt for her.

To paraphrase another of my favorite movies that is useful for explaining Donald Trump, "You still don't understand what you're dealing with, do you? A perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility....I admire its purity. A survivor. Unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality... I can't lie to you about your chances. But you have my sympathies."

CNN filled the audience with Republicans and right-leaning independents. Predictably, they cheered for Donald Trump and laughed when expected to. Donald Trump is a sociopath and a malignant narcissist. The live audience filled him with the narcissistic fuel he craves.It is now being reported that the CNN town hall audience was told not to boo or otherwise show disapproval (the producers of the show described it as "disrespect") for Trump.


Trump's CNN town hall was a promise of more misery, fear, and even worse and more cruel policies that will shorten lives, tear the country even more apart at the seams, and imperil democracy.

As I explained in a previous essay here at Salon, I was not going to watch CNN's Trump town hall spectacle. But after the E. Jean Carroll decision I changed my mind. It was now must-see TV -- and I was not disappointed.

As I watched Donald Trump's performance, I was simultaneously disgusted and transfixed. Trump is great at being a villain; he has natural timing and is very funny.

Several times I said to myself "this MF'er is crazy". He truly is. Trump's natural comedic timing is a trait he shares with other demagogues and fascists such as Mussolini.

It is that dark charisma that compelled almost 75 million Americans to vote for Donald Trump in 2020. Sick societies produce and reward sick leaders.

As I was writing this essay, almost on cue, Trump's people sent out a series of emails celebrating his victory – and it was a victory – over CNN. Donald Trump is now selling t-shirts that feature an image of him wearing sunglasses. Under his face, in huge bold letters, the t-shirt reads "This is TNN".

Here is the email:

Democrats were hoping CNN would trap President Trump and destroy his presidential campaign on live TV during last night's town hall.

But President Trump TOOK COMMAND of the CNN town hall and spoke directly to the VOTERS who responded with cheers, applause, and even laughs.

His CNN town hall was so masterful that many are now saying CNN should be renamed TNN – the Trump News Network…

I let out a loud spontaneous laugh when I saw the image of Trump on this new t-shirt wearing sunglasses. It felt good to laugh so hard.

On Friday, Trump continued to gloat and celebrate his victory by sharing a a fake video of CNN personality Anderson Cooper on his Truth Social disinformation platform. In the obviously faked video, Cooper says "That was President Donald Trump ripping us a new asshole here at CNN's live presidential town hall." 

Some observers tried to diminish Trump's performance during the CNN town hall special with the criticism that "he was just repeating himself" and "there was nothing new about anything Trump said or did".

When the greatest hits work with your audience why change them up? Trump's public loves and enjoys his hate sermons and would be disappointed if he did not give them what they want. Those who live outside of the MAGAverse and the right-wing echo chamber refuse to accept that fact because they find it so upsetting and confusing.

On Twitter, Keith Olbermann succinctly described CNN's Trump town hall as "THE HINDENBURG DISASTER OF TV NEWS":

CNN gave away 70 minutes of primetime and all its credibility to Trump: a madman, a criminal, a liar, a fascist. Its moderator believed "no, you're wrong" would silence him.

Olbermann is correct in the most general sense. But the more accurate analogy is that CNN and Trump conspired to set fire to the Hindenburg, record the disaster, and then sell the footage for lots of money.

Ad revenue and ratings are why CNN decided to host Donald Trump and his town hall. Contrary to what CNN's leadership has claimed, this was not a decision based on doing what is good for democracy or serving the public interest more generally.

CNN's calculation would prove to be correct – at least in the short term. More than 3 million people watched Trump's town hall, which is some 2 million more than usually watch the network's regular programming at that time. The Trump town hall was also one of CNN's most watched shows in recent years. Donald Trump also helped CNN to outpace its rivals (MSNBC and Fox News) by almost 2 million viewers.

At the Atlantic, Tom Nichols said this about CNN's choice to host Donald Trump and his town hall:

Last night, however, CNN chose one of the worst possible options. Instead of a candidate interview, CNN Chairman Chris Licht apparently thought it would be a great idea to cast Trump in a remake of The Jerry Springer Show, complete with vulgar jokes, hooting fans, and a mild-mannered host—in this case, the CNN correspondent Kaitlan Collins—stuck with the thankless of job of trying to intervene in the shouting and angry finger-pointing. Instead of an important one-on-one interview with a dangerous and malevolent demagogue, CNN presented another episode of Trump's ongoing reality show.

The result was a disaster that was not only foreseeable but also as predictable as the laws of physics, a cringe-inducing display that damaged CNN's reputation, put one of its rising stars in a no-win situation, cheapened journalism, and undermined our political process—all in the span of little more than an hour…

How anyone—especially the head of a news network—can believe that this group of people has been ignored is astonishing. Perhaps he missed the many years of journalists conducting ritual pilgrimages to America's diners and asking every angry old guy in a red hat to please, please tell us what he wants.

Perhaps what Licht really meant is that CNN should see MAGA world as an underserved community that is up for grabs while Fox News reels from its scandals. It seems an odd strategy, however, to push Collins onstage as the blood sacrifice for an hour, and then follow that up with Jake Tapper and other CNN hosts wrestling with the cognitive dissonance of talking about what a miserable fiasco their own network just splattered across the nation's screens.

As many observers have noted, CNN has learned nothing since 2016. Or maybe CNN has learned everything since 2016, and intends to do it all over again.

