Last week’s CNN town hall with Donald Trump was a great example of all the things wrong with how centrists and liberals engage with fascism. In an era where many elements of the right wing openly advocate for overthrowing representative governance in the US, liberals betray themselves and others by platforming these elements in the name of civil debate and finding common ground.
Trump, a habitual liar
As journalist Jake Tapper noted in his commentary on the town hall, Trump told his first lies “just seconds into the night”. Considering that town halls are supposed to be ‘ask me anything’ events where voters and journalists can engage deeply with a politician, lying from the beginning sets a bad tone. Trump went from reiterating lies about the 2020 elections to defaming the woman he was just convicted of defaming only days before. Trump’s goal at the town hall was clear. He wanted to pander to his base using the same network of racist, sexist, and fascist lies that animates the Make America Great Again wing of the Republican Party.
For what it’s worth the host and moderator, Kaitlan Collins, made quite a few attempts to push back on Trump’s lies and ask him about topics that are likely to be landmines for a presidential hopeful. Unfortunately for both her and the public, CNN chose to invite mostly Republican and right-leaning independents to the event. They gassed up Trump as he berated Collins and engaged her questions in bad faith.
Considering all that I mentioned above, it is no surprise that most reporting on the town hall considered it to be a disaster to one extent or another. Most focus on the mistakes made in choosing the host, the make-up of the audience, the questions Collins asked, or the way she attempted to refute his lies. I’d argue that they all miss the point, and the real mistake was the idea of a Trump town hall.
The limits of free speech
The mainstream liberal imagination in the US (and broader Anglo politics) centers on the idea of open, reasoned debate and upholding the principle of freedom of speech. The limit on that debate and freedom is generally agreed to be when folks start advocating upending the current iteration of a settler-slaver-capitalist system that underpins our political culture. But that limit is unequally imposed depending on who you are.
For example, in response to Black Americans protesting rampant police violence against our communities, our political culture set the limit to walking in the street. For children worried about the growing number of mass murders happening in their schools, the limit was protesting at the Tennessee capitol building. But for white supremacists who opposed an election that didn’t go their way, everything seemed to be within the limit until they attacked the US Capitol building.
Trump has rarely been held accountable for his actions. Considering those actions include exacerbating a deadly pandemic and creating the political climate that precipitated the January 6 insurrection, you’d think our culture would have had enough. On top of that, he has no problem lying in public and openly disparages what little representative democracy the US has left because he’s not personally benefiting from it.
What is scary is that liberal and moderate political circles see all of this and have decided that they would like to still engage in ‘reasoned debate’ with someone whose brand is being loudly unreasonable. Their commitment to polite contention among those in power ends up handing over power to those who have no interest in adhering to even the rules of elite circles. The limit of liberal political culture is what we witnessed during that town hall.
Responsibility and accountability
Am I advocating for the government to ban Trump from speaking in public? No. The Constitution is what it is. What I am arguing is that networks like CNN need to stop treating Trump as if he has any interest in being held accountable or engaging in good faith with interviewers. There’s a reason why we don’t publish shooter manifestos, for example. One can accurately and fairly report on Trump without giving him a platform to spread his fascist views.
Adapting to a political and media culture where there are significant elements who seek to violently whisk away that culture is the task of the hour. After years of aiding and abetting Trump’s fascist rise for viewer ratings, it’s time these same outfits take more responsibility in how they cover him, and others like him. Refusing to aid and abet fascism doesn’t have to be an abdication of journalistic ethics.
For the public however, we have to accept the fact that our mainstream media culture has never been inherently interested in preserving democracy, fairness, or truth. While there are many amazing outfits and individuals who are doing the critical work of speaking truth to power, a larger percentage of our media is primarily interested in upholding the myth of America as a ‘shining city on the hill’. While we may hope that the CNN’s of the world get it together eventually, we must acknowledge the political culture that continues to tug them back into fascist complicity.
In fact, we would also do well to acknowledge the lure of profit that comes from platforming fascists and right-wing extremists. Mainstream media is not committed to critical thinking as an ethos because it doesn’t bring in views, clicks, and profit. That’s exactly why the rest of us must be more committed to engaged political thought which pays attention to who is platformed and whose experiences and voices are restricted.
Featured image via YouTube screenshot/CNN