This week, former President Donald Trump appeared on a CNN townhall. That day, he trumpeted the upcoming event on his social media platforms. “I’ll be doing CNN tonight live from the great state of New Hampshire because CNN is rightfully desperate to get those Trump ratings back,” Trump said with a wry grin. “They were ratings like none other, and they want them back. They made me a deal they couldn’t refuse. It could be the beginning of a new and vibrant CNN with no more fake news, or it could be a total disaster for all, including me. Let’s see what happens, tonight at eight o’clock!”
Trump pitched the event like a WWE Monday Night Raw.
And it was.
It was kayfabe of the highest order. And it helped Trump immensely.
CNN pitched the event as a kickoff to primary season. In that spirit, they invited Republican primary voters from New Hampshire to fill the auditorium. Moderator Kaitlan Collins, presumably, would ask questions that Republican voters cared about. They would then be able to use Trump’s answers to gauge whether to vote for him.
That’s not what happened.
Instead, Collins asked a series of questions only Democrats care about. She asked about January 6. She asked about Trump’s election denial. She asked about classified documents. She asked about E. Jean Carroll. In short, Collins provided Trump with precisely what he wanted: an adversarial CNN foe he could absolutely pummel, to the delight of the friendly crowd. The entire event played to Trump’s strengths: he was aggressive; he was funny, and transgressively funny at that (of E. Jean Carroll, he noted disbelievingly, “her cat was named vagina!”); and he refused to give an inch on any of his positions.
Trump under fire from the Left draws nothing but admiration from most Republicans, who constantly feel that they are scurrilously attacked but rarely see a defender willing to go dirty to defend them. Trump defending himself deploys the methodologies they wish Republican politicians would use to defend them. And so CNN boosted Trump.
CNN found itself on the wrong end of the outrage machine from the liberal commentariat. The irrepressibly insipid Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) tweeted, “CNN should be ashamed of themselves…Everyone here saw exactly what was going to happen.” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough likened the event to January 6. The Daily Beast’s Justin Baragona related that a CNN on-air personality couldn’t stop lamenting the “Trump infomercial.”
But was the event bad for CNN? Not really. As Trump – who always says the quiet part out loud, for good and ill – stated, CNN brought in the ratings. What’s more, CNN wants Trump to be the nominee, for both fiscal and political reasons. Trump does indeed mean eyeballs, and eyeballs mean cash. And coincidentally, top Democrats want Trump to be the nominee; Joe Biden tweeted minutes after the townhall, “It’s simple, folks. Do you want four more years of that?”
For now, Trump is the clear frontrunner among the Republican candidates. Perhaps his star will dim as he focuses consistently on his own personal Festivus grievances. Or perhaps the media will continue to boost him, providing him with just the adversarial opposition he needs in order to appeal to his base. If the past is any guide, the latter seems far more likely. And then we’ll find out whether the Republican base, which apparently believes in Trump’s electoral invulnerability despite the elections of 2018, 2020 and 2022, is correct – or whether the Democratic base and the media, who apparently believe Trump can’t possibly win despite the election of 2016, are mistaken.