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In an essay at the Courier Newsroom, Mark Jacob, a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune, focused in on how CNN should have handled Donald Trump:  

Here's what should have happened at Donald Trump's CNN town hall Wednesday night:

When Trump said Wisconsin officials "virtually admitted that the [2020] election was rigged," a loud buzzer should have sounded.

CNN host Kaitlin Collins should have said, "Sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Trump, but our panel of fact-checking experts has sounded its Truth Buzzer. The panel thinks your statement may not be 100 percent accurate. So let's hit the pause button for a minute and listen to our panel's deliberations."

Then the panel — if it existed — should have cited the verified facts and concluded that, no, the 2020 election was not rigged in Wisconsin or anywhere else.

And then the town hall should have resumed until the next Trump lie and the next Truth Buzzer and the next fact-check.

It would have been good television — much better television than CNN delivered Wednesday night….

CNN needed the Truth Buzzer. But cable news programmers wouldn't like that innovation because any show with Trump would spend more time sorting out his lies than hearing him speak. If this era has shown us anything, it's that it's easier to lie than to fact-check lies. And professional frauds such as Trump and former aide Kellyanne Conway know that if you string your lies together in a flurry of falsehood, even the most hard-nosed journalist has trouble getting the discussion back to the first lie in the string.

As expected, the event was a big win for Trump and yet another defeat for real news. But that's what CNN seems to be after these days, as long as it's a player in the game. The very act of letting a known liar like Trump on the air normalizes him.

Slate's Justin Peters described what he saw as the carnage of a host wholly ill-equipped for the task at hand.

Though Collins came prepared, she was ultimately defenseless against Trump's dark talents for ignoring or belittling people he deems less important than him, which is everybody. She'd try to get him to answer a specific question. He'd ignore her and talk about some bullshit. She'd interject with a hapless "But Mr. President …" He'd ignore her again, and then she'd move on. "The election was not rigged, Mr. President. You can't keep saying that," Collins said at one point, and then Trump kept right on saying that. At one point, Trump called Collins "a nasty person." The audience cheered. Collins tried her best, but her best was nowhere near good enough.

That said, it's CNN's fault for putting her in a position to fail in the first place. Absolutely every single moment of this debacle was predictable, and it is enraging to see CNN making the exact same mistakes it made when Trump first entered into the public sphere eight years ago. The network gave a seditious would-be despot carte blanche to openly lie on live television for an hour, in front of an adoring crowd, with ineffective pushback from a reporter who, if Wednesday night is any indication, is nowhere near ready for prime time. The pregame chatter among CNN's vacuous panelists, meanwhile, used the same empty framing that has long made the term "talking heads" a pejorative. "What does Trump need to accomplish at this town hall?" Wolf Blitzer asked just before the town hall began.

As part of a broader pattern of failure, the mainstream news media will focus in on the horse race aspects of Trump's town hall, polls, focus groups, and what it all portends for the 2024 campaign. As an institution, the mainstream news media and commentariot will also default to the comfortable frame of theater criticism and the superficial about Trump's performance and style and pretending to be shocked at the traitor ex-president's behavior when, after (at least) seven years of it, there is nothing at all shocking or surprising about it. 

In this moment of democracy crisis and ascendant fascism the most important and critical focus should be on implications and what Trump's words and promises – and threats – as further amplified and repeated during the CNN town hall spectacle means for real people's lives. When understood in that way, Trump's CNN town hall was a promise of more misery, fear, and even worse and more cruel policies that will shorten lives, tear the country even more apart at the seams, and imperil democracy and the civil and human rights and freedoms of not just black and brown people, the LGBTQ community, women, the poor and working class, Muslims, Jews, and other targeted groups but all Americans. 

Moreover, to fully understand the existential threat that Trumpism and the Republican fascists and larger white right pose to the United States and the American people, this moment of crisis must be located in a larger global context.

To that point, what Trump was saying on CNN in many ways is a much nicer and G-rated version of what he recently told a meeting of neofascists and white supremacists in Hungary.

In her newsletter Letters from an American, Historian Heather Cox Richardson sounded this alarm:

Last week, on May 4 and 5, the Conservative Political Action Conference met in Budapest for the second time, and once again, Orbán delivered the keynote address. The theme was the uniting of the radical right across national boundaries. "Come back, Mr President," Orbán said of Trump's 2024 presidential bid. "Make America great again and bring us peace." Orbán claimed his suppression of LGBTQ+ rights, academic freedom, and the media is a model for the world.

Plenty of the people there from the U.S. seemed to agree. "Hungary," Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) said, "is a beacon."

In a recorded message, Trump said conservatives were "freedom-loving patriots" who are "fighting against barbarians." "We believe in tradition, the rule of law, freedom of speech and a God-given dignity of every human life. These are ideas that bind together our movement," he said. He called for the audience to "stand together to defend our borders, our Judeo-Christian values, our identity and our way of life."

What does one do in a battle against "barbarians? You fight and kill them.

Once again, Donald Trump continues to channel Adolf Hitler and such eliminationist and genocidal language and threats of massive violence – and the American news media and commentariot and the Church of the Savvy mostly dismiss it as bluster and hyperbole or have just outright decided to ignore it.

Ultimately, CNN's decision to host a Donald Trump town hall was not a public service. It was a selfish decision to make money by hurting democracy and undermining civil society.

However, CNN's bad choice did do something valuable by serving as an example of exactly what the American news should not do with how it covers Donald Trump – and the Republican fascists and other malign actors more generally.

Going forward responsible voices among the mainstream news media should ask themselves "What Would CNN Do?" – they should then do the exact opposite.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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