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CNN’s Trump town hall was literally classic GOP propaganda

Fox News co-founder Roger Ailes likely would have applauded.

The reviews are in, and no one loved former President Donald Trump’s town hall with CNN more than Fox News. Host Laura Ingraham declared confidently that “moderator Kaitlan Collins and the C-suite gang at CNN” were “totally out of their league” as Trump steamrolled through Collins’ rehearsed fact checks. In fact, Trump supporters and advisers alike absolutely loved CNN’s town hall with the former president.

Outside the MAGA bubble, others are examining the wreckage.

Some are trying to blame CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, who moderated the event. There were some glaring Trump lies that she didn’t correct. But on the whole, it’s impossible to deny that she tried to some degree, and that it wasn’t close to enough. Her colleague Jake Tapper gamely tried to clean up immediately after the event, before admitting that there wasn’t enough time in the night to fact-check every false statement Trump made. The format forced Collins to try to interrupt Trump with various fact checks, which only turned him and the audience more against her as the night went on. It culminated with Trump calling Collins “a nasty person” — to big applause from the audience.

It’s no coincidence that Fox News and conservatives loved this event.

In a statement, a CNN spokesperson defended Collins as “a world-class journalist” who “asked tough, fair and revealing questions ... and fact-checked President Trump in real time.” Yet primary fault for the disaster lies not with Collins, but with basic errors CNN made well before the town hall aired — decisions that guaranteed to push things beyond a breaking point. It’s no coincidence that Fox News and conservatives loved this event: It was, literally, classic Republican propaganda that Fox News co-founder Roger Ailes, who died in 2017, likely would have applauded.

First, when producing a live event with Trump, a man with a very long history in the entertainment business, you have to ask whether it is built to entertain or to inform. Any interview or event can be both, of course, but one has to be the priority.

Here, CNN claimed that it wanted this town hall to inform viewers. What the network produced, however, was 70 minutes of Trump doing his schtick to a rapturous audience — and getting to dunk on a CNN host while he was at it. Trump was quite clearly having the time of his life onstage. With an in-studio audience laughing and cheering at Trump’s jokes, it didn’t matter that Collins was speed-reading through a fact check that she practiced for days with CNN’s top political brass. It all gets lost in the wash.

Even if Collins had perfectly countered every lie and defamatory statement that Trump made, it wouldn’t have mattered. With CNN’s help, Trump had already essentially turned the event into one of his rallies. He was there to deliver a promo for his candidacy to a rapturous audience, and that’s what he did. Collins’ interventions only made her the butt of Trump’s jokes — which of course the MAGA audience loved.

None of it was necessary. All of it was predictable.

Second, this interview did not need to air live. Indeed, if it had been taped — even live to tape — the damage would have been lessened. Collins wouldn’t have felt the need to rush through fact checks. Producers and other journalists could have contributed in ways beyond just speaking into Collins’ ear. The event included some genuinely newsworthy information, and yes, interviewing the Republican presidential front-runner can be legitimate and necessary journalism. But airing it live undercut any good that Collins and some of the audience’s questions were doing.

CNN too handed Trump a rapturous audience on a platter.

Third, in terms of format, this was classic Republican propaganda — literally. As historian Rick Perlstein noted, the town hall setup with a favorable audience was the same one that Richard Nixon’s campaign pioneered under Roger Ailes, who died in 2017. The key for Ailes was to produce a show where Nixon could be a gladiator fighting the moderator for a rapturous audience. When Ailes resigned from Fox News after female employees accused him of sexual harassment, Ailes went on to serve as a debate adviser for Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. And wouldn’t you know it, Fox News gave Trump his own town hall with a rapturous audience in 2020.

Last night, CNN too handed Trump a rapturous audience on a platter. The crowd was stocked with Trump supporters: Trump himself was reportedly allowed 15 people of his own (though none asked questions), and reporting indicates that party loyalists were asked to attend as well. It’s unclear what vetting, if any, CNN did.

The dynamic was not unlike that of a pro wrestling crowd: attentive and ready to cheer for the conquering hero who was making the feckless villain’s life a living hell. Only in this case, CNN cast decency and the truth — not to mention Collins, whom the network brass apparently view as a star — in the role of the villain. Ailes himself may have appreciated that the dynamics of the stage itself made Trump the center of attention, at times towering over Collins, as audience members cheered wildly. They applauded Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories; they applauded when Trump insulted Collins; they applauded when Trump said then-Vice President Mike Pence should have moved on Jan. 6, 2021, to invalidate the results of the 2020 election; they applauded when Trump mocked a woman for whom a civil-case jury the day before had found Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation; they applauded when Trump called for widespread pardons for Jan. 6 attackers. There was more, but you get the point.

Thanks to CNN, Trump can now tell supporters that he went into enemy territory — not only has he spent years calling CNN “fake news,” but he’s also suing the network, alleging defamation — and that the CNN audience applauded him. Defeating the network is something he has openly fantasized about doing for years. A fair amount has changed since Richard Nixon last ran for president. Back then, his campaign had to pay Ailes to create a propaganda town hall event. Trump didn’t have to pay a thing — CNN put it on for him